From soon after the start of World War II in 1939, Britain became home to significant numbers of refugees from countries occupied by German forces – French, Dutch and Polish amongst others. In response to their needs the British Council published a number of books describing different aspects of the British way of life. A series on ‘British Life and Thought’ was published by Longman Green for the British Council, starting with ten books in 1940 and including titles such as ‘The British system of Government’, ‘British Justice’ and ‘British Education’.
Perhaps the most interesting title in this series was a volume on ‘The Englishman’, written by Earl Baldwin, who had been Prime Minister only three years previously. But it may have been rivalled by a parallel volume on ‘The Englishwoman’ by Cicely Hamilton, who had been very active in the suffrage movement, writing and acting in plays on the subject as well as campaigning. The series eventually ran to 25 or more titles, continuing even after the war.
But books in English were not enough. The British Council wanted to publish books in the languages of the refugees as well, which led to a new series – the International Guild Books. This series started in 1942 with six books, three of them taken from the Longman Green series, two other short books about the British Empire from the Oxford University Press and one new book specially written for the series – ‘Come and See Britain’ by Guy Ramsey.
They were described as published for the British Council by Guild Books, an unusual organisation that wasn’t really a publisher at all, just an imprint of the British Publishers Guild. Its original role was as a sort of anti-Penguin front, a combined book industry response to the paperback revolution initiated by Penguin. It had come too late to be an effective competitive response, and its publication of around 50 paperbacks in 1941 / 1942 made little impression on a market that was by then struggling to adapt to wartime conditions. So by 1942 it was perhaps looking around for what to do next. That eventually led to the long series of Services Editions, which was the highpoint of the Guild’s surprisingly long existence, but in the meantime it turned its hand to British Council work.
The books were translated into up to six languages – French, Dutch, Greek, Polish, Czech and Norwegian – all languages of countries invaded by the Nazis. Guy Ramsey’s book was translated into all six languages, two others into five languages, and overall from this first group, 23 different language versions were produced. Two further books followed in 1943 in 7 language versions, and when a Greek language version of one of the first books was added in 1944 that brought the total to 31 books – seven each in Polish and Czech, five each for Greek, Norwegian and Dutch, and two in French. It’s possible that a sixth Dutch book was added later, bringing the overall total to 32, but I can’t get clear confirmation of that.
As was typical for the time, the books had a standard designed wrapper, with different colours used to signify different languages – orange (of course) for Dutch, light blue for Greek and so on. The design was based on the British Council’s flaming torch symbol, held over a globe surrounded by stars. To modern eyes it looks almost Soviet in its iconography. Dustwrappers had by this time been abandoned on paperbacks, but the covers still had the slightly odd turned-back flaps that were used around then.
They were all fairly short books – typically not much more than 80 pages or so – but on reasonable quality paper and not particularly cramped in their layout. Some books had photographs and the Ramsey book even had two coloured pages of maps. There’s no evidence of war economy standard production here. The books sold for either 9d or 1s, with the higher price generally for those with photographs. Production numbers were probably quite low, maybe only a thousand or so of each(?), although it’s hard to tell now. Certainly few have survived, but that’s generally the case for wartime paperbacks anyway, even when printed in much, much larger quantities.
I don’t know of any significant collection of them, other than the ones I’ve put together. There are very few copies shown on the library cataloguing system, Worldcat, and only a handful to be found on internet book sites. Just another wartime paperback series on the point of falling out of recorded knowledge.