Paper trails and paper tales

In an earlier post I wrote about some of the strange coincidences that have emerged in the course of developing this exhibition. Another bizarre coincidence has now come to light. It is concerned not so much with a history relating to the written word or to visual culture but one that is nevertheless firmly centred on paper.

My colleague Helen Westhrop works as a Library Assistant in Special Collections and Cataloguing here at the University of Reading. In her spare time she is a keen blogger (her blog, Living Libraries and [Dead] Languages, is definitely worth following). Having been aware for some time that this exhibition was in progress and being interested in the Ladybird archive herself, Helen was trying to think of interesting ways of connecting her own writing with this collection. What she happened upon was a link between her own life story and the history of Ladybird books, possibly even connecting her with the physical manufacture of the Autumn volume at some stage in its later history.

Indeed, in the course of pondering ways to justify introducing discussion of the Ladybird collections  she realised something rather amazing. At an earlier point in her career, Helen worked as a clerk in the Buying Office of John Dickinson Paper and Board, then based at Croxley Mills in Watford. One of this company’s most prominent customers was the publishing house Wills and Hepworth, producers of Ladybird books.

As Helen notes on her blog, she therefore at one time had a hand in the very production of these books, albeit from the source context of working for the company that produced the paper on which they were printed. Nevertheless, this surprising ‘paper trail’ and revealing ‘paper tale’ together provide yet more evidence of the fascinating stories that underpin this seemingly simple series of children’s books.

Far too often we take the material things in our lives for granted and give little thought to the highly complex processes involved in their production and distribution; the people and places, and the companies and cultures that lie behind the existence of artefacts like Ladybird books. Thanks are due to Helen for sharing her piece of this rich, detailed, and endlessly fascinating puzzle. Perhaps others might be persuaded to share their own part, however small, in the processes that brought subsequent editions of the huntsman image and the What to Look For books to the book shops and to our modern-day book shelves and bibliographic collections.


5 thoughts on “Paper trails and paper tales

  1. Thank you for your kind response. Little did I know that this interlude in my life would have had such an impact. It is hard to believe only 35 years a ago wood pulp from Chesapeake Bay was bought up the Grand Union Canal and turned into the finest parer in the world at Croxley Mills and there is nothing left but modern housing estate. The local industry that provide work for hundreds of people GONE.

  2. Very interesting post Ollie and Helen.

    Ollie – did you know the post has a slight ‘sermon’ structure? Look particularly at the last paragraph. Any Scottish preachers in your ancestry? R.

    • Hi Rebecca. Glad you approve and I think the link with Helen’s career was rather a fascinating and unexpected one. On the structure , I’m not sure I know what you mean! My grandfather was a Kirk of Scotland elder but that’s abbout as close as it gets I’m afraid! In terms of the3 social webs of connection between people and things, the clergy make for a rather interesting case study in the late-nineteenth century. Many such individuals became heavily involved in object colelcting or other scholarly and bookish endeavours at that time. They were ideally placed to function as relative ‘middle-men’ in the context of homeland ethnographies of this type. A slight tangent but representative of the same kinds of relations between people and tangible stuff, albeit a different relationship to that between Helen and the paper stock used to produice Ladybird books.

  3. As a media librarian this post brought to mind a related ‘film’ trail. At the Institute of Education we have a collection of old textbooks, and although not strictly textbooks the Ladybird series have always featured in schools. Recently we were removing some old material from our Curriculum Resources collection and came across ‘The story of music’ by Geoffrey Brace (published in 1968), a Ladybird book with an accompanying set of 35mm slides featuring the book artwork. The slides were published by a London-based firm called The Slide Centre. That company is still around today as a largely software business – If it’s of interest I have an old catalogue (c1987) which lists the filmstrips and slide sets that were produced from Ladybird books.

    • Hi Antony,

      Thanks for your comment andd goo to see the blog is reaching out beyond Reading in a consistent way! This sounds like an amazing microhistory in the history of Ladybird and of multimedia in publishing. I hope other scholars of Ladybird history pick up on thsi post and perhaps even come to examine the material in greater detail. Its sounds like it is worthy of detailed research. I’ve followed the link you posted above and it seems to still be a firm centred on work for the education sector. I wonder if they are aware of thier past connections to Ladybird.


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