A Wartime Christmas

1940! Four digits written in fire on the pages of our history, Britain entered that year apprehensive about the “phoney war” and left it wondering if she’d ever see 1942. Large parts of our cities were rubble and the families of many a soldier and airman spent Christmas dinner with an empty place at the table.

However, in the middle of 1939 when these annuals were being prepared, it was still just a number. And for the children reading their new books on this day 72 years ago they were a welcome look back into times of peace.


 Though they’re both in remarkably good nick I actually got them months apart from different places!

One annual for boys and one for girls. Both from the same publisher and with a remarkably similar style of contents. They’re also very good value with over 200 pages each (paper rationing had not yet begun). Of course they’re full of text stories, reading two of those probably takes as long as reading the whole 2012 Beano Annual! And from the sound of things the Beano and Dandy annuals this year are actually thicker than the average size, which is 64 pages. 64 pages! That’s a jumped-up monthly magazine! Something ought not to have the right to call itself an annual with anything under 100.


Tell your friends… NOW!


The girls get a double-page contents with pretty illustrations.

Both annuals also have an introduction from the editor of their respective weekly comic (a thing unheard of today, though ask me again if Commando decide to do annuals again. Today “The Editor” would at least use their real name mind you) and extra illustrations around everything. Then we’re on to the stories, with block illustrations in line or grey washes. These washes look magnificent.


Not always of the most dramatic incidents in a story, mind you.

The Champion was primarily a sport-themed comic that ran from 1922 to 1959. It might be considered a forerunner of the sport-themed comic (with strips, not completely text!) Tiger , into which it was eventually incorporated. As well as sport it also included a few stories of war or adventure (most famously Rockfist Rogan, a fighter pilot who was also a boxer!). This particular story starts off the annual with a mystery about a “monster” seen in an estuary near a navy base. Why yes you have guessed that it’s a submarine! The opening illustration to the story even features some very German-looking men being punched. The story does not mention the nationality of the spies operating the sub, mind you.


The Schoolgirls’ Own Annual, in the tradition of British Annuals, was named after a publication that was already defunct. The Schoolgirls’ Own ran from 1921 to 1936, featuring stories of Morcove School. This was a girl’s school close to St Jim’s from The Gem, as Cliff House (home of Bessie Bunter) was close to Greyfriars (home of Billy Bunter). Comic cross-pollination is older than you think!

This opening story is also set in a public school (though not Morcove… in fact I don’t think any of the stories in this annual are!) and features a tangled mystery involving a young new girl, a bully, a wrongfully-expelled heroine and mysterious thefts. It’s a real page-turner though the solution to the mystery (and exposure of the real thief) is very cliche’d.

Other styles of story include tales of dancers and amateur theatricals…



Both annuals cram in plenty of school sports…


You could just say “The Summer Game” and “The Winter Game” back then!

In the Schoolgirls’ Own we get an amusing comedy-of-errors story with plenty of characters all misunderstanding one another (an actress disguised as a schoolgirl fails to realise she’s insulting the headmistress of the school, for instance!).


The Champion, in it’s run, produced two detectives in the mould of Sexton Blake. In the beginning there was Panther Grayle (an article in the 1925 Champion Annual states he has very nearly acheived the same level of fame as Blake… among the staff of The Champion maybe!) and later on there was Colwyn Dane, assisted by cockney lad Slick Chester. This story for 1940 appears to be yer usual Scooby Doo-style tale of a fake ghost intended to scare people away from a treasure (I haven’t completely read either book yet!). Colwyn Dane continued in Champion Annuals into the 1950’s, the paper became even more sport-oriented after the war, and the stories reflected that – he would go undercover in a county cricket team and so on.


This reminds me of the style of one of the earlier Commando artists…

Finally mention should be made of a war story featuring air raids from the end of the Champion Annual. Something for the boy hiding in the family shelter to think over as the Blitz began, perhaps…


Now here’s the sort of scene that’s supposed to be in the illustrations!

Both annuals also feature articles. Most of the articles are also loosely written in the form of stories (what would have been called “chatty” in the 20’s and early 30’s)  that contain advice. In The Champion we have the rules and terminology of Baseball, supposedly introduced to an English public school by an American named Cornelius T Pepperjohn. While Americans probably usually assume Cricket is “the British version” of Baseball, in fact Rounders is a lot closer. However from what I remember of Rounders at primary school it’s not as “organised”, has more “bases” and different rules. Though that might have just been my primary school!

I do seem to remember playing a lot of Baseball at secondary school, mind you. Of course we didn’t have a proper field for it, they never even bothered to paint a diamond (there was easily enough room for one though, that school’s field was vast). I think it was just an excuse for our PE teacher to shout “Strike 2… he could be in trouble!” in a ridiculous American accent.


Also our school’s “catcher’s fence” was “my face” usually.

Of course in those days every boy knew all about Football, so a ‘story article’ about that concentrates more on tactics, organising training and the importance of selecting team members based on ability, not friendship!


How many schools really appointed an ex-international as their coach? Even in those days of capped salaries?

Meanwhile on the girl’s side there’s an article about what to do when invited to a dance. The girl in question gets a fashionable dress… by altering one she already has with new bits of material. She can’t afford a fashionable handbag either, so creates a matching one for her dress from scratch, using a handkerchief and ribbon! The only new thing she buys is tights… could you imagine a girl’s annual suggesting altering and making things yourself these days? And remember this article was written before rationing!


“I might go and work in Singapore dontcha know. I’ll be well away from this Hitler business out there…”

There’s also more conventional articles with short sections containing useful information. For the girls there’s suggestions for hobbies and crafts… including plenty more making of your own clothes.


Everybody collected stamps back then. Everybody. It’s amazing there was enough left for posting letters.

And for the boys, advice for doing odd jobs around the house. The very idea of a book aimed at children these days talking about replacing fuses and fighting minor house fires! They’d never print that sort of thing today… and that means that we’ve lost something, quite frankly.


 “Most people fly into a panic and forget the number for the fire brigade” in my admittedly limited experience.

Interestingly there’s also an article about Speedway, from 1939! I was under the impression it didn’t arrive in Britain until the late 40’s, having originated in Australia. In fact the editorial in issue 4 of my Red, White & Blue said as much… oh well, lucky it’s going to be re-launched!


2 wheels, no brakes, aeroplane fuel. What could go wrong?

And finally, the back covers, both containing adverts for the weekly publications that the annuals are associated with… in the customary style!


Who cares about actual speed, bikes like that look faster than modern ones!

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