All the time I have been interested in the history of Ladybird Books I have known the story of the Ladybird book commissioned by the M.o.D. The story goes that the book was published with plain boards before being issued to staff. You’ll find on the internet a number of references to this book, which has been called the Holy Grail of Ladybird book collecting (see extract below) as no one has ever seen a copy.

So did this book actually ever exist?

I’ve never really been sure about this story. But on my recent visit to Loughborough I spoke once again to John Muschialli, who for many years worked in the Ladybird factory, in charge of the binding department. I took the opportunity to ask him whether he himself had ever seen the legendary MoD Ladybird book. Oh yes, he had – and vividly remembered the story of how it came to be. The room we were in was very noisy but I recorded what he said and below is a transcript:

So tell me what you remember about the MoD commission. Was the standard book ‘How it Works: The Computer‘ already in publication?

The standard book was already in publication.  Sometimes jobs would come through in runs of 9000, 18,00, 27,000s – it all depended.  But Mick Banks came up to me with this letter which he’d received from the MOD saying could we do 250 copies of The Computer with a blank cover. He wanted it for the staff – but he knew they wouldn’t read it if it said ‘Ladybird’ on it.    I could be wrong here but it could have been 1977. 

So was the idea to ‘fool’ the staff – so they didn’t know they were reading a Ladybird book?

I wouldn’t say ‘fool’ them. The idea was to give them the book but so that – if someone saw them reading a Ladybird book, they wouldn’t … they wouldn’t read it if it said Ladybird on the outside.

Apart from the cover, were there any differences from the standard book in terms of content? Of size?

It was exactly the same – and Mick Banks said to me: “John, can we do this without interfering with the production or slowing the machines down?”  

I said, “No problem, Mick.  All we’ve got to do is put your other cover on”. When you fed the covers into the case-making machine it fanned them out and took them one at a time so all you’d got to do is put the other covers on the back and they would go through the machine at the same time as the normal books.

I said, “We can’t do blank covers, can we?  We can’t send books out with a plain cover”.  He said, “Leave it with me, John.  I’ll get some artwork sorted out and then I’ll get back to you”. 

So, it had a plain buff cover and across the top it had printed … I can’t remember if it was red or black but I think it was red … it said ‘The Computer’ and at the bottom it had ‘Ministry of Defence’ and then it had ‘The Computer’ down the spine.

So Mick came up with these covers and said, “Do we know anyone who could print these for us?”  (Because we were only printing 250 so we weren’t going to set our machines up – not at 5,000 an hour – just to do 250!) So I said, “I know a little printer just off Nottingham Road, got a little printing machine, works from a garage, Harry Rose”.  Mick said, “Take them down and get them printed and I’ll let you know when the job’s coming through”.

So was this job all ‘hush-hush’?

No – not at all.

When the job came through we just put the plain covers on the back of the run – and that was their 250 books.  Also, it got coverage in the national press.

Coverage in the national press? Didn’t that defeat the purpose? Letting people know that it was a Ladybird book?

Well actually Thames Valley Police saw an article about it and they asked us if we could do the same for ‘How it Works: The Motor Car’ – and that’s what we did!

John Muschialli

So there you have it – the story, straight from the horse’s mouth. That should give us all a couple of new things to look out for at the next car-boot sale. But do let me know if you ever come across one …