Last week, on the anniversary of Howard Carter first looking into the tomb of Tutankhamun and glimpsing “Wonderful Things!” – I tweeted a suitable illustration from Ladybird book (of course). But just the week before, I had had my own ‘Howard Carter moment’ – taking my first look at some wonderful Ladybird things.

‘Wonderful Things’ John Kenney’s illustration
Some ex employees showing me documents I’d never seen before. Here pictured: myself John, Ray and friend

The occasion was a day of Ladybird celebration organised by the Charnwood Museum in Loughborough (birthplace and spiritual home of Ladybird) The day was called ‘The Secret History of Ladybird Books’.

I had been invited to play the role of experts as in ‘The Antiques Roadshow’ – so that those who attended – perhaps ex-employees of the Ladybird print works – could bring their Ladybird-related items to show me.

But the day didn’t get off to the best of starts. When I got to Loughborough it was hammering down with rain. It had been raining hard all morning and was due to rain just as hard and steadily for the rest of the day. Of course, this was going to have a huge effect on attendance. On arrival at The Charnwood Museum, however, all staff and visitors (including Clare, from The MERL and Sara from Penguin Random House) were cheerful and positive – although adjusting to the fact that the day was not going to work out as they’d hoped.

I first went to meet Alison Claque, senior curator at the museum (The Charnwood hosts the first-ever permanent Ladybird Books collection) and happened to ask if anything of interest had come to light recently. Her face instantly brightened in a way I knew well – the glow of the collector who knows they have discovered a treasure. She disappeared and reappeared quickly with armfuls of bulging, dusty-looking folders.

What had come to light was the archive of one of the Wills & Hepworth (later ‘Ladybird’) directors, Percy Roberts, and of his son Jack. The folders were full of correspondence, jottings and notes covering the period of what might be called the early part of Ladybird’s golden years.

So what’s the significance of this? Here in Ladybird Land it feels seismic. Let me explain.

Although the Ladybird brand still continues (now an imprint of the vast entity that is Penguin Random House) the era of the vintage Ladybird that I talk about this website came to an end gradually, starting in the mid-1970s, when the company was sold and the last of the old-guard directors retired. The Loughborough factory continued for another 26 years, with new and changing leadership and a quest for a new identity and direction at a time of much greater market competition. Over these years, the soul of the company was gradually lost as publishing quick-wins were sought, such as the hugely restrictive franchises with Disney etc. The factory was eventually closed down, effectively ending the Loughborough-Ladybird story.

The closure of the factory was devastating for the employees and for the town as a whole and it felt as though the Ladybird had flown. The press were very quick to write articles about Ladybird’s demise – and to ascribe this to the death of “the values that Ladybird represented” (Daily Express, circa 1999). Penguin management then was keen to draw a line under the past and wanted everyone to focus on the brand’s future, not look back. Little premium was therefore put on the old stock, archives and artefacts housed in the print-works. I suppose this isn’t really surprising. Frankly, who then could have predicted the resurgence of interest in the company’s past? This interest was originally kept alive by some ex-employees, by a tenacious group of collectors, increasingly connected and informed by the growth of the internet, and, more recently, by the Cath Kidson-esque tase for all things vintage and retro. More recently still, the ‘Ladybird books for Grown-Ups’ – the super-successful series of pastiche books which made use of original Ladybird artwork.

But back in 1999, when the factory, closed little effort was made to secure ‘the archive’. The factory and offices were stripped and sales were held at the premises. Boxes of records and materials were probably lost forever at this point. And what of the original artwork? Well a great deal of it had already been returned to the artists under an arrangement with the out-going Editorial Director Douglas Keen. Much still remained in storage in Loughborough and, although – thankfully – a great many boxes of original artwork found their out of this mele, made their way to London and are now housed at the University of Reading, the majority of these boxes contain artwork which post-dates the Ladybird golden years. We will probably never know what happened to the rest.

A pack of original artwork for ‘Chritmas Customs’ by Frank Hampson

Douglas Keen, on his retirement in the 1970s, kept his own archive of correspondence and much of what is now known of the golden-years of Ladybird publishing is due to these records, still in the possession of his family. There is also a collection of documentary material kept in the Loughborough records office – but these are mainly accounting and sales records which, although with their own story to tell, tend to be on the dry side.

Financial records from the 1950s

But these newly re-discovered folders of documents – which will now live permanently in Loughborough – were anything but dry. Although I had little time to sit and peruse the documents, I had long enough to appreciate the depth and colour this record will lend to our understanding of Ladybird and the books that were produced. I will go back soon, I hope, and begin to digest more of what the folders contain, but let me give you a taste.

There was all nature of colourful correspondence and discussions between staff which really bring to life the decision-making process in the early days of the publishing phenomena that was Ladybird. There were letters from acclaimed watercolour artist Rowland Hilder which make it clear that he and wife Edith, who had recently completed the artwork for ‘Wild Flowers’, had lots of ideas about future Ladybird projects. Hilder’s lengthy letter shines light onto his thought processes and the artistic vision of Edith and himself. There are detailed notes (I think by Douglas Keen) outlining his proposal for ‘What to Look for in Winter/Summer/Spring/Autumn’ and what each month should describe.

There are typed drafts of books dating from the late 1950s and a scathing letters from artist John Kenney criticising the early draft of one of the history books. (Given that many of Kenney’s suggestions appear to have been acted upon before the book was published, it demonstrates how engaged the artists were in the shaping the whole creative process).

Of all the extracts I have come across so far, I think this is my favourite:

The Loughborough archive was the main discovery to come from the day – but it wasn’t the only one. What’s more, I had a chance to get to know some more of the Wills & Hepworth ex-employees and hear some of their stories. One of the stories I now feel in a position to tell on my website, is the story of the legendary ‘Ministry of Defence’ Ladybird book. You can read that story here.

There were photos and mementoes and rare books and lots of anecdotes – (as ever, everyone I meet in my travels through Ladybird Land is likeable and quirky and keen and friendly) I’m very grateful to all the staff in Loughborough for organising the day.

Now if you’ve skipped to the bottom of this post to see if I have a point to make, let me now make it. Why am I making a fuss about a few dusty old folders of old correspondencce?

Because the documentary evidence of the story of Ladybird has long been fractured. It has part been partly held in the Records Office in Loughborough, partly as a Special Collection at the University of Reading, partly held by family members of old staff members and partly held on websites (such as mine) and in private hands (such as mine). I have never before had a sense before that this record had a core – had a heart.

But now I do have that sense. The heart is in Loughborough. And its heart is in the right place.

Elves and Shoemaker display at Charnwood Museum