New Issue: Royal Mail celebrates golden age of Ladybird Books

Last month, Royal Mail unveiled a new stamp issue celebrating the popular and much-loved Ladybird books that helped generations of children learn to read.

Titles from the Key Words Reading Scheme and Early Tales and Rhymes are included alongside popular books from Adventures from History; Well-loved Tales; Hobbies and How it Works; People at Work; Nature and Conservation; and Achievements.

“Reading Ladybird Books became something of a rite of passage for children from the 1950s onwards, and our new stamps celebrate the iconic series that generations have loved and grown up with,” said Royal Mail spokesperson Philip Parker.

For many people over the age of 30, the mere mention of Ladybird books evokes strong childhood memories.

The small-sized children’s books most strongly associated with the brand were first published in the early days of the Second World War. Their format—56 pages printed on both sides of a single piece of paper measuring 102 centimetres by 76 centimetres—was the direct result of wartime paper shortages and proved a winning formula.


Covering all manner of themes—from learning to read, fairy stories, history and hobbies to nature, science and inventions—the books sparked children’s interests and fired imaginations.

The 1950s to 1970s are regarded as the golden age of Ladybird Books and the publisher built up an unrivalled library of more than 650 titles.

Leading commercial artists were employed to give a realism to the books, and the text and language was carefully considered making the titles trustworthy and authoritative. The selection of the covers for the stamps represents the work of some of the best known artists, including John Kenney (Adventures from History series) and Eric Winter (Cinderella).

“We are always looking for new ways to bring the Ladybird Books Vintage Collection to wider audiences; the original illustrations are an icon of British design and this stunning collection of stamp products from the Royal Mail will make a beautiful addition to collectors and fans of Ladybird Books,” said Thomas Merrington, creative director at Penguin Ventures, which is part of Penguin Random House.


A – Martin Aitchison

Martin Aitchison illustrated around 100 Ladybird books over a period of almost 30 years. Along with Harry Wingfield, he’s probably best remembered as one of the main original illustrators of the Key Words Reading Scheme – the ‘Peter and Jane’ books that taught so many children to read in the 1960s and 1970s. Other series to feature his work include Great Artists and The Story of the Arts.

B – Bunnikin’s Picnic Party

The brand name Ladybird was registered in 1915, but the printer Wills & Hepworth Limited did not make books in the size and format most associated with Ladybird until Bunnikin’s Picnic Party (1940). The first title in the Animal Stories Told in Verse series was originally written and illustrated by A.J. MacGregor; the rhyme was later rewritten by W. Perring.

C – Cinderella

Ladybird produced several editions of the Cinderella story over the decades, but the 1964 version beautifully illustrated by Eric Winter, in which Cinderella goes to three balls and wears three striking ball gowns, has proved the most popular. The first edition was the only title in the Well-loved Tales series to be issued with a dust jacket and printed cover board rather than a colour cover board.

D – Dust jacket

Between 1940 and 1965, all Ladybird books were published with a colourful paper dust jacket (or “dust wrapper”). Most had the price printed on the inside front flap and a list of other titles in the series noted on the inside rear flap. After 1965, dust jackets were replaced by pictorial boards. Today, collectors look out for paper wrappers as an indication of a book’s age and condition.

E – The Elves and the Shoemaker

The aptly named Well-loved Tales series of traditional fairy stories was illustrated by Robert Lumley and Eric Winter. First published in 1965, The Elves and the Shoemaker, an engaging tale of kindness and gratitude, was Lumley’s first Ladybird commission. Retold by writer Vera Southgate, it is remembered by many as the perfect bedtime story.

F – Jayne Fisher

In the 1970s Ladybird was looking for new ideas. The Garden Gang books, a series featuring characters based on fruit and vegetables, was written and illustrated (in felt-tip pen) by Jayne Fisher, who was just nine years old when Penelope Strawberry and Roger Radish was first published in 1979. Though different in style from Ladybird’s usual fare, the books proved very popular.

G – Garden Flowers

Titles about nature feature prominently in the “golden years” production of Ladybird books. The quality of both the text and illustrations was key to the success of these books. Renowned artists such as Stanley Roy Badmin, Allen W Seaby, Charles Tunnicliffe and John Leigh-Pemberton (illustrator of The Ladybird Book of Garden Flowers) were commissioned to create artwork for the Nature series.

H – How it works

Today, Ladybird is often associated with early reading and fairy tales, but in fact the company also produced hundreds of non-fiction titles. Containing informative and detailed illustrations, these books now form a record of key changes in technology over the latter half of the 20th century. Including titles such as The Computer, the How it works series was published between 1965 and 1972.

I – The Impatient Horse

As Ladybird books have become increasingly more collectable, so more people are on the lookout for the rarest books, which tend to be those that failed to make an impact at the time of their publication. Such rarities include The Impatient Horse. Written by George Murray and drawn by Xenia Berkeley, the 1953 book was the first and only title in series 538.

J – Jane

Jane and her brother Peter were the main characters of the Key Words Reading Scheme, which spanned 36 titles over three series. The children first appeared in Play with us (1a), a 1964 book illustrated by Harry Wingfield. In the 1960s, blonde-haired Jane was usually dressed in a pristine white frock with a yellow cardigan, while dark-haired Peter wore shorts, a white shirt and a red jumper.

K – John Kenney

John Kenney illustrated many books for Ladybird, including The Silver Arrow (1954) and The Ambush (1955) in the early Robin Hood series, and Tootles the Taxi (1956). He is perhaps best remembered for working with the writer Lawrence du Garde Peach on the ‘Adventures from History’ series (from 1956 to 1972), which introduced children to historical figures such as Joan of Arc and Robert the Bruce.

L – Loughborough

Ladybird books are the product of a Leicestershire printing company, Wills & Hepworth Limited, based in Loughborough. William Hepworth, the firm’s owner, launched the first range of children’s books in 1914 and a year later the name ‘Ladybird’ was registered. Ladybird books were printed in Loughborough for almost 85 years until the print works closed in 1999.

M – The Motor Car

Before book production took over, Wills & Hepworth Limited’s core business was the printing of brochures for car manufacturers such as Rover. This expertise is later reflected in Ladybird’s many books about cars, including The Motor Car (1965), from the ‘How it works’ series. It proved so informative that car mechanics at Thames Valley Police Driving School used it as a guide.

N – Nature

The first Ladybird books to be deliberately aimed at the schools’ market were on a topic close to the heart of the then commissioning editor, Douglas Keen: British birds. Based on a prototype book created by Keen himself, British Birds and Their Nests (1953) was the first title in the ‘Nature’ series. An instant success, many more nature titles followed on topics such as trees, insects and geology.

O – Our Land in the Making

Finely illustrated by Ronald Lampitt, this bold venture is a two-volume work on British historical geography. Written by Richard Bowood and first published in 1966, it tells the story of natural and human impacts on the British landscape from earliest history to the mid-1960s. Our Land in the Making was a feature of school bookshelves for the next two decades.

P – People at Work

In his almost photographic illustrations for this series, former war artist John Berry depicted people (mostly men) at work between 1962 and 1973. The first book in the ‘People at Work’ series was The Fireman, in which a fireman’s duties were revealed by authors Vera Southgate and J Havenhand. Other titles included The Nurse (1963), The Postman (1965) and The Shipbuilders (1969).

Q – Queens

With its focus on kings and leaders such as King Alfred the Great and William the Conqueror (both published in 1956), the Adventures from History series was certainly dominated by men’s lives, but British queens also featured. Writer Lawrence du Garde Peach’s informative prose exuded admiration for The First Queen Elizabeth in 1958, while Queen Victoria was the subject of a 1976 book.

R – Religion

The Christian Sunday School market was an important one for Wills & Hepworth, and from 1952 onwards they published numerous books of Bible stories, beginning with The Child of the Temple. In addition to stories, there were also books designed to give background and context to the topic, such as The History of Our Bible and Animals, Birds and Plants of the Bible in series 649.

S – School

Ladybird’s period of greatest success stems directly from the decision to target the education market and to provide good-quality, robust and colourful books that teachers would trust. Douglas Keen spoke to many teachers across the UK to garner opinion on children’s interests, and then went on to devise the many series that would encourage children to enjoy learning through reading.

T – Charles Tunnicliffe

Between 1959 and 1961, the well-respected and renowned painter of British wildlife Charles Tunnicliffe worked closely with writer EL Grant Watson to produce the What to Look For seasons books, beginning with What to Look for in Winter. Tunnicliffe’s first Ladybird commission was for The Farm, a 1958 Learning to Read book that visualized life on a farm through Tunnicliffe’s art.

U – Uncle Mac

Published in the 1940s and early 1950s, the Uncle Mac books were the first attempt by Ladybird to produce non-fiction for young children. The putative author, Uncle Mac, was Derek McCulloch, who at the time was a well-known BBC radio personality and presenter of Children’s Hour. The main artist for the series was Septimus E. Scott, whose soft-toned artwork appears in five of the six series titles.

V – Vehicles

Throughout Ladybird’s long publishing history, its books have featured vehicles of all kinds. As well as the motor car, there have been titles on commercial vehicles such as vans and lorries, aircraft, the hovercraft, trains, rockets and various seafaring vessels. Books were regularly revised and new editions published as technology evolved and the content of the books became quickly out of date.

W – Harry Wingfield

Best known for his work on the Key Words Reading Scheme, Harry Wingfield was one of Ladybird’s most popular artists. His first book, Red Riding Hood also Goldilocks and the Three Bears, was published in the Fairy Tales and Rhymes series in 1958. The artwork was subsequently used as the model for the phenomenally successful Well-loved Tales series of the 1960s and 1970s.

X – “X hardly ever . . .

… comes first in a word,” and as a result it always presented problems for the authors or editors of books focusing on the alphabet that Ladybird published over the decades. The above quote appears in Uncle Mac’s Ladybird ABC Book (1950). More often than not, the books would gloss over the X entry altogether and skip from W’ to ‘Y, as in the first Ladybird Picture Dictionary (1965).

Y – Your Body

Your Body was a 1967 title in Ladybird’s Nature series that introduced children to the wonders of the human body. Written by David Scott Daniell and featuring illustrations and anatomical diagrams by Robert Ayrton, the book opened with the human skeleton, showing how the function of joints enabled the body to move. Other topics included skin, nerves, sight, blood, muscles and hearing.

Z – The Zoo

Animal books have always been popular with children and Ladybird has keenly supported this interest. Titles for pre-school children have included The Zoo (published in 1960 in the Learning to Read series and strikingly illustrated by Barry Driscoll) and Talkabout Animals (1973). Older children could read the ‘Animals of the World’ series, featuring the detailed art of John Leigh-Pemberton.

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