|Interview with Douglas
| Douglas Keen, born
1913, is now the only surviving member of the original firm
of Wills and Hepworth,
which later became Ladybird Books
Ltd and was taken over by Longman
Pearson in the early 1970s.
Douglas was with the firm from 1936 (when it was primarily a
commercial colour printer, not a publisher) to 1972, and was
responsible for the concept, creation and implementation of
all factual educational books in the Ladybird format from the
early 1950s onwards.
As Editorial Director Douglas found, commissioned, and managed
all the artists and writers and was responsible for the publishing
of Ladybird's highly successful Key
Words Reading Scheme series.
I joined Wills & Hepworth
in 1936, at the age of 23, when there were no Ladybirds as
such; any book production had been confined to filling in
‘machine time’ in between big colour printing
commissions, for example for Austin and Rover. Ladybirds then
– ie between the Wars – were large and thick,
on puffed-up [ie cheap, rough] paper in 2 colours and line,
and were sold to market hucksters by Mr
Hepworth, the original founder of W&H.
||Can you tell me a little
about your time and role as Editorial Director at Ladybird?
I ran the Birmingham office of W&H, dealing with commissions
for printing in the West Midlands area including the car manufacturers
Austin and Rover,
and BSA motorbikes.
One of the directors, Percy Roberts,
ran the office in Leicester, which produced printed material
for the shoe and stocking trade. With the outbreak of war
in 1939 paper was rationed. Part of W&H’s allocation
was used for the production of servicing booklets and charts
for suppliers of military vehicles.
In 1940 I was called up into the RAF but paid a small retainer
on the understanding I would return after the war. I was demobbed
in 1946. At that time it was assumed that the firm’s
future would be in the big colour catalogues with books only
produced in slack times to keep the machines running and workers
occupied, and then put into stock to await sales at leisure.
I was asked to take over the selling of these books, or at
least to see if they could be more profitable if production
During my absence in the RAF, Percy
Roberts had prepared several books; some in large
format such as The Tinker’s
Wig, and some in a new smaller format, such as
The Impatient Horse, the Wonk series, and the Uncle Mac series.
To research the market, I travelled to shops and schools across
the country, in Manchester, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, looking
at trends in children’s book publishing.
It became clear that the book trade was split in two; books
for the retail trade were as colourful as possible, with stiff
covers for display in shops, while the educational market
was covered by soft cover, 2 colour books which were difficult
to display and looked unattractive in shops. It became obvious
that the new smaller Ladybird format was ideal for bookshops,
but that W&H were producing the wrong content –
poor quality and unresearched for suitability for the market.
It occurred to me that properly researched books could be
produced to appeal both to shops (for sale as gifts, etc)
and to schools. The Book of British
Birds and their nests was proposed as the first
of these books, to be written and illustrated by specialists
in their field. The book was a huge success and there was
instant demand for a second print run of 50,000.
All this was taking place at a time when the use of books
in schools was changing radically – from being kept
in glass cabinets where children had no direct access, to
freely available ‘book corners’ in classrooms
for reading and project-based independent work. I began planning
future series, such as “The Story of….’
series, and further nature books, using highly respected and
eminent wildlife and countryside artists such as CF
Hilder, and John Leigh-Pemberton.
In the late 50s, Harry Wingfield
– then a commercial artist, an old friend from my Birmingham
office days - started working for me illustrating a series
for very young children, including Shopping
with Mother and the ABC.
I knew that teachers would order with confidence as these
were written by educationalists.
The Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme
was my initiative; I had read an article in ‘The Teacher’
journal about the research by William
Murray into what he called ‘Key Words to
Literacy’. But it was at first difficult to convince
him that the Ladybird format and colour illustrations were
the right way to implement his ideas.
I decided to ask Harry Wingfield
to produce specimen spreads to show Murray what a Ladybird
Reading Scheme would look like. Murray then realised
what an attractive proposition it could be, and agreed to write
the books. By that time Ladybirds were well accepted in schools
so I had great confidence in a Ladybird reading scheme –
the colours, the size, the lettering – and knew it couldn’t
miss. But it was a huge financial commitment for Wills and Hepworth,
and my reputation and career hung on it (this was because all
thirty six books of the Reading Scheme had to be ready together
– three at each of the twelve reading stages – and
stockpiled till the launch) but the Board had confidence in
it. At one point the head printer in the litho room came up
to me looking very worried because he wasn’t used to having
so much stock there - he’d thought the books weren’t
selling, and their jobs were at risk. The scheme was an instant
success, and I was asked to join the Board of Directors.
I was responsible for all finding, commissioning and managing
of the authors and illustrators. They all had to be specialists
in their field so this involved quite a bit of research, finding
suitable people, especially for the Nature series –
people like CF Tunnicliffe.
And they had to be able to make technical things look interesting
||Did you meet many of
the Ladybird authors and illustrators?
I used many artists who also worked for ‘Eagle’
(weekly boy’s comic in the 1950s; famous for the Dan
Dare strip, it had a lot of factual series as well)
– Robert Ayton, Martin Aitchison,
Frank Hampson and Frank
Humphris. Robert was wonderful at making historical
events and people come alive. Frank
Humphreys was a great expert on all things to do
with the American West – he had a wonderful collection
of authentic cowboy gear, and was an honorary member of an American
Indian tribe. He could use guns and lassoes, and all his drawings
were absolutely accurate.
People loved to find mistakes in the books, they’d write
and complain if we got anything wrong, so I had to have artists
who really knew their stuff; our reputation depended on it.
Frank Hampson, who
invented Dan Dare, of
course wasn’t famous then, he was finding it difficult
to make a living when I took him on, and was working as a
technician at Epsom Art School.
John Berry did the ‘People
at Work’ series – he was a portrait artist as
well, but he was used to working from photographs and could
work very accurately. Harry Wingfield
did the Junior Science
series: he was another one who could paint people –children,
especially – very sympathetically, but got all the other
detail right as well. Many of the artists became really good
friends – I worked a lot from home, and we really enjoyed
their company. We kept in touch for many years, but they’re
all gone now, apart from John and Martin.
All the artists were selected and contracted individually to
suit the programme I would set out. A fee was agreed for a book,
meaning they had to produce 24 plates.
||Were all illustrators
contracted, or did you have some artists on the payroll
and working on site?
All the artists worked at their own homes or studios and sent
the illustrations to me for checking. The only artists on site
at Loughborough were the litho artists who turned the paintings
into printing plates.
The Computer was originally
produced as part of the How it Works
series; it was seen as a useful aid by the MoD for
introducing their staff to computers at that time – it
was a simplified definition of how a computer works. Approximately
100 copies were produced with special covers so they didn’t
look like children's books! The same goes for How
it Works – The Motor
Car. Thames Valley police took a large number of
them when police were seen less on-the-beat and had started
having patrol cars instead.
||Can you remember if
‘The Computer’ was privately published for
the Ministry of Defence in the early 70s? – this
has been rumoured to exist within Ladybird collecting
circles but nobody seems to own, or have seen a copy –
can you shed any light on this?
Wee Web follow-up comment
In the late
1970s David Swindell was a lecturer with CM(Trg)ADP - Civilian
Management (Training) Automatic Data Processing - a branch of
the Procurement Executive of the Ministry of Defence. When he
arrived in 1977 their support material was limited in nature,
so David set about improving it, and amongst other things he
suggested using the Ladybird book, 'The Computer'.
David's boss was a bit dubious,
but he agreed to him making enquiries, and he wrote the fateful
letter to Ladybird, saying he felt it would be "incongruous
to give a children's book to senior Civil Servants",
and asking if they would produce a special, limited run "in
a plain cover, or at least without the Ladybird logo"
Ladybird replied saying they had enough orders in the standard
cover, and politely refused. David's department didn't push
the matter but decided to use the standard edition anyway
- so the tale should have ended there.
But . . .
Within months the story found its
way into the computer press and national newspapers, with
comments that were quite obviously based on the letter David
had written and Ladybird's reply.
As David remembers it, the newspaper
articles were presented in a humourous vein, reporting that
the Ministry of Defence was "using a children's book
to teach senior civil servants about computers", they
didn't state that Ladybird had actually produced a special
edition in plain covers, though the implication might have
And that is where the myth
began. And now there is reason to believe that the book is
indeed not a myth and actually does exist.
more to follow the trail of this mysterious Ladybird book
Yes, up to the 1960s. Till then it was still not thought by
the Board that they should abandon commercial colour printing
– not until it became obvious that Ladybird sales were
going at such a rate that special machines had to be purchased
to cope with the massive production.
||Did Ladybird print
any books, posters, pamphlets etc for other companies
during your time?
There was a battle over whether new machinery should be for
‘flow production’ – running for 16 hours at
a time, in 4 colour printing. By the early 60s the size of orders
was such that sometimes we were 6 weeks behind on delivery,
and it just wasn’t economic to go on doing catalogues
any more. (In the early days, before he started working entirely
on books, DHK was involved in a lot of work with the car and
bicycle firms in the Midlands – particularly BSA, Austin
and Rover). I still have some of those early catalogues from
The illustrations became the artists’ property, but Wills
& Hepworth had the rights for reproduction.
We kept the early stuff until the early 1970s when a change
in the legislation meant that it all had to be sent back to
the artists. Some of the artists have been selling their illustrations
to collectors, they see them as extra pension! There have been
a lot of exhibitions recently – Harry
Wingfield had one in Walsall, John
Berry and Martin Aitchison
had one in Cheltenham.
||Can you tell me what
happened to all original artwork after it had been used
for printing – I know that some are privately owned
but does Ladybird have most of the original illustrations
The decision to discontinue was made solely on the basis of
sales – if the book didn’t sell well enough, it
was simply taking up too much space in display stands at the
expense of other better sellers.
||Some series only contain
one title such as series 538 The Impatient Horse, series
618 London, series 671 Maps – can you tell me why
these series were discontinued? The Impatient Horse would
have been more suited to series 497 – can you offer
any insight into the reasoning for giving this title its
‘The Impatient Horse’ was produced at Loughborough
while I was away in the RAF – they produced three or four
at that time, they’d print them when they had spare machine
time and then sell them at some time later when they could.
Book production wasn’t organised and researched then,
like it was later.
Tinker’s Wig was produced soon after the war, before there
was a settled policy decided of ‘flow production’
all of the same format, and before the idea was adopted that
every new title should be researched and vetted for saleability.
Wig, another one-off series, was a larger format than
the standard Ladybird books – why did Ladybird try
a different format and why didn’t they produce any
more books this size?
There wasn’t a settled policy of numbering for all titles.
I think the idea was the third digit was the month it was first
||Can you tell me what
the last digit(s) in a series number represent? I know
that the first two numbers indicate the year the first
book in a series was printed?
No – they were all great chaps! Every series was important
to me. The artists and authors were all part of a wonderful
||Did you have a favourite
Ladybird series, artist or author?
It was almost the other way round really – the new ownership
came about because I wanted to retire! The Chairman, Jim
Clegg, was into his 70s and I was coming up to 60
– Jim Clegg didn’t want to sell because he was enjoying
the progress we were making. (The firm was a private one with
a small board of directors as shareholders, of whom the senior
members had been with the firm for a very long time.) I had
to point out to him that we would be selling into a buyer’s
market if we didn’t sell as a successful and growing concern.
Then his younger brother suddenly died and he realised that
the proceeds of selling now would produce greater security for
his wife. Also my wife Margaret, who worked with me at home
on things like proof checking, was finding the pressure tiring.
||Why did Ladybird sell
to Longman Pearson? My observation is that Ladybird were
very successful as a children’s publisher –
why the change? And did you retire from Ladybird because
of the new ownership?
I’m not sure what happened in the later years of the firm.
I don’t think much was kept.
||Information about Ladybird
is hard to find – so much so that we have been contacted
by Warne and Ladybird marketing asking if they can use
information from our website - can you tell me why that
might be? Were Ladybird quite slack at keeping records?
Wonk wasn’t a success
– it was produced before I was demobbed, and research
showed it was a slow seller. Many Ladybird titles were later
produced for export in other languages.
||The Adventures of Wonk
series 417 (6 title by Muriel Levy) – two titles
only are believed to be published in French – why
only two, and were they for export or to help British
school children learn French?
The Wee Web would like to thank Douglas
Keen for taking the time to answer our questions.
We would also like to thank Jenny
Pearce, the daughter of Douglas
Keen, for all her help in making this interview
In 1980 Market research showed that Ladybird was the most recognisable brand in children's books.