Tuesday, September 20, 2022

In defence of Peter, Jane and Ladybird's history books

As a video recently posted here went a long way to demonstrate, Ladybird Books were about the most progressive post-war publishers of children's books.

Yet misapprehensions about their publications abound. The other day someone on Twitter was convinced that Peter and Jane exclaimed "I say!" to one another.

The illustrator of these books, Harry Wingfield, explained their social position to the Guardian in 2002 when he was 91:

Wingfield is dismissive of claims in another national newspaper that the model for the real-life Jane has been unearthed in Shrewsbury. There was no real-life Jane. Or Peter, for that matter. Their images were forged from any number of photographs of local children, some taken on the new council estates that were springing up in the late 50s and early 60s.

"They were the sons and daughters of respectable workers," he says, "and they were well dressed. You didn't want dustbin kids. But they weren't as middle-class as everyone made out."

My mother taught me to read from these books before I went to school. We were living in a new town, Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, at the time, and nothing about them felt alien to me.

Ladybird's Adventures from History series is also controversial. Otto English, with his repeated use of the term "Ladybird libertarians" seems to blame it for Brexit. But Ladybird's market was local authority primary schools, not the prep schools that the proponents of leaving the European Union attended.

And L du Garde Peach, the man who wrote the bulk of that series, was no Tory, if only because he fought Derby for the Liberal Party at the 1929 general election.

David Perkins writes of him in History Today:

There was more to Peach than a mere producer of patriotic homilies. As a radio dramatist, he did not shy away from controversial issues, including war, the arms race, and pacificism: Patriotism Ltd (1937) was subject to BBC internal censorship and pulled from the air, a decision that was reported around the world; Night Sky (1937) sought to bring home the realities of modern warfare. Peach also wrote a play about the First World War with no men in the cast: Home Fires (1930). 

He became known, too, for hard-hitting radio dramas: Bread (1932) was a family farming saga of poverty and emigration from the agricultural depression of the 1840s to the Great Depression. Three Soldiers (1933) highlighted the predicament of ex-soldiers from the Great War who had been thrown on the dole. 

Several of Peach’s radio plays touched on racial issues. His stance on the subject was more nuanced than that of many contemporaries and his attitudes ahead of his time. In Ingredient X (1929) he wrote about the corporate exploitation of Africa, spurring a journalist to complain that the play was ‘Bolshevist in tendency’. 

In John Hawkins – Slaver (1933) Peach adapted Hakluyt’s 16th-century account of the notable voyages and made a point of showing how Hawkins – like other Elizabethan explorers – made profits from slave trading to secure the monarch’s support. In The Cohort Marches: An Episode of the Roman Occupation (1937), Peach recast contemporary issues of colonialism in the context of Roman Britain. 

You can watch a lecture on L. du Garde Peach by Perkins in the video above.

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