At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 when we were all beset with shortages and supply chain difficulties, Sarah Lawrance found herself thinking about a series of letters from George G Harrap & Co in the archive of author Ursula Moray Williams at Seven Stories. She shares them for us here.
Harraps published many of Ursula’s early titles including the two for which she is best known – The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse (1938) and Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat (1942) – and the correspondence from this period tells a story of remarkable resilience in the face of wartime and post-war shortages (staff, paper, ink…), printing and bookbinding delays, government imperatives and rising costs.
Many of the letters are from George Anderson, Chairman of Harrap & Co, who was also a friend of Ursula’s uncle (the publisher Stanley Unwin) and evidently took a close interest in Ursula’s work while also being frank about the challenges of publishing – especially picturebooks – at such a difficult time. Sadly, there are no copies of Ursula’s outgoing letters to Harrap’s in the archive, but it is clear from the other side of the correspondence that she was both tenacious and business-minded in ensuring that, in spite of everything, her books continued to appear.
In a letter dated 5 October 1943 we read that though ‘the printers are taking a dreadful time to get through colour books at present’ Harrap’s expected Ursula’s picturebook The Good Little Christmas Tree, to be out within the month. The book was a wide oblong format illustrated with scissor cut collage pictures in an array of bright colours – the six-colour printing making for an expensive product. Nevertheless, the publisher is sufficiently confident to order 10,000 copies for sale at 10s 6d in the expectation that they will almost all be sold before Christmas – and indeed they were.
Two years later, the situation had evidently become even more challenging:
‘Although I can realise your disappointment over The Three Toymakers, I think you are a little hard upon us. It is quite evident that you do not realise half the difficulties that publishers have to contend with, especially over books with coloured illustrations. You have had rather more than your fair share of the paper we have had available during the last two or three years, and you must remember that we have a long list of authors and we have to try to be fair all round. We have got to the stage when we can make so definite promise […] about the publication date of any book until bound copies are actually delivered into our premises […] To add to our difficulties, the Army Education Department has ordered several hundred thousand of our books and these have to have priority and they put back the books that are intended for schools and the booksellers.
[…] The House of Happiness is in the printer’s hands […]. I do not think you need be in any fear that this book will not come out in July or August next year at the latest, but is it a big job and we are lucky to get it accepted by a printer at all. The government is still giving out an enormous amount of work to every lithographer in the country, and this is again another reason why publishers’ work cannot be normally proceeded with[…]’
(Letter from George Anderson to Ursula John (married name of Ursula Moray Williams), 16 October 1945.)
The House of Happiness referred to in this letter was another picturebook with collage illustrations. The letters in the archive allow us to follow every twist and in turn in its publishing story: the book eventually appeared in October 1946 and by 17 December Mr Sanderson was able to report that they had no more copies in stock; he would attempt a reprint ‘during the coming year’ but was far from hopeful of getting the order accepted by the printer…and so it goes on.
There are also letters from Ursula in other parts of the Seven Stories Collection, notably in the archive of Puffin editor Kaye Webb. The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse had first appeared in Puffin under the editorship of Eleanor Graham in 1959; under Kaye, Ursula became a regular guest-come-organiser at Puffin Club events, exhibitions and holidays and in 1974 was made the first honorary member of the Puffin Club.
Ursula was now in her early sixties but her letters to Kaye describe a whirlwind of activity recounted with breathless enthusiasm: ‘…I was up in Bolton, Lancs, at a Federation Book Exhibition – theme being Witches and Wizards, awful journey, 4 changes and stood the last hour in the train – but a wonderful exhibition that I’d like you to have seen, all kinds of possible witches, paintings, models, mobiles, scenes thousands of children, far more than they expected, lots were actually turned away after queuing for ages in the rain. I’ve never signed so many autographs in my life, too many because one never looked up and there were all those splendid children to talk to…’ (letter from Ursula Moray Williams to Kaye Webb c.1974).
Almost all of Ursula’s seventy-odd books are now out of print, and it would be easy to forget the extent of her work if it wasn’t for her substantial presence in the archive at Seven Stories. Though so much has changed in the intervening decades, through the archive Ursula’s commitment to and joy in both her storytelling and her readers remain as an inspiration and encouragement.
Sarah Lawrance was formerly the Collection and Exhibitions Director at Seven Stories the National Centre for Children’s Books and is now a freelance curator.
With with thanks to Seven Stories