Her children have flown the nest so this Chelford mother can get down to some serious, but funny, reading
Geraldine Earl is never short of something to read. It is what she reads which you may find unusual. “I always have a few books on the go at any one time.” Currently, she is reading a volume of pre-war detective stories featuring Sexton Blake. She also has her nose in The Champion Annual from 1962 and she is just finishing the last of several Magnet compilations featuring Greyfriars School . . . and, yes, you’ve guessed it – Billy Bunter.
Geraldine lives in Chelford with husband John and thousands upon thousands of children’s comics, annuals and story books. Her collection is the largest of any female in the UK. As a collector, she keeps good company with notables like actors Ben Affleck and Nicholas Cage and radio and TV presenter, Jonathan Ross. But you will notice these are all men.
Her collecting started by accident. “I was recovering from glandular fever in 1970 and I started to teach my son to read with the Beano comic. Somehow I came across a pre-war Billy Bunter book which quickly replaced the Beano with my son telling me: ‘Mum you must get me more of these’. I started searching old book shops and jumble sales and therefore started collecting. It has just snow-balled from there. “It just growed and growed,” she says. Was that Topsy in the Enid Blyton books?
Her collection goes back to 1880 and reaches 1960. The year 1880 is significant. The education act of that year stipulated that all children should attend school. Children, therefore, began to learn to read. Originally, though, comics were adult reading matter.
“I’ve stopped collecting now because the items I want I cannot afford. I can’t remember in detail what I have got because it amounts to several thousand items. It is all catalogued but it is spread around different rooms so locating a particular comic may take some time.”
There was also a lot of prose in some of the earlier comics. Geraldine produces a 1905 copy of Chums. One item is headed ‘Famous 5-Minutes’ and brags how the then president of South Africa, Paul Kruger, shot five lions when he was 13-years. Cripes, as Spiderman would say, you’d hardly get such a level of braggadocio in today’s Times let alone a child’s comic.
But that it is how the world has moved on. “Reading children’s literature is an understanding of what people thought and felt,” comments Geraldine. Girls Own of those times, edited by Jill, (notice no surname was used) carried features such as ‘When Animals Show Fear and ‘Embroider Your Gloves’. The editor, Jill, was almost alone in her profession as most comics for girls were written by men.
What it is important to understand about Geraldine’s hobby is that she doesn’t collect them for the sake of building a collection. “I buy them to read because I enjoy reading them.” One of her biggest sets is most of the first six volumes of The Eagle. It starts at number two. “I do have a copy of the first edition but it is a facsimile. When I was a young girl, living in Birmingham, a friend came to our house with a huge pile of The Eagle. It was a complete set of the first series but my mother eventually threw them all away.” ‘Holy Nightmare’ as Robin would have said to Batman.
Not only does she enjoy reading the collection, she also has a sound knowledge of the bibliography of comics. Without hesitation she will tell you the date when Adventure comic started or what happened to Comic Cuts and Chips. School Friend was born in 1921. Beano is the only pre-war comic still being published. An original number one Beano recently sold for £17,000. The facts come thick and fast.
What’s her favourite? “It would be my collection of Chums,” adding: “but who knows because I haven’t yet finished reading the complete collection.
“I have also not yet finished reading all my Enid Blyton novels. That woman wrote so many books and short stories, I often think it was her and not the Germans who caused the paper shortage during the war.” It was that paper shortage which saw pre-war comics reduced from 38-pages to just 8.
With all boys in her family, Geraldine promised herself that if she ever had a girl, she would name her after her favourite female writer of children’s books. She called her daughter Richmal.
Richmal Crompton wrote about the scruffy, frowning schoolboy who was head of the Outlaws gang (not forgetting his friend Ginger). Of course it was Just William. I wonder what happened to Violet Elizabeth Bott.