English People by George Orwell

With most of Europe in Adolf Hitler’s hands, Britain was in a grim predicament in 1941 but that year Collins, the publisher now known as HarperCollins, launched a remarkable series of social history books called Britain in Pictures.

The books were designed to boost morale but perhaps also record the British way of life in case the Germans completed their European campaign by successfully crossing the English Channel. The books were slim volumes with distinctive elegant covers, but it was the star-studded array of authors that made the series really special.

George Orwell wrote about the British people, Cecil Beaton wrote about English photography, the great poet and printer Francis Meynell wrote about English books, John Betjeman (who penned the immortal line” Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough” in 1937) wrote about cities and towns, Graham Greene wrote about dramatists, the doyen of sports journalists Neville Cardus wrote about cricket and Edith Sitwell wrote about women. Some of the authors have faded in obscurity but they were all experts in their field during those dark days of World War II.

A wide variety of subjects were covered from battlefields to boxing, clocks to mountaineering, butterflies to farm animals, and from waterways and canals to maps and map-makers. In all, there were were 132 titles. The books also covered the Commonwealth – John Buchan’s wife, Lady Tweedsmuir wrote about Canada while Ngaio Marsh and R M Burdon wrote about New Zealand.

For many collectors, obtaining the entire series of Britain in Pictures books is an obsession. Collins published the books in large quantities and priced them cheaply. Today they can be picked up for anything from a few dollars to $200 depending on condition. It’s also possible to find incomplete collections on AbeBooks.

Anyone wishing to collect the series should reference Britain in Pictures: A History & Bibliography by Michael Carney. No-one knows more about this series than Carney and his 1995 is essential. The books were so successful that Collins continued to publish them until 1949. Yes, they were a wonderful morale booster but they also offer an insight into sections of British life that disappeared rapidly after World War II.

Britain in Pictures

Birds of Britain by James Fisher
Birds of Britain
James Fisher
Britain in the Air by Nigel Tangye
Britain in the Air
Nigel Tangye
English Women by Edith Sitwell
English Women
Edith Sitwell
British Dramatists by Graham Greene
British Dramatists
Graham Greene
British Boxing by Denzil Batchelor
British Boxing
Denzil Batchelor
British Engineers by Metius Chappell
British Engineers
Metius Chappell
The Story of Wales by Rhys Davies
The Story of Wales
Rhys Davies
British Scientists by Sir Richard Gregory
British Scientists
Sir Richard Gregory
Wild Flowers in Britain by Geoffrey Grigson
Wild Flowers in Britain
Geoffrey Grigson
The Story of Scotland by Fraser F. Darling
The Story of Scotland
Fraser F. Darling
The English Church by the Bishop of Chichester
The English Church
Bishop of Chichester
English Printed Books by Francis Meynell
English Printed Books
Francis Meynell
English Music by W.J. Turner
English Music
W. J. Turner
The Story of Ireland by Sean O'Faolain
The Story of Ireland
Sean O'Faolain
British Golf by Bernard Darwin
British Golf
Bernard Darwin
English Farming by John Russell
English Farming
John Russell

Other Interesting Bits:

Biggles series created by Captain W.E. Johns Murder on the Literary Express