A capacity audience attended the April speaker meeting of Shepton Mallet U3A and were pleased to welcome Barry Edwards with a talk about the history of Penguin books.
Barry, who lives in the Mendip area, spent much of his working life in education, working abroad and as a tour guide with the travel company Great Rail Journeys.
Barry is a member of the Penguin Collectors Society and has been an avid collector for eighteen years or so. He has a target of finding 1500 copies of some of the earlier titles and has a list of another sixty he has yet to find to reach his target.
We heard that Penguin books was founded in 1934 by Bristol born Allen Lane, now Sir Allen Lane, and brothers Richard and John as part of publishers The Bodley Head. The title Penguin was suggested by Allen Lane’s secretary, she felt that penguins were “dignified and flippant”.
The introduction of paperback books became something of a revolution in publishing circles selling in various high street stores, including Woolworth, for sixpence each and produced in different colours for each subject matter. This new concept in reading took the world by storm as earlier attempts had failed due to poor quality of manufacture.
In 1934, following a visit to meet Agatha Christie in Devon, Allen Lane was on Exeter train station and found that there was no light/cheap reading material available. This prompted him to go into production with a run of twenty thousand copies of the first ten Penguin books of different genres including classic, biographies, crime novels and travel books, each with numbered spines all for sixpence each. The first book published by Penguin was Ariel by Andre Maurois with number one on the spine.
We were shown examples of the different coloured books and their titles – yellow for crosswords and puzzles and a book of nonsense verse by Edward Lear and fittingly, perhaps, grey for politics.
The sale of Penguin books was so successful that in one thirteen month period they had sold a staggering three million copies.
Apart from outlets like Woolworth, mentioned earlier, the most likely other place you would find Penguin books was on a railway station which in turn linked Penguin books to W.H. Smith. New companies were founded by two of Allen Lane’s brothers in Canada and Australia and later new companies were established in other countries including
Barry Edwards with his copy of Ariel, the first book published by Penguin Egypt. By the 1950’s, books were being produced with more eye-catching colours with sketches on the front cover and pictures of the author on the back cover.
Barry spoke about the infamous D.H. Lawrence novel; Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published in 1960 and, although extremely controversial, managed to sell over three million copies in the first year. Penguin books went on to gain a reputation of being daring and challenging by publishing books like Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and Spycatcher written by former MI5 officer Peter Wright.
In the 1970s, Penguin books was acquired by Pearsons, the international media group.
Barry ended his talk with a piece of Allen Lane philosophy, “there is a unity in all this Penguin diversity. The dominant motive in the firms endeavour is to provide good reading for people who have acquired a taste for books. For those who lack an habitual appetite for reading, Penguins have nothing to offer. They do not deal in those products which aim to excite and contaminate the mind with sensation and which could be more aptly listed in a register of poisons than in a library catalogue. But, for every civilised and balanced person, there are Penguins to suit each need and purpose”.

The History of Penguin Books