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.