HOW I hate the rain. Every time we plan to go somewhere or do something, it pours. Even Bonfire Night was a washout. There was a time, though, when I prayed for rain: I hated double sport lessons. If it was wet, they were spent in the library, where Biggles books were my refuge.
Roger Harris is another Biggles fan but with different, more painful, memories than my own. As a great admirer of the pilot-adventurer immortalised by author Captain W.E. Johns, Roger collected around 60 of the books but then sold them all for the grand sum of £12. That was in 1979. “Twenty five years later it would cost me in the region of £12,000 to buy them all back,” he told me ruefully.
At first he could afford to buy only pre-1942 first editions without their original dust wrappers. He now owns a first edition copy of every Biggles book published since 1942, all in their original, unclipped dust wrappers showing their original price. It took him 10 years to find a first edition of the first Biggles book “The Camels are Coming”.
I didn’t dare ask him what they set him back, but having watched a first edition copy of “Biggles Flies South”, published in 1938 sell for a sky-high £1,000 in a
For starters, Captain W.E. Johns was actually not a captain at all. Roger explained it was a pen name he adopted because he thought it would be more appealing to boys than his actual rank, which was a Flying Officer.
Born in 1893, William Earl Johns served in the trenches at Gallipoli and then in the Machine Gun Corps until learning to fly as a 2nd Lieutenant with the Royal Flying Corps. After a year training others, in the summer of 1918 he joined 55 Squadron as a bomber pilot in France.
His flying career was short-lived, however. On September 16 his plane was hit first by anti-aircraft fire and then shot down by German aircraft, killing his rear gunner.
Johns spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner, re-joining what was then the Royal Air Force, but by the 1930s he had changed career and was working mainly as an aircraft illustrator and writing short pieces for such magazines as “Modern Boy”.
He was subsequently appointed editor of “Popular Flying” magazine and with the first edition in April 1932, he published the very first Biggles story – “The White Fokker”.
“Biggles was James Bigglesworth, a young officer who flew a Sopwith Camel and Johns created him to give readers an idea of what the officers of the time were really like, Roger said.
“However, ‘Popular Flying’ was aimed at adults and the short stories had Biggles swearing and drinking alcohol. When the stories were later reprinted for children, alcohol became lemonade and any Biggles “cursing luridly” would be replaced by ‘Oh Gosh!’ and similar expressions!
“Johns’ writing was extremely realistic because of his own experiences. He knew what it was like in air combat and what it was like to be shot down from 20,000 feet, but it had to be tempered for his audience.”
The short stories from the first seven issues of “Popular Flying” were published in book form with 10 others in “The Camels are Coming”, which was published on September 7, 1932. A first edition in original dust wrapper sold last year for £11,000.
The first five Biggles books were published by a company called John Hamilton, but first editions of them are very hard to find, particular with dust wrappers. Johns changed publishers to Oxford University Press in 1935 from then until 1943, they published 20 Biggles titles.
“Again, these Oxford books are hard to find in first edition with original dust wrappers,” Roger said. “Examples in excellent command high prices, regularly achieving four figures at auction.”
Johns was paid £250 per book by Oxford but received no royalties, although he was writing two or three Biggles books a year, establishing a comfortable income for himself in the 1930s.
Roger Harris has created a popular website at www.biggles.com showing all of the first edition covers. The site also features story summaries and other interesting information.
A handful of titles which he is searching for his own collection remain allusive.
He said: “The Boys’ Friend Library published two flimsy paperbacks in 1935 called “Biggles Learns to Fly” and “Biggles in France” (pictured above) that I am very keen to acquire. If anyone has a copy, please contact me via my website.”
Anyone interested in learning more about Captain W. E. Johns and the other books he wrote should visit Roger’s other website: www.wejohns.com where they will find full information about his fascinating life and career.
The books became extremely popular, particularly after the Second World War when they started to sell in very large numbers. “Johns had the good sense to change publishers,” Roger said. “He moved to Hodder & Stoughton, who along with their subsidiary company, Brock Books, would publish the Biggles books until Johns’ death in 1968.
“The move meant Johns would receive royalties and when his books were translated into numerous foreign languages around the world, he was able to live a very comfortable life.”
Johns died in June 1968, half way through writing “Biggles Does Some Homework”, the last ever Biggles book, which itself was only published in a very limited edition of 300 paperbacks in 1998 and 300 hardbacks in 2007.
“By the time of his death, Johns had written an incredible 274 stories featuring Biggles consisting of 83 novels and 191 short stories collected into a further 18 books. In total, there are 101 Biggles books. The stories are extremely exciting and make great reading.”
As a result they are highly collectable, particularly the first editions. Johns moved the character with the times, so after the initial First World War stories, Biggles had exciting adventures around the world until the outbreak of the Second World War when he commanded a Spitfire Squadron.
“At the end of the Second World War, Johns had the clever idea of Biggles becoming an Air Detective for Scotland Yard with the ‘Air Police’, so Biggles, with his ever-faithful companions, Algy, Ginger and Bertie, had an excuse to continue flying around the world solving mysteries and catching criminals,” Roger said.
After Johns’ death, the books’ popularity declined. Libraries considered them not politically correct and too jingoistic. However, they continue to be printed and collectors continue to search out rare, early editions.