William The Conkerer


In a world where everyone in media is searching for intellectual properties coming out of copyright, here’s a character who has hardly ever been away.

Writers of children’s books have to tread a fine line. They need their lead characters to be interesting and a little wayward, but if they’re too wild the wrath of parents and librarians will be incurred. Too soft, and their target audience will lose interest.

Certain schoolboy heroes from the past have fallen from fashion, the victims of changing attitudes; the once hugely popular Billy Bunter books, about a fat food-obsessed schoolboy, have been expunged from history. Happily, several of Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ books are available in reprint, although they are now a minority taste that probably appeals to older fans with a pronounced sense of nostalgia.

This is a shame, for they’re far better than you’d expect them to be. In a recent poll of favourite children’s books by five children’s laureates, the good-hearted scruffpot William trounced Harry Potter, who did not feature at all.

Most readers thought Richmal Crompton Lamburn was a man (her name combined both her grandparents’ names), and so shy was the author that she did not disabuse them of the notion. Born in Lancashire in 1890, she trained as a school teacher, but gave it up after losing the use of her right leg through polio (she still joined the Fire Service during the war though). The first William story appeared in Home magazine in 1919, and she continued writing them throughout her life, the last being published in 1970, after her death.

The image of an anarchic, disruptive schoolboy shown with his cap askew and tie undone graced nearly forty volumes of exploits. Crompton wrote for adults too, but her lasting claim to fame is William Brown, whose adventures were populated with a gang of rebels called the Outlaws, including Ginger, Henry, Douglas and the awful frilly, lisping Violet Elizabeth (catchphrase; ‘I’m going to thcream and thcream until I’m thick!’) who was appropriately played in the television adaptation by Bonnie Langford.

There’s something touching about a writer who never married producing books beloved by children. With a certain amount of boring inevitability, Crompton’s books were later attacked by critics for being irrelevant and middle class, as if being able to write well was itself a liability. One reader points out that nowadays the books aren’t a very easy read for preteens because they are peppered with neologiosms and words like ‘epicurean’, ‘apoplectic’ and ‘discoursing’, to which I say, ‘Look ’em up’.

But ‘Just William’ hadn’t been aimed at children, at least not at the start. There’s one story now regarded as politically sensitive (in fact satire on the war) involving Nazis and a Jewish shopkeeper, that gets docked from republication.

To his distant, weary parents William is an eleven year-old alien whose every motivation is a mystery. He’s a wild child, a powerhouse of misdirected energy, hurtling hither and thither, hacking down his mother’s plants to give to a favoured teacher, failing maths because when a question starts; ‘You give your best friend £100…’ his immediate reaction is to explain that he only has thruppence.

But of course, William’s rebelliousness – performing a conjuring trick with an egg that goes wrong, trying to arrange a marriage for his sister or planning to sell Ginger’s twin brothers as slaves to raise money – are still mild compared to the minefield of cyber-bullying dangers facing modern parents. But perhaps an updated version, ‘William and the Crack Dealers’, featuring an amphetamine-high schoolboy wielding a sharpened screwdriver instead of a catapult, might rob the books of their childhood charms.

7 comments on “William The Conkerer”

  1. Roger says:

    It was nostalgia for the William books that inspired Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman to create the background village and children for Good Omens.
    Unfortunately, it looks like only the AntiChrist can restore the lost innocence of childhood.
    Oddly enough, I found myself wondering whether Le Grand Meaulnes is the French equivalent of William. Both have the same air of nostalgia for the unobtainable.

    Into my heart an air that kills
    From yon far country blows:
    What are those blue remembered hills,
    What spires, what farms are those?

    That is the land of lost content,
    I see it shining plain,
    The happy highways where I went
    And cannot come again.

  2. Martin Tolley says:

    William wasn’t always approved of in his day either. As a small boy I remember an encounter with the Issue Desk Dragon of my local library. I handed over a William, to be asked rather severely – “Does your mother know you’re reading books like these?” I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember her long “mmmmmm” and her squinting over the bridge of her nose, the cover of the book being opened with a middle fingernail, the issue card being taken out with the barest of contact, and the stamped book being pushed towards me with her hands curled so only finger nails made contact with it.

  3. Chris says:

    One of the remembered pleasures of the William books was the cast of minor characters – social types of the day. Typically a newcomer will take on one of the outlying village cottages and – to the incomprehension of William and the outlaws – the male version will appear in a bohemian artists smock complete Augustus John beard and sandals, the female with tweeds and brogues or whimsical Isadora Duncan outfits. They will be vegetarians and fresh air fanatics. William sees them as a challenge and as so often determines to be of assistance…..

    Even if these memories are completely invented (50 years after reading) I have no doubt that the long-running feud with Hubert Lane and the Laneites is not bettered in any literature.

    Richmal Crompton has written at least one novel aimed just for adults but I suspect here is another example of a great writer coming up with a character which grows to outshine them.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    I never much cared for the ‘Just William’ books, to be honest. I much preferred the ‘Jennings’ books, which I first read when I was about nine or ten. They made me laugh, especially when there was bad spelling about, and none more so than on the notice that the headmaster types out so atrociously in ‘Jennings’ Little Hut’:


    In fiyuTure, no buys will be PreMnitted to bluild
    nuts in the A£5rea uf the pond? AND
    The area will BE plavced OU98t of hounds 1/2%.
    Of course, then I discovered the ‘Molesworth’ books, where terrible spelling is the norm, as ane fule kno. Our school library had them, but they were frowned upon at the main library. A Molesworh book features the first use of the word ‘Hogwarts’ by the way. It is a pla wot Nigel have wrote.

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    Hem, hem; Nigel Molesworth new evry trick in the book as well as Latin which is very useful to Confuse people, masters ect ( See Gove minor a wet of the first order who hides from games and Grayling who likes to wreck other peoples train sets).

    William Brown is much closer to Bertie Wooster in his inability to quite comprehend exactly what is going on in the world around him and his attempts to help being hopelessly misconstrued, his physical world is clearly defined by the 1930’s detached suburban village but close enough for pater to work in ‘Town’.

    I too remember Jennings and his pal Darbyshire but also recall Wodehouse’s P’Smith – all great stuff

    Schoolboy/schoolgirl fiction seems to have gone completely sometime before 1990 and probably died at about the same time as Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart took over Crackerjack. ( Does anyone have any recollection of Peter Glaze ever being funny?).

    The astonishing thing is that lots of working class, comprehensive school kids bought into it all.

    I’ve got a bunch of pals (all in their 60’s) who still refer to people they don’t like as ‘Hubert Laneites’.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    My only good memory of Peter Glaze off of off’ve ‘Crackerjack’, is that he played an alien called a ‘Sensorite’ in an extremely good 1964 Doctor Who story, called, imaginatively: ‘The Sensorites’. On ‘Crapperjack’ Mr Glaze did use to shout out ‘Doh!’ when hit, rather in the manner of the early comedy movie star, boss-eyed Ben Turpin, rather than Homer Simpson. Saying that, Glaze was not as funny as either of these gentlemen.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Somehow boarding school stories have been just as as popular as in Britain amongst children who have never seen a boarding school student and for whom uniforms are purely imaginary. ( I’m not sure why we have such a negative attitude toward uniforms.) The attrraction probably has to do with having a world in which children with skill and imagination can actually have their own private life without adult messes confusing things.

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