I have collected girls’ annuals for many years now, having never forgotten the excitement on Christmas morning of feeling the familiar shape of a parcel, knowing it would be a Judy or Bunty or June or Princess annual. I’d have it read before breakfast. Then I’d read my sister’s.
Now I have around 350 annuals, bought in second-hand bookshops and jumble sales, spanning a hundred years of girlhood. Thanks to Mr Handyman putting up lots of new shelves last week I now have the whole collection together and can display some of the lovely covers face out. The names are as brilliant as the pictures: Topping Book for Girls, Girls’ Golden Annual, Girls’ Merry Book, Jolly Days for Girls, Our Girls’ Tip Top, Splendid Book for Girls, Stirring Stories for Girls. I feel merry and jolly just looking at them.
Some are stand-alone and some are allied to weekly magazines – I love the Girls’ Crystal and Schoolfriend annuals.
But closest to my heart, the one I’d rescue if the house were on fire, is Princess Gift Book for Girls 1965, falling apart because it was so pored over when I was the age in this picture.
Sadly, in the 1990s, when I had a daughter to buy magazines and annuals for, even those stalwarts Judy and Bunty were no more and what had replaced them were product/character-related publications none of which were topping or merry or jolly or stirring at all, just crassly commercial. The stories were banal and unambitious, apparently assuming that every little girl wanted to wear a pink dress and a sparkly plastic tiara and aspire to marry a Hollywood prince. And when girls were too old for the plastic tiara, the magazines/annuals were all about relationships, celebrities and worrying about your appearance.
Compare that narrow view of what life has to offer with Princess Gift Book for Girls 1965. Along with ‘Stories of Horses, of Islands, of Mystery, of the Circus’, there’s ‘The Tale of the Jackdaw of Rheims (in verse)’, ‘The History of the Fragrant Rose’, ‘How we made a film’, ‘Wendy’s year – full of things to make and do’ and much more.
However that varied list of contents pales into complete insignificance compared to The Girls’ Own Annual, Volume Fifty-Nine, edited by Gladys M. Spratt and weighing in at a whopping 620 pages. There isn’t a publishing date but the first item is ‘Earl Baldwin’s Call to Youth … delivered by the ex-Premier to ten thousand young men and women … at the great Empire Rally of Youth … May 1937’.
The contents list runs to three large pages in tiny type – dozens of stories and articles. Thinking about your appearance is catered for – eg ‘Hair, Take Care of Your’ and ‘Keep Fit’ (by Dr Victoria E. M. Bennett, M.B., B.S. (Lond.), D.P.H. (Cantab.) no less).
But other articles include: ‘Try four-handed chess’; ‘How to form a harmonica band’; ‘Alpine sporting’ ‘Careers: Dental mechanics, What about science?, Why not try Massage, Medical gymnastics, Electricity, Flying as a career for Girls … ’; and so on and so on … and on.
It’s easy to mock its earnestness (and even after reading the careers advice I’ve no idea what medical gymnastics are) but here, thirty years before a bra was burnt, the focus was on what a girl could do and be.
The real world had its barriers but in the world of Girls’ Own Annual girls could do and be anything they chose.
And that sounds jolly good to me.