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John Lane (1854-1925) and Elkin Mathews (1851-1921) set up in partnership in 1887 to trade in antiquarian books. They opened a business in London and decided in 1894 to also publish for themselves. They set up 'The Bodley Head' - named after Sir Thomas Bodley (after whom the Bodleian Library in Oxford was named) the bust of whom sat above the door of their shop. On the death of Elkin Mathews in 1921 'The Bodley Head' became a private company run by John Lane.

Allen Lane Williams (who became the founder of Penguin Books) was born on 21st September 1902 in Bristol. He was the eldest son of a town planner, who came from Wales and his mother, who came from Devon and was from farming stock. He went to school in Bristol, but was not much interested in school work and studies and left school at the age of 14 with no academic qualifications. His mother (after whom he took his middle name) was a cousin of John Lane. She suggested that Allen think about the book business and she arranged for her son and John Lane to meet. Apparently John Lane was greatly impressed by this young boy. John and his wife had no children of their own and so he agreed a plan that Allen and his family should adopt the surname of 'Lane' and that he could come and learn the trade and work in the family business which, one day, would be inherited by him.

He was persuaded to go back to school for a couple of years, finally leaving Bristol Grammar School in April 1919. Like Dick Whittington, he went to London to seek his fortune, and as Allen Lane Williams Lane started in the family business on 27th April 1919.

Allen Lane worked his way through a variety of jobs in the company and went on to meet some of the authors he was later to use in his new venture. In September 1923, at the relatively young age of 21, he was made a director of the company and sat on the Board. In 1925, following the death of his uncle he became managing editor. As a business The Bodley Head was in poor shape, and a couple of times it nearly went bankrupt. He was not much liked by the other older Directors and they thought him rather impulsive in his decisions. He finally left the company after a disagreement over whether to publish James Joyce's controversial book Ulysses in 1936.

The Birth of Penguin Books

The story goes that in 1934 he was returning by train from a weekend visit to Agatha Christie in Devon. He found himself on the platform of Exeter station and was not able to find any book worth reading. While travelling back to London he had the idea of producing good quality literature which could be cheap enough for a larger public to be able to buy, and could, perhaps be sold from a vending machine. He thought sixpence (the cost of a packet of ten cigarettes at the time) would be the right price at which to pitch the books. He broached this subject to his brothers and they agreed.

Allen Lane took his idea to the Board of The Bodley Head who were not convinced and refused to back it. Respectable publishers such as them viewed paperbacks as 'dirty rubbish' and would have nothing to do with it. They did, however, rather grudgingly agree to let Allen lane pursue this rather dubious project in his own spare time. He then tried other publishers without success. There was some doubt as to whether the project would be a commercial success. It was argued that those who wanted good quality books would pay more for hard-back books which they would keep. Those who wanted inexpensive books - seen as those wanting cheap fiction - would not be keen on purchasing established 'literature'. Allen persevered with his idea. After discussion they came up with the name of 'Penguin Books', and Edward Young, at that time a junior editor at The Bodley Head drew up the attractive and familiar design of the 'penguin' logo. Contracts were drawn up for 20,000 copies of each title. The three brothers set about the task of getting in the orders. They would not be able to survive long if their predictions were wrong. In fact, advanced orders for the first ten books were no more than 7,000 a volume, less than half what was needed for the company to be sustained. Allen Lane tried to think of where he might be able to sell his books apart from the usual booksellers - there were chains of news agents, department stores and stores like Woolworth's. He managed to get them to take a few dozen copies for each of their London stores.

In July 1935 the first ten Penguin Books were launched. These were books already published and known to be fairly popular - detective novels by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, an autobiography by Beverly Nichols. The two most prestigious books were Ernest Hemmingway's war novel A Farewell to Arms, and the biography of Shelley Ariel written by André Maurois. The first ten Penguins were an immediate success - through a range of outlets - sold by bookstalls, bookshops and also department and chain stores. Within a couple of weeks of the launch Woolworth's alone asked for a further 63,000 copies. The venture had become a success and 'Penguin Books' were here to stay. Most of the titles sold out fairly quickly and had to be re-printed and Allen Lane went ahead with more titiles.

The Growth of Penguin Books

Allen Lane parted company with The Bodley Head and on the 1st of January 1936 set up his own limited company 'Penguin Books Ltd.' as a private firm with one hundred pounds nominal capital and he and his two brothers (Richard and John) as directors. He resigned as a director of The Bodley Head a few months later.

By June 1937 Penguin had published its hundredth book - infact two volumes of its Travel and Adventure series nos. 99 and 100 The Worst Journey in the World. Also by then Penguin were keen to start publishing more educational style books and so the decision was taken to publish PELICAN BOOKS - the title probably coming from the fact that many of the people who wrote to 'Penguin Books Ltd' got the name wrong and called the company 'Pelican Books'. The brand was already in the mind of the public and Penguin did not want a competitor to steal the name. The first of these educational and non-fiction books ['A' series] appeared in May 1937 and was George Bernard Shaw's The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. The author wrote a new section for the Pelican edition on Sovietism and Fascism.

Allen developed relationships with many well known authors, printing their books - later sometimes in batches of 10 volumes, each with 100,000 copies - thus Penguin might issue a million books for one author. Penguin did this with Agatha Christie, G. B. Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells and others. There were well know authors who had their books published in Pelican. Élie Halévy, Julian Huxley, James Jeans, Clive Bell and Arnold Bennett.

Also in April 1937, Penguin went ahead with the publication of the first six PENGUIN SHAKESPEARE plays ['B' series], followed in August by another six. This clearly signalled Penguin's intention of becoming a major producer of textbooks for schools and colleges.

Later in the same year, another milestone was achieved with the publication of PENGUIN SPECIALS. By 1937 the world was gearing itself up for armed conflict, the Fascists in Spain, Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy. Penguin commissioned authors and experts to write on the current issues of the day. These books were of a more 'political' nature. The first PENGUIN SPECIAL ['S' Series] appeared on the shelves in November 1937 entitled Germany Puts the Clock Back. Till the end of the war 155 books were published in the Specials series, many of which sold up to a quarter of a million copies.


Soon after Allen Lane and his brothers started up their own business space became a problem. While Allen still worked from his own office at The Bodley Head in Vigo Street, they needed somewhere to receive the printed books from the printers and package them up for transport to the retailers. In 1936 they acquired the crypt of the Holy Trinity Church in Marylebone Road. This functioned as the warehouse for Penguin Books for the next 18 months. Eventually even that space became insufficient and conditions in the crypt were difficult and slightly unsafe. As the business grew it was decided to move out of London and to build the offices they needed and the warehouse space all on one site. They found and purchased a three-and-a-half acre site at Harmondsworth, close to what became Heathrow Airport, for £2,000 (for the land) and a further £200 for the farmer's crop of cabbages on it. New building commenced in 1937.

Further Reading includes:

Author: lecture given by Clare Morpurgo
The 2006 Allen Lane lecture given to the Allen Lane Foundation


Number: Q21
Series No.: Q21
Title: THE PENGUIN STORY (A brief account of the development of Penguin Books published to mark its 21st birthday in July 1956)
Author: Sir William Emrys Williams CBE
Designed: by the Penguin typographer Hans Schmoller
Illustrations: most photographs by Guy Gravett; diagrams by Irwin Fabian
Date Published: July 1956
Pages: 128p. + 24p.
Printers: Hunt, Barnard and Co Ltd; Collogravure by Harrison and Sons Ltd; line illustrations by John Swain and Son Ltd;
Price: 1/-

The history of the development of Penguin Books.
This book includes a complete catalogue of the publications of Penguin Books from 1935 to 1956

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