Solipsism and Me

Idle reports from an idle fellow

Molesworth: the early years

with 16 comments

Like most people brought up in the 1950s, I have always had a soft spot for the work of Nigel Molesworth, self styled goriller of 3b, whose outpourings about life at St Custards struck a chord for anyone who’s ever been a small boy in a large institution run in what he suspects to be a not entirely disinterested or benevolent manner. I had also always assumed (without thinking much about it) that the four books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle published between 1953 and Willans’ untimely decease in 1958 constituted, as the compendium volume is entitled,  “the Compleet Molesworth” (published 1959, and reprinted to universal acclaim — except in the LRB — in 2000). But this turns out not to be the case, and not only because of the continued presence of that indomitable spirit in the person who tweets as @reelmolesworth.

The published Molesworth books brought together pieces which Willans and Searle had published previously in a magazine called Young Elizabethan, an interesting title aimed at the generation not yet known as teenagers, under the benign editorship of Kaye Webb, coincidentally Searle’s partner. But there is another and earlier Molesworth to be discovered, who belongs to a still more distant generation. I found him the other day, while browsing through wartime copies of the magazine Punch for another project.

Willans was a regular, if sporadic, contributor to Punch during the late thirties and early forties. The majority of his pieces reveal the young Molesworth in all his glory, almost fully formed as early as  1939. Some of the characters may have different names, but much of the phrasing and all of the attitude is already firmly in place. Here’s a taster of the earliest piece I found, dated 9 Aug 1939:

May 6. Arrived back at school. Started to cry and went into jim to wear it off. Ragged in jim but was stoped by Mr Trimp (headmaster) and recived conduc mark chiz. Rember have some cigs in plabox and endevore to remove them but Mr Gates (geog) sees me and says what have you there, nothing sir honestly, I say you can see if you want to sir. He say I trust you molesworth but he follow me when I go out chiz. Will have to wait. Went on raging and mucked about and after tea went and had reeding Mr Trimp read Dr syn. Quite a good book every body gets murded. Mr Trimp says it will be fine tomow.

May 7. It rained.

May 27. Morning frightful lessons. Weedy french Way Mr Trimp tells us to rember this
je suis I am a pot of jam
Tu a he is a botle of fizz
II est thou art an apple tart etc.:
Played cricket blowed three wide 8 no-balls. Caught Jenkins with a catch great cheers rose. I am in fuste but have my cigs and slosh in order to get out. Hit boundary and Mr Oates says well hit but keep a strate bat. I was l.b.w.(it shot) and take cigs into rodendhon bushes but Mr Oates shout what are you doing in there molesworth. Catching may bugs i reply. He belive me (sap) but not worth it to light cigs then. Borrow Pearsons bat it has three springs and play tip and run. I like foopbal bes.

Here’s another snippet, from the 27 Dec 1939 issue, giving us Molesworth’s take on the “phoney war”: complete with tuough evacuees, air raid alerts, and weedy nazis.

Sept. 3. War declared. 3 tuoughs arrive from Bermingham who are put in Spare room they are awful. They pute out there tongues at me so when mum not looking i scrap them. Chiz. They overcome me but oldest blub and sa he tell his ma. others say ya sissie then oldest hit them and all blub. Ern say his father is a rober (swank) Arch runs about with no trousis he is not going to be a gentlman and at cricket they all slosh and touogh each other up.

Sept. 16. Uncle come in uniform weedy private. Now i say you will haf to kill as many germans as the last war and as that was 5030 you will be hard pute to it. Uncle tell how he kaptured ten germans on the Som but Ern creep up and let off toy pistle with cap and uncle jump like anything three feet actually. He chase Ern who hide in walnut tree but give Arch 6 Cheers Ern say his father a murderer he murded 3 old ladies in their bath and strwth the blud was awful.

Sept. 19. Arch has catpillar he has tamed.

Sept. 24. Back to school weedy school. Peason and me we rage in the jim and he say stinker (Mr. Cutler) and Sergent Buble also gone to join up which is enough to pute the germans off. mr Trimp (headmaster) still here but new master is awful as he deaf and face like a monky. Schwarz, german boy say war is just british proper-gander and hitler win india paris and magninot line. Deaf master agree with him but i do not think he hear. Fotherington-tomas has brought back fairy cycle weedy. Mr. trimp say poland not really beaten.

Sept. 25. 7760400 secs to end of term.

Nov. 10. Air-rade warning. Masters tremble and scram, xcept deaf master who asleep in his room. All boys very heroical and I offer cig card solder of the british Realm to chap who hear first gun. Pearson avacutates white mice which he sa very sussetptible to poson gas. We hear fighting planes— hurricanes—but only deaf master snoring. At last Mr trimp comes and say all into the air-rade shelter all to the shelter dubble. He dash in first (head­masters all the same) and is knee deep in water cheers conduc mark laughing (manners) Very fusty in shelter and white mice perish. We stand on benches but nazis do not come moan groan they are weedy.

Nov. 18. Schwarz has face like a stuffed tomato.

Nov. 20. The new bugs are like girlies awful ticks. They hold hands with deaf master and also Mr trimp and mr Gates (geog). they belive in faires and santa claus. They tell deaf master stories about Snow Wite and the 7 dwarffs and he say they are delightful (sap) Deaf master rember about deten amo moneo rego and give me twice chiz. I get new bugs in croner and make them scrap Schwarz. He say wait till hitler gets to London.

If like me you have access to an almost complete run of Punch up to 1945, you can find Molesworthiana at the following locations:

10 Apr 1940 pp 408-9 Molesworth Detective
15 May 1940 pp 532-3 Molesworth and the Wicked Grandmother
3 July 1940 pp 10-11 Molesworth the Problem Child
20 Nov 1940 pp 498-9 Molesworth and the Battle of Britain (concludes “10000000 secs to Xmas and boo to Germans”)
5 Feb 1941 pp 144-5 Another Slice of Molesworth
2 Jul 1941 p 17 Molesworth Excelsior
6 Aug 1941 p 112 Molesworth Madcap
27 Aug 1941 p 188 Molesworth: Man or Beast?
22 Oct 1941 pp 354-5 Molesworth of Red Gulch
10 Dec 1941 pp 508-9 Molesworth the Fashionplate
24 Dec 1941 pp 564-5 Molesworth of the Remove
18 Mar 1942 p 219 Molesworth the Dog Fancier (“Mar. 7. Days wear on dogs bulls chickens and land girls haf shoulders to wheel. ermintrude sa always darkest before dawn but i am browned off i shall be in the army soon . Decide to run away to skool. GOSH”)
20 May 1942 pp 416-7 Molesworth and the Domestic Problem
29 July 1942 p 82 Molesworth’s Jolliest Term
9 Dec 1942 pp 484-5 Molesworth or Little by Little

According to Penguin, Willans may have also contributed Molesworth materials to the now long-forgotten magazine Lilliput, but I haven’t tracked any copies of that down yet. I wonder if I can persuade someone to finance publication of the Molesworth Juvenilia? o go on on you mite


Written by Lou

July 26, 2010 at 18:43

Posted in humanities

Tagged with , ,

16 Responses

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  1. ” I wonder if I can persuade someone to finance publication of the Molesworth Juvenilia?”

    the costs are minimal. self-publish it as eBook through Apple’s iBookstore, charge £1.99, and the job is done.

    I can find a designer for you.

    Sebastian Rahtz

    July 26, 2010 at 21:56

  2. What a find! Good luck with publishing – I’d buy a copy :)))

    Heather Cawte

    July 27, 2010 at 15:35

  3. Is is out of copyright? I don’t off the top of my head know the rules for the UK, but life of the author plus x years is the general formula, so it probably depends when he died. If not out of copyright you can’t just publish yourself as an ebook!


    July 28, 2010 at 9:17

    • It’s certainly not out of copyright, since Willans died less than 70 years ago. Punch also may have rights in the materials, depending on the contract Willans made with them originally. Punch was bought by the Al Fayed group a few years ago, and they also own a small company which currently market reproductions of the cartoons from Punch. I am starting my enquiries by approaching the Willans estate though.


      July 28, 2010 at 11:56

  4. I’d buy – and I’m sure if @reelmolesworth got involved we could raise the funds in no time…


    July 28, 2010 at 10:06

    • You know something about @reelmolesworth that I don’t? Is secret millionaire perhaps?


      July 28, 2010 at 11:56

  5. Splendid stuff! I think I prefer Young Nigel as the hardened cynic of his later years though. First the WAR then the PUKON and his TREENS is it one thing after anuther hem hem i must sa.

    Bill S. Preston

    July 28, 2010 at 10:30

  6. Some of this turns up in the Punch Book of Kids…. Molesworth’s Jolliest Term is definitely in there.


    July 28, 2010 at 14:11

    • Aha! that’s interesting… thanks for the lead! The Punch Book of Kids seems to be an anthology edited by Alan Coren in 1974. I can see I am going to have to spend a few days in the Bod.


      July 28, 2010 at 14:28

      • Lou, Did you get any further with this? As you can see from my e-mail address, I’m a Molesworth fan, and would love to see the Diaries published.

        Robert Kirkpatrick

        January 27, 2011 at 10:49

      • Well, I made some enquiries of the Willans estate (or at least the agency which deals with them) and they didn’t seem to know who had rights in the material. I asked another literary agent of my acquaintance and she suggested I should ask Mr Punch, but I am not too sure about who’s pulling his strings (so to speak) these days. She also suggested the society of Authors. The simplest way forward might be just to post the material and see what happens 🙂 A blog would seem the natural format… I can do that easily now I have all the text in digital form. It would be nice to add some new illustrations and someone else commented here that they might be interested in doing that. What do you think?


        January 28, 2011 at 11:40

  7. Hi Lou, a chum of mine directed me to your post. I’m a Molesworthian cartoonist who does a mean Searle parody – so if you fancy having your tome illustrated, you can drop me an email…


    July 28, 2010 at 19:24

  8. Lou, glad to hear you’re doing it properly! I’d be really happy to buy the book if it gets published 🙂


    July 29, 2010 at 1:17

  9. […] important literary discovery is reported by Solipsism and Me. A host of early Molesworth pieces by Geoffrey Willans that appeared in Punch but have never been […]

    Six of the Best 82

    August 4, 2010 at 21:03

  10. I’ve just discovered that the copyright to the Molesworth Diaries rests with Punch – who are still a going concern as a cartoon repository. I’ve had a couple of e-mails to this effect. Are you still interested in publishing the diaries? I’d be willing to help.

    Robert Kirkpatrick

    January 11, 2012 at 19:14

  11. It seems to me that this website doesnt load up in a Motorola Droid. Are other people having the exact same problem? I enjoy this site and dont want to have to miss it when Im gone from my computer.


    June 6, 2012 at 16:23

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