Exeter Station and a publishing revolution

What’s the connection between Exeter Station and a publishing revolution? Let’s be precise, it’s Exeter St David’s Station, there being other stations in Exeter. As I frequently pass through or catch a train to and from Exeter St David’s I was entranced to discover that it was the site where Penguin Books originated.

A book for the price of a packet of fags

The story goes that returning from a weekend with Agatha Christie, at Greenway above the River Dart, Allen Lane had to wait on the Exeter station platform. It was 1934. Already working for Bodley Head, frustrated by the shortage of cheap and portable books, and no doubt influenced by recent contact with a popular author he conceived the idea for the Penguin paperback. The paperback revolution began.

271 AllenLane

It was probably not so much the soft covers but the desire to produce books for the same price as a packet of cigarettes that contributed to the success of his idea. A note for younger readers: smoking was not at that time considered a danger to health or a socially unacceptable activity.

Not on our time

The idea was not immediately taken up enthusiastically by Allen Lane’s employers, Bodley Head. They did not think it would be successful, and required him to do the work for his publishing idea in his own time. Fortunately he had colleagues who did support the idea, including one who came up the idea of the slightly comic penguin that would become identified with the new format. One of the team was sent off to London Zoo to draw the penguin for the original colophon.

271 penguin

Later the format was expanded to Pelicans (non-fiction and blue) and Puffins (for children). The original orange covers of the Penguins later diversified into green for detective novels, black for classics, and other colours, such as purple for essays.


Allen Lane’s intentions were anti-elitist. In All About Penguin Books in The Bookseller May 1935 he said the project would be a success if

these Penguins are the means of converting book borrowers in to book-buyers.

He was, he said, aiming at nothing less than

the popularisation of the bookshop and the increased sale of books.

The first titles

Penguins Books began with ten titles.

  • Agatha Christie The Mysterious Affair at Styles
  • Dorothy L. Sayers The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
  • André Maurois Ariel
  • Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms
  • Mary Webb Gone to Earth.

Other authors were Susan Ertz, Compton Mackenzie, Eric Linklater, Beverley Nichols and E.H. Young.

According to a story in History Today, one enthusiastic reader was responsible for Penguin books being selected by the Woolworth’s buyer: Mrs Prescott.

A key moment came when the book buyer for Woolworth’s, a man named Prescott, was approached. He did not like the sample he was shown, but his wife’s enthusiastic reaction changed his mind (or so Penguin legend has it) and he ordered 63,500 copies. That meant that at least the first Penguins would not make a loss. (Richard Cavendish, History Today)

Another note to younger readers: Woolworth’s was an early version of Poundland-type shops but with a shade more class. It went under in the great bankers’ crash of 2008, and I’m not going to remind you about that, because you should know.

271 Allen Lane and Lady Chat

The trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence in 1960 was one of Penguin Books finest hours. The battle to have the book declared obscene was lost despite the claim made by the chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones that it was ‘not the kind of book you want your wife or servants to read’. Mrs Prescott probably turned in her grave.

Original Penguins Livery

You can still pick up early Penguins in second-hand shops. Most of mine have telltale pencil prices inside the cover, or addresses of previous owners, often institutions. The early editions are very attractive, irresistible even. I treasure mine. Don’t get excited about my copy of Ariel by Andre Maurois in the photograph. It’s a 1985 facsimile. The others are pre-war editions.

271 My penguins

Book sales at Exeter St David’s Station today

Allen Lane’s experiment was a success. For a time. Penguin Books has been swallowed up by the commercial publishing giant Random House. And at Exeter St David’s Station the only books sold today have to be tracked down in the dingy cave that is WH Smith’s. The book selection is at the far end of the shop, reached by squeezing through passengers buying magazines, sweets and fizzy drinks for their journey. The shop stocks best sellers, fiction and nonfiction. Nothing I was tempted to buy and I doubt whether Allen Lane would have thought much of the selection either.

271 ExStD

Ironically, at No 1 in the fiction shelves was Girl on a Train. I doubt I will ever read a book with ‘Girl’ in the title unless I am persuaded by someone whose judgement I trust.

Penguins I loved

My love of reading was fostered in the ‘50s and ‘60s by Puffins, and later by the Pelicans that no self-respecting teenager aspiring to be an intellectual would be without. I read Freud from them, and soon discovered ST Bindoff’s Tudor England. And on and on, through many adult novels, history books, polemics, art collections and suddenly here we are in 2016. Books, Penguin Books. And it all began at Exeter St David’s.

Related books and posts

JE Morpurgo Allen Lane, King Penguin.

Jeremy Lewis Penguin Special, The Life and Times of Allen Lane

Stephen Ware, ed Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors 1935-1970

Banning Books on this blog November 2015

Allen Lanes files are held at Bristol University Library


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Filed under Books, Books for children, Libraries, Reading, Travel with Books

12 Responses to Exeter Station and a publishing revolution

  1. Lovely post Caroline. It’s a long while since I’ve been through Exeter but should I ever go again I shall recall its place in history – such a shame it’s all bestsellers nowadays. And I miss Woolworths…

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment. I think I was indulging in some nostalgia, especially for a better time for the book publishing trade.

  2. Even though I knew the story it’s always fascinating to hear it. Lovely pics of your books- I treasure my early Penguins. Great, simple design.

    • Caroline

      Thanks Simon. I am always surprised at how few pennies the originals cost and how many pounds I musty to acquire them. I am a little more discerning now than I used to be and buy copies of things I actually want to read. But I do have two copies of A Rom of One’s Own. I treasure then both!
      It’s a good story.

  3. Thanks for sharing this story, Caroline. I wasn’t aware of it. It’s fascinating. Whose love affair with books didn’t begin with a Puffin or a Penguin! It’s great to know a little more history behind the popularization of reading and making books available to and affordable by the general public.

    • Caroline

      And how sad that cheaper books seem to be disappearing, or the price reductions make it impossible for writers to earn a living by their pen.
      Thanks for your comment Norah.

  4. Lovely post.
    Just to let you know, I’ve read The Girl on the Train. You don’t have to.

  5. Brilliant post! I love those old Penguin covers. They fly in the face of everything that new book designers are taught on their graphics degrees – no genre specific stuff here, thanks! And I’ve read the Penguin volume of Freud that includes his essay on the uncanny 🙂

    Funny to think paperbacks started in a train station, and now one of the biggest secondhand book shops in the country is in a train station!

    • Caroline

      So which bookstore is that? Not Exeter St David’s, I know.

      And thanks for the design comment. I noticed that both the penguin and the lettering changed within the first decade or so. But it is a satisfying design.

      Thanks for the comment. Come back again soon.

  6. Terry Tyler

    I really love this post, a great piece of nostalgia. I feel the same about books with the word ‘girl’ in the title…!

    I thought your asides to younger readers a well thought out idea ~ I’m an occasional smoker and one who contributed to the sad decline in the licensed trade since 2007, by stopping going to pubs that didn’t have a comfortable and warm smoking shelter. I do still see youngsters in school uniform walking to school, puffing away, though… perhaps it’s become more attractive now that it’s been demonised!

    • Caroline

      Thanks Terry, glad you liked this. And for your confirmation of the idea of addressing younger readers. It is amazing how many things they need to have explained.

      I think young people have always smoked as a protest against their elders. They certainly did in the 1950s and since that time.


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