Being the sort of universal hack that I am (when it comes to writing history), in the days before the internet I always needed a handy guide to various counties which would give me a little local colour combined with compressed highly reliable fact. I always found Arthur Mee too cumbersome and The King’s England series likewise. Instead at an early age (by liberating a couple of volumes from the shelves of a relative) I came to realise that the perfect combination was to be met with in Shell Guides.
The series began in June 1934 with Cornwall, which the publishers, the Architecture Press, selected John Betjeman to write. The sponsor was the oil company Shell; whose slogan then was ‘Shell: the Key to the Countryside’, in essence explains their willingness to under-write the series. Although the 1934 Cornwall was pretty simple: spiral bound, 62 pages, and not a few errors and omissions, the format stabilised the following year with its revised edition as hard backed 7×91/4 inches with colourful dust-wrapper, glossy paper, an introduction, pace-by-place gazetteer and a lot of excellent black & white photographs.
The series was continued until 1984, by which time about half the country had been covered. The series was sponsored by the oil company Shell. The original guides were published on a county-by-county basis, under the editorial control of the poet John Betjeman and (later) his friend the artist John Piper. There were 13 pre-war titles, the publisher changing fairly soon to B T Batsford and then in 1939 to Faber & Faber who continued until 1984. In 1939 all the previous twelve titles were re-issued and one new one in the same format: David Verey’s Gloucestershire.
The next one planned was Shropshire to be co-written by Betjeman and Piper. However, the Second World War intervened. Post-war, every bit of Wales was covered in five different titles. But it was not until 1951 that the series re-started with Shropshire. Jack Beddington, Shell’s advertising manager, was long involved with the Shell Guides and his influence led to the employment of so many artists: John and Edward Piper, John and Paul Nash and so on.
From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, a series of general titles under the Shell Guide banner were also produced, covering most of the countries in northwest Europe. Guides to subjects such as rivers, islands, viewpoints, archaeology, gardens, flowers, history, wildlife and museums were also published, but these rather lie outside the collectors’ ambit.
In 1987, Shell issued a final series of New Shell Guides, published by Michael Joseph and generally covering rather larger areas (e.g. Northern Scotland and the Islands) than in the earlier series. Whilst the original Shell County Guides are now highly collectible, the later titles (published by Faber & Faber, Ebury Press or Michael Joseph) tend to be shunned by collectors and book dealers alike, as supply exceeds demand. Also, since 2012 the Heritage Shell Guide Trust has been set up to re-start the series, beginning with West Yorkshire by William Glossop in 2012, a complete revision (due to boundary changes of the 1974 West Riding volume. It is too early to say whether these will become collectible, but all those I have seen are in paperback, are unlikely to be much sought after.
The real joy of the original series, apart from the photographs, are the authors. You can see John Betjeman clambering on and off various hobbyhorses as he takes you, in the most gentle and civilised way, round his beloved Cornwall. As editor, his view was that the guides were all about
‘Readers will want to know what a place looks like now. Is it ruined with poles and wires? Has an old bridge been destroyed and a concrete one put in its place?’”
Another regular author of the guides was the late Revd. Henry Thorold, whom Carole and I got to know well. He, too was a friend of John Piper (who landscaped his garden at Marston Hall, Lincolnshire) and of Betjeman, although his circle of acquaintances was staggeringly wide. He too, writes like Betjeman, amusingly, perceptibly, heart on sleeve and, like Sir John, his intimate knowledge of the five counties he wrote up was astonishing.
Henry’s first effort was (with Jack Yates) Lincolnshire; on seeing which Betjeman wrote gleefully:
‘It is far the best of the Shell Guides so far and the text is really good too. We have got Pevsner on the run.’
He also wrote, Derbyshire, Durham, Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire (the last of the original series published), photographs mainly by Piper. The series was pulled by Shell in 1984 with Bedfordshire not quite ready for the press: it never appeared.
Although many were reprinted in paperback, the original spiral bound card or hardback ones are those that are collectible. Even more so if you were lucky enough the get the author to sign you copies; I have never been pushy like that, but on a visit to Marston I later discovered that he had signed the two I’d brought and given us three others I had not even got round to buying! Likewise, when I lived in London, a friend who knew Betjeman well got Cornwall (1964 revision) signed.
These signatures are the key to value, as some authors like Betjeman, Piper, Thorold, David Verey, Professor W G Hoskins, and so on were very well known in their own right. A Piper or Betjeman-signed pre-war edition is going to soar past £300 and do almost as well if it is a later edition (condition being right). The lesser, but still well-known, authors are probably going to command a premium of £30-40 over the value of an unsigned one. Largely speaking, signed copies are extremely rare.
Prices for the unsigned pre-war spiral or comb-bound card covered editions (which frequently fail to survive) are upwards of £50 today, but a really good one could go for over £300, but the hard bound copies can still be had for around £30in reasonable condition.
Pre-war Faber editions are scarce because war interrupted their re-issue, so they can go for £75-£200 depending on condition. Post-war, Piper and Betjeman collectors tend to vie for copies, pushing the price of early ones up: Shropshire to £60-100, Oxfordshire (1953) £120 plus. Rutland with only 52 pages might make you pause before paying out £50 plus, but it is very scarce, despite its slimness.
Strangely enough, these slim but delightful guides rarely come up at auction. Here at Bamfords when we have seen them, they have been lotted together in a general sale, but I think that is beginning to change now. Were some desirable ones to appear now, we would assign them to one of our very popular Library, or Gentleman’s sales, which would certainly do them justice. Nevertheless, they do still appear in jumble sales, bring-and-buys, and the less elevated type of antique fair, so keep your eyes peeled: you can still find them, if a little tired, for under a fiver, but leave the post 1984 ones alone if you’re a collector