Penguin Books : History
Publishers founded in 1935 by Allen Lane
in the crypt of Holy Trinity Church, Euston Rd. Near the end of 1937
they moved to new premises at Harmondsworth, Middlesex. became a public
company in 1956. In 1997 at 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ. Owned in
1997 by Pearson Media Group
A History of Penguin Books
1935 - 1997
[On 30 July 1935 the first ten Penguin paperback books appeared with a
Penguin on the cover.
These paperbacks were the brainchild of Allen Lane, then a Director of the Bodley Head, which distributed
the first Penguins against considerable opposition from the other publishers. However, at a
time when there was little by way of cheap entertainment, paperback books
brought classics and contemporary literature to a much wider reading public.
Each book cost 6d, which was the same price as a packet of cigarettes. For
many years after this paperback books were referred to as Penguins in the
same way that ballpoint pens were called Biros and vacuum cleaners, Hoovers.
The story goes that after a weekend spent with Agatha Christie
and her husband, the young Allen Lane searched Exeter
station's bookstall for something to read on the journey back to London.
Finding only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels, he was
finally convinced of the need for cheap editions of good-quality
contemporary writing. By the end of the month he had started approaching
London publishers for the rights to reprint their leading author's works in a new series.
Other publishers viewed his scheme with suspicion, fearing it would
undermine the market for hardbacks. Jonathan Cape was the first publisher
Lane persuaded to sell him the rights for this dubious project. In a
conversation many years later with Lane, Cape recalled his thinking at the
'I thought you were bound to go bust and thought I'd take four
hundred quid off you before you did'.
Allen Lane wanted a 'dignified but flippant' name for his new series,
suggesting an animal or a bird. After rejecting numerous suggestions, his
secretary Joan Coles, came up with the idea of a penguin. Edward Young of
the production department, later a war hero and author of the one thousandth
Penguin One of our Submarines, went off to London Zoo and returned with a
sketch of the new symbol.
The company, Penguin Books Ltd, was formed on 1 January 1936 with a
launch capital of £100. Premises were established in the crypt of
Holy Trinity Church in Euston Road and the dozen staff were paid 37/6 plus a
penny a day for a 46 hour week. The extra penny was to enable them to use
the public conveniences at Great Portland Street Station!
March 1936 saw the publication of the first non-fiction title, A Short
History of the World by H G Wells, a precursor to the Pelican List, and over
the next two years approximately fifty Penguin Specials were published
detailing with issues of public interest such as Searchlight on Spain and What Hitler Wants .
On Penguin's first birthday, 30 July 1936, Lane announced the sale of over 3
million books and a turnover of £75,000.
At the end of 1937 the company moved from Euston Road to a freehold site at
Harmondsworth. The land had a crop of cabbages growing on it and Lane
insisted on selling the vegetables as they matured to recoup part of the
outlay. On moving to Harmondsworth, Penguin staff found that the walls and
roof of the warehouse had been erected, but that only part of the floor had
been laid, so they had to pack and despatch 140,000 books a week while
picking their way around the cabbages until the crop was ready for market
and the building could be completed. Some years later Heathrow Airport was
built next door.]
1939 - 1970
[In November 1939 the first King Penguins appeared, and the 1940s
and 1950s saw the introduction of several new lists, the first of
which celebrated its 50th birthday in 1991 - Puffin, the largest selling and
extraordinary influential children's list. The first story, Worzel Gummidge
by Barbara Euphan Todd, is as popular as ever . Today 45% of all children's
paperback books sold are Puffins.
In July 1939 Penguin's New York office was established by Allen Lane, to
import and distribute British-originated books.
Penguin survived the hazards of war. Paper rationing , the loss of staff to
the forces and the disruption were all endured with spirit and resolve.
Allen Lane's brothers, John and Richard, had joined him in the venture;
tragically John was killed in the North African Landings of 1942. In 1955
Richard travelled to Australia to take over the running of what had grown
into a large and successful business. He remained a director until Penguin's
impending stock market flotation precipitated his early and doubtless
ill-advised resignation and sale of all his shares.
The 1950s and 1960s were a time of consolidation for Penguin.
Buildings of England, the unique assessment of all notable
architecture in England, compiled county by county mainly by Professor
Nikolaus Pevsner, was launched. Penguin lent him a 1933 Wolsey Hornet along
with a permit for thirty gallons of petrol, and with his wife as chauffeur
Professor Pevsner undertook to research and write the 46 volume series in
his university holidays. The series is now accepted as the standard work on
Britain's architectural heritage.
The Penguin Classics, began by E V Rieu's translation of The Odyssey in
1946, went from strength to strength and the series celebrates its 50th
anniversary in 1996. The Odyssey is still in print and was Penguin's
best-selling book until Lady Chatterley's Lover overtook it in 1961.
With the publication in 1961 of the first unabridged version of Lady
Chatterley's Lover Penguin was immediately charged under the Obscene
Publications Act which existed at that time. Against a backdrop of
tremendous publicity Penguin was acquitted and a turning point in censorship
laws in this country was reached. Penguin sold 2 million copies of Lady
Chatterley's Lover in the six weeks up to Christmas 1960 and a further 1.3
million copies during 1961
The main debate of the decade was the advantages of illustrated jackets
versus those of typographical design. On bookstalls everywhere Penguin's
tastefully designed jackets were battling against other firms best-sellers.
Eventually Tony Godwin, the youthful head of Penguin's editorial team,
persuaded Lane that illustrations were inevitable; Len Deighton was one
designer who worked on illustrated jackets in the early days.
In 1962 the company was launched on the Stock Exchange and at that time was
the most heavily over-subscribed company ever, with the share issue being
over-subscribed 160 times.
In 1967 the first Penguin hardback imprint was launched - The Allen
Lane Press. Even after Sir Allen Lane retired, he maintained an
active interest and involvement in the company until his death in July 1970.]
A History of Penguin Books
1970 - 1997
[The early 1970s saw a major change in the structure of the company with its
acquisition by Pearson plc. The origins of Pearson go back to 1844 when it
started as a family-owned building firm in Yorkshire. Today it is an
international enterprise quoted on the London Stock Exchange with interests
in information and entertainment, oil, banking and fine china. Within these
sectors are many well known names, such as the Longman publishing group,
including Ladybird and Pitman, the Financial Times and Madame Tussaud's.
Peter Mayer, a key figure in US publishing, was appointed Chief
Executive of Penguin in 1978. There followed a period of restructuring for
the company and the introduction of a new, more flexible style in editorial,
production and marketing which restored the company to its role as a vital
The 1980s saw more change for Penguin. From the original London offices in
Euston Road there had been no London office until the 1960s, when offices
were set up in John Street. From there the company moved to Northumberland
Avenue, Victoria, the Kings Road and then in 1986 to the current offices at
Wrights Lane Kensington
One reason for this move was the recent acquisitions. In 1983, Penguin took
over Frederick Warne, best known for its Beatrix Potter titles. Then two
years later Penguin acquired from Thomson International their
book-publishing division, including Michael Joseph and Hamish Hamilton. The
Penguin Group, as it became known was the largest publishing house in the
country at that time.
This period has also seen the introduction of new lists, including the
Twentieth-Century Classics series, complementing the Penguin Classics;
Arkana, the New Age list; Fantail, the mass-market Children's list, Blackie
Children's books and Ventura.
This period, like every other period in the company's history, has also seen
the publication of some controversial titles. Notable among these was
Spycatcher, published by Viking in the USA, which caused turmoil within the
establishment and the Secret Service on publication, not to mention Salman
Rushdie's The Satanic Verses .
This brings us up to the present day in a company which started with ten
distinctive paperbacks and is now a household name with the most diverse
list of books in the world, selling into more countries than any other
publisher and continuing the traditions of Sir Allen Lane by making books
available to everyone, all over the world.]