The History Of Ladybird Books

(Notes from a presentation by David of The Arran Alexander Collection at The Gateway to the Glens Museum at Kirriemuir, Angus on the 7th March 2013 as part of World Book Day)

This is a story of a Brittish company which dominated the Children’s Book market throughout the latter part of the twentieth century. Ladybird Books became a household name, not only in the UK but throughout the World.

This is a short history which will show how they began, how they became a great success and a little on their current situation.

Ladybird Books were published in Loughborough, a market town situated between Leicester and Nottingham .In the 19th Century Loughborough was a prosperous market town. There was a tradition in the town of small printing businesses. In 1846 it is recorded that there were 4 such printers in the town. These businesses changed their owners frequently.

In 1850 Henry Wills was born in Narborough which was a nearby village. He was one of eleven children of a local schoolmaster.

At the time he was growing up a printer called John Gray was learning his trade in Loughborough.  As he expanded his business he looked for a site for new premises. He chose a site just off the Market Place in Angel Yard.
Around 1870 young Henry Wills purchased a stationers shop at 4/5 Market Place. The shop did well. The Angel Yard was close by and Gray who was not in the best of health, offered and sold the entire Angel Press printing business to Wills.

Henry Wills was just 23 when he took over the printers. It was about this time that he married a young girl from Bath called Kate Webb and after they married they lived above the shop in Market Place.

The business was good, by 1881 he employed 21 people. He diversified, as well as being a bookseller and stationer he did picture framing, supplied office accessories, sold newspapers, magazines and provided a wide range of commercial printing. For a short time he ran a branch of Mudie’s Lending Library, which charged a small annual fee and he also housed the town's newly opened telephone exchange.

This was a time of great change. It was the height of the industrial revolution. Railways,  the telephone and massive improvements to public health with the provision of a water supply and a sewerage system all came to the town. Market Place was a very busy place holding a weekly street market and there was a nearby cattle market.

William Hepworth was born in 1877. His father was a stationer in Kidderminster. Around 1903 the young William Simpson Hepworth followed in his father’s footsteps and went into partnership with Henry Wills. It is not clear how they met or how the partnership came about but by 1904 there is evidence that they were partners in a business called Wills and Hepworth.

What is not commonly known is that in 1905 Henry Wills retired and sold out of the business to Hepworth. Whilst the business retained the name Wills and Hepworth, Henry Wills played no part in it and is believed to have died shortly before the Great War in 1913.

It was the First World War that was to usher a change in direction for the business. As the commercial printing work slowed William Hepworth realised that he had to find ways of keeping the presses rolling. He decided that they would publish “Pure and Healthy Literature for Children”. In 1916 he registered the name “LADYBIRD”.

The first books appeared around 1915 and included titles such as “Tiny Tots Travels” and 'Hans Anderson’s Fairy Tales”. These early books were large A4 size books. They were published under the imprint 'A Ladybird Series'. They had full colour pictorial front boards and cloth spines. Some were produced with cheap thick paper  while others used a woven cloth paper. Some simply carried plain black line illustrations whilst the better quality editions were printed in full colour. It is not clear how many books were published and no one knows what the titles were.

After the war, as commercial printing picked up the printing of children's books was confined to filling in during quiet times.

In 1924 the business became a Limited company. William Hepworth retained personal ownership of the buildings at Market Place and the Angel Yard.

It is reported that after 1934 William Hepworth whilst having overall control had little involvement in the day to day running of the business. From around 1940 he had effectively retired to Maidenhead where he died in 1961.

The business continued as commercial printers throughout the 1920s and 30s. They even had an office in Birmingham which dealt with the large commercial contracts from national companies such as Austin and Rover.

I will just mention that in the late 1930s the stationers shop at 4-5 Market Place moved around the corner to number 60.

In 1939 History repeated itself and the country was again at war. The presses slowed and they again realised that they had to find other uses for them. They already had some water colour drawings and a few lines of text from their earlier Children’s Book ventures and they decided that they would produce Ladybird Children’s books again. The other important decision they made was that the books would be produced on their existing printing plant and that they would be as small as possible. Paper was at this time in short supply. They realised that they could produce a 56 page book from the small single sheets available and so the Ladybird book and the size we are all know was born. The format was to become very familiar over the next 60 years.
In 1971 Wills & Hepworth became Ladybird Books. Just one year later, the company was taken over by the Pearson Group, who at that time also owned Longmans, the Financial Times and the Westminster Press. 

In 1973, 100 years after Henry Wills took the Angel Press the company moved the printing processes to new bigger premises in Windmill Lane and their offices moved to Beeches Road.
This was the most successful time for Ladybird Books. Millions were sold over the following 25 years. The most successful was the Royal Wedding between Prince Charles and Diana which sold 2.25m. It was written and produced in just 5 days.

Film and television companies now collaborated with Ladybird on high profile characters. The publishing partnership between Ladybird and Disney  has long proved to be a success, with triumphs such as Sleeping Beauty, The Lion King, Toy Story and Winnie the Pooh. 
However, falling demand in the late 1990s led Pearson to fully merge Ladybird into its Penguin Books subsidiary in 1998 and the plant was finally closed in 1999 which effectively was the end for the Ladybird book format.        

What remains of that success is now based in London with a small team in Nottingham, Ladybird continues to publish a wide variety of titles; from books for babies and toddlers and reading schemes. The books are often larger and made for younger children.

On the 29th Jul 2015 a green plaque was unveiled at the original home of Ladybird Books to mark the company's centenary. The plaque was erected by Leicestershire County Council in Angel Yard, Loughborough, at the site where the books were printed from 1915-1973

Recently a new series - The Ladybird Expert Series has been issued in the original size and format.