Underground, overground, wombling free – the wombles of Wimbledon Common are we…
Elisabeth Beresford was born in 1926 to a literary family, her father being a novelist and book reviewer, and her godparents being the poet and novelist Walter de la Mare and children’s book writer Eleanor Farjeon. Other family friends included D. H. Lawrence, and Rudyard Kipling.
She worked underground as a WREN wireless telegraphist during the Second World War, and afterwards worked as a journalist, contributing to the Today programme, Women’s Weekly, Punch, Lady, and Women’s Hour, amongst others. Apparently Women’s Hour ‘were a terribly bossy lot’ at the time! (The Times, 2007)
Although married by now to sports commentator Max Robertson, Elisabeth used her maiden name when publishing her first children’s book, Awkward Magic, in 1964. This started a series of books (Travelling Magic, Vanishing Magic, Invisible Magic, basically Lots-Of-Magic) but nothing she wrote captured the public’s imagination quite like the early eco-warriors who lived on a Common…
The family were living in Wandsworth, and one Christmas-time Elisabeth took her two small children for a walk on nearby Wimbledon Common, and her daughter Kate mispronounced the name as ‘Wombledon’. Later that same day Elisabeth drafted a story idea for ‘the wombles of Wimbledon’ and decided to base the names of the characters on different family members. Madame Cholet was based on her own mother, Great Uncle Bulgaria her father-in-law, Tobermory her brother, and Orinoco her son. The book, The Wombles, was published in 1968, and illustrated by Margaret Gordon.
After it was featured on children’s story-telling TV show Jackanory, Elisabeth was approached by Monica Sims, who was the BBC's head of children’s programming, with a view to making an animated TV show. Monica looked at the original books, and said ‘Elisabeth, we don’t think that’s what a Womble looks like’ and so they employed Ivor Wood, a celebrated puppeteer, to come up with the definitive womble. His first attempts were rejected, and Elisabeth had to keep taking him for a drink to keep his spirits up! (The Times, 2007)
Eventually, as we all know, they did come up with an idea of a womble that kept everyone happy, and the books from then on reflected that design. What I love most about the books is that London itself is a very distinctive character, and simply shines through the narrative. From Orinoco’s dream shop Fortnum & Mason (written as Fortune & Bason) to Great Uncle Bulgaria’s fondness for The Times newspaper, from mentions of Queen Victoria to adventures on the Serpentine – the settings are just as delightful as the stories. And the stories were so ahead of their time – the wombles recycled everything, they were vegetarian, and the stories made children wish to emulate them. I used to have great fun tipping wastepaper bins on my bedroom floor and playing ‘wombles’ – my mother was thrilled, you understand.
The two books featured here are both the same age as me, and I of course didn't do them the disservice of squashing the spine for these pictures, but scanned first one side, then the other, and joined them together in Photoshop.
More reading: The Times interview