Costumes of English Literary Characters: William Brown (aka Just William)


Figure 1.--William Brown is one of the most beloved of all characters in popular English culture. He represents to many Brits what a British boy should be like--as long as you don't have to live next door. The boys here wear suits with rather long short pants as was common in the 1920s and 30s. William's shorts are probably longer than were worn by most boys. Notice that the boys here wear the same ties. This photograph was from the ITV series in the 1970s.

Richard Crompton's William Brown is the one of the two most famous schoolboy in English literature. (The other of course is Jennings, a literary character familiar to the next generation of English school boys.) William is often referred to as "Just William" after the title of the first book introducing him to the British public who quickly fell in love with him. The 11-year old school boy soon came to represent the archetype British schoolboy, inquiring, adventurous, and constantly wanting to launch another, usually illconceived, outdoor adventure.

William

William is the youngest son in the Brown family. He is perpetually 11-years old, a bright-eyed boy with unrully brown hair. The term scruffy would also have to be applied to William. There is, however, very little description of William in his books. He just seems to appear as if we had always known him. Our image of William, much like Cedric Erol in an earlier era, is largely the creation of the illustrator. In William's case the illustrator was Thomas Henry Fisher. While Crompton touches only obliquely on Williams clothes--not so with his hair. Never before or since has one boy's hair been described in such detail. Much more so than the infamous curls of Cedric Erol. Williams locks are often described as "a neglected lawn" which even after repeated brushings reverts to "its favorite verticle position." The illustrator himself also did justice to that now fabled tousled mop.

The Story Line

Wiliam is full of life, if only the adult world of parents, teachers, vicars, and other assiociated figures of authority "would leave him to it," as the Englih would say. Ripe for adventure, unable to refuse a challenge, William Brown is foever winding up in the most apauling scrapes. If there is a tree to be climbed, he'll be up there,teetering precariously on the highest branches. If there is a puddle jump into, William can be relied on to find the muddiest--and go in head first. And of course the invairably disastrous results of his adventures always come as a terrific great surprise to poor Willaim.

Violet Elizabeth Bott

The bane of William's life is Violet Elizabeth Bott. (Perhaps the inspiration to Margaret in Dennis the Menace.) Violet lives in a big house which her father bought with the profits from Bott's Digestive Sauce. Violet has an angelic appearance. All the adults see her as a truly angelic, model child. She is always portrayed in emaculate dresses and long ringlet curls. William of course knows she is anything but an angel. William and his mates, the Outlaws, have no time for girls. The problem is that Violet has a rather misguided, but soppy crush on our intrepid William. And unfortunately William is often forced to play with her. (Is there any surprise that William just cannot fathom the intricacies of adult logic.) Violet for her part threatens to "scweam" and "scweam" if Willaim attempts to leave her behind on one of his adventures or if she doesn't get her way.

The Brown Family

William is the despair of his parents, a perpetual irritant to his teenage brother and sister, and an appalling nuisance to the virtually all the village grown ups. Mr. and Mrs Brown are William's battle-heardened, but affectionate parents. They live in constant terror of a knock on the door from yet another furious neighbor complaining of broken windows, trampled flowers, or other costly damage left in wake of our intrepid hero. His father is forever using William's allouance (pocket money) to defray the damage, but the long-suffering Mrs. Brown is convimced that her offspring is misunderstood. She endevors to explain William's behavior to the rest of the family. Ethel Brown, William's sister, isn't buying any of it. She is after a husband and William succeeds in getting rid of more than one prospective mate. Robert, William's older brother, is also pertubed with William's interferences in his romances, but not as much as Ethel who dispairs of ever marrying.

The Outlaws

There is of course the Outlaws. William's best friend Ginger loves long words, but has trouble pronouncing and using them. Douglas and Henry are also members of the Outlaw Gang. They are firecly loyal to William when he is confronted with adult authority, but are known to have their own differences with William.

Georgie Murdoch

Georgie Murdoch is the perfect boy that the adults loved and William and the Outlaws absolutely hated. Hecwore emaculate white sailor suits athat never got dirty and his hair was never messed up. We do not have a page yet for Georgie, but he can be seen on the English literary page.

The Author

Richmal Crompton Lamburn was born in 1890 at Bury in Lancashire. She died in 1969. She is more commonly known as just Richmal Crompton. Crompton taught school and was a keen observer of the foibles of small children. She was able to cleverly and sympathetically intepret the antics of mischevious boys and the motives behind their seemingly irrational behavior. She published over 80 titles, but they were not all in the Just William series. She wrote many romantic novels which she considered more importanat than the Just William books--which she considered to be a bit of a daliance at the time. Her romantic novels of course are now long fotgotten and it is William that has imortalized her memory. William surely would have regarded these novels as "dreadfully mushy". While her romantic novels are now generally forgotte, it is Crompton's comedic genius that we now remember. It is interesting that a lady has crafted these ever so telling glimpses of boyhood. I supose that men sometimes forget how they felt as boys. She must have been an observent school mistress. We thought it was here that she learned so much about small boys. A HBC reader explains that she was a teacher but at a girls school. Perhaps this is where the Viloet lizabeth Bott character came from. The antics of William were inspired by her younger brother Jack. He appars to have given her many ideas when she was old enough to remember.

Boyhood Views

One British contributor remembers reading the William books as a boy. He reports that "Although done as humour, in hindsight they were actually quite 'subversive' and implicitly questioning of authority." Another reader reports, "I was about 10-13 years old when I read some of the the William books. I think. I suppose I didn't at that time have a very coherent take on whether or not particular cultural artefacts were subversive. I think I enjoyed his exploits and was amused by them, without really identifying fully with them, since he was in middle-middle-class home-counties suburbia and I was in a lower-middle-class family in a small northern provincial town. And of course one could never in reality have got away with being anything like as rebellious as that. Also, I think one would have been at least dimly aware, even at that age, that the world after the World War II (1939-45) was in many respects a very different place from the world before the war. (I was born 4 years after the end of the war, and my parents, and other people of their generation, never stopped in the 1950s talking about the immense social effects of the war and how everything in their lives had changed utterly as a result of the war. So I think there was a strong sense that anything dating from, or set in, the 1930s was inherently from a completely lost and bygone age, at a quite deep social and cultural level. Therefore, one was always at least vaguely conscious that a lot of the stuff one was reading was very 'dated'." Another British contributor indicated that the books seemed rather "old fashioned to me as a kid".


Figure 2.--The English school cap was almost universally worn in the 1920s and 30s. Like William's cap in this 1990s BBC production of Just William, they came in many different designs and colors. Note how he wears his cap.

The Books

William was first introduced to the unsuspecting British public when "Rice-Mold," was published in Home Magazine during 1919, just after World War I. Her first book was Justt William (as Richmal Crompton). London, Newnws, 1922. The author wrote about 40 books, from 1922 to 19??, beginning with Just William. The books had a special appel to children, but Crompton did not intend them as exclusively childtrn's books.

Illustrators

One of the many charming aspects of the William books is that they are wonderfully illustrated. The original William books were profusely and beautifully illustrated by Thomas Henry Fisher, although they are usually signed Thomas Henry. Fisher was born at Nottingham in 1879. He had a perfect grasp of the hero's character and foibles. The illustrations also contain a great deal of period information about boys' clothing. Fisher was selected by the publisher Newnes to illustrate the William books. He succedded in creating the perfect visual immage drawn by Crompton in her books. Interestingly, the Fisher and the author did not meet until 1958 and it is not clear if they even corresonded before that. If so, the correspondence is now lost. Some of the later William books were illustrated by Henry Ford, who endevored to portray William in much the same way as Fisher. Several of the reprinted books had new covers by Gerry Haylock. Haylock portrays William as a somewhat more orderly boy and updates the clothing--William and his mates even wear jeans. The idea of course is to update him and make him more "relevant" to the modern generation. Here we wonder. Would a modern British boy be more likely to buy a William boy if William was dressed in the traditional style or the clothig styles of the modern generation. We do not know the answer to this, but do wonder.

Illustration Updating

Since the initial publications, 'William' has been republished many times iver several decades of the long press run. Most of the publications have retained the original illustrations of Thomas Henry. However in the more recent publications, different illustrators have redone covers to keep it contemporary with the current generation of children whilst other illustrators have endevoured to keep to the original brief in their own style. Often only the cover illustration has been changed providing an interesting contrast with modern and traditional styles. I believe some editions have changed the illustration in the test as well, but am not sure about this. The idea of course is to update him and make him more "relevant" to the modern generation.

Clothing

The illustartions in the books provide a detailed source of images on English schoolboy dress during the 1920s-50s. As many episodes take place out of school and include other children, the books provide an overall picture of English boyhood clothes. The many TV and movie productions provide other glimpses, but unlike the original drawings are not contemorary work. Many do, however, take great pains to preserve the images so beautifully presented in the William books. While much changed over the years, William's costuming did not. At least not after it was set by the 1930s. (William would not like it to be known, but in his first appearances Thomas Henry portrayed him as a rather orderly character. He was more commonly togged out in a neat Eton suit. His socks were rarely crumpled or falling down no matter how strnous an activity he had been up to. Even more telling, his cap sat sqarely upon his head.) Eventually the William that we know and loved appeared. Through the years William and his chums wear their characteristic school cap with circles. William's of course is always worn scrufilly with the peak worn cockily over one ear. In the 1920s and 30s, you did not see British schoolboys outside without their caps. He always wears a crumpled suit, baggy flannel short trousers, and floppy turn-over top keesocks--always collapsing at the ankles.

Radio

William appeared on BBC radio during the 1940s. HBC at this time has little information on these classic radio shows. Child actor John Clark palyed William, util his voice broke. I'm not sure how John came over on the radio, but publicity shots of him shosw a much smarter dresser than William himself. We suspect that William might have thought of John as a bit of a swell. William appears to becoming back into vogue through TV versions but even more so in the late 1990s because of readings on BBC Radio 4 by Martin Jarvis. Richmal Crompton is increasingly being recognised as a great comic writer.


Figure 3.--A Movie version of the William stories appered in 1939, it was appropriated titled "Our William". William is pictured here by himself. To see the Outlaws, click on the image.

Movies

The first actual view that the British had of William and the Outlaws was at the movies. HBC does not have a great deal of information about Just William movies. One movie was appropriately enough titled Just William and was made in 1939. I believe this was the first one. Another film was William Himself, I'm not sure when it was made. Another film William at the Circus was made about 1948. Interestingly the William movies were never very popular in America. Thus few Americans had ever heard of William.

Television

"Just William" was produced for television in 1976. William was nicely played by Adrian Dannatt. The TV series was produced by John Davies and Stella Richman. They decided to set the TV series in the late 1920s when they felt Crompton had written his best William stories. Keith Dewhurst who scripted the series attempted to faithfully follow the Crompton atmosphere. A real effort was made to accuractely reproduce the dialog, location, and clothing. The BBC produced a version of Just William in 1994/95 BBC television. Oliver Rokison, the boy actor in the title role, was excellent. The stories were very amusing. In this version of William, he was quite different from the books. William in the books was a real "monster" with a negative attitude to everything, and this was toned down in the TV series, where he was much more of a "lovable scamp". In fact I think the TV series (as was Crompton's intention for the original book) aimed at least as much at adults as at kids--it was done as quite a "camp" and "post-modern" take on popular stereotypes and clichés about 1930s English middle-class culture.

Changes Over Time

The William books did change over time as did England. Crompton's books were published over several decades, from the 1920s through the Depression, World War II, and into the post-war era. William's house started as a mansion with stables and summer houses, but that was not in keeping with the tenor of the times by the 1930s. Eventually the Brown home shrank to a more middle-class suburban semi-detached house. The large domestic staff of cook, housemaid, and gardener during the 1920s were replaced by a daily. Somehow the plot lines just are not as effective when William is a rich kid with a large staff to look after (perhaps better "out") for him. Some of the best story lines are in fact when William wins out over the spoiled rich kids. There are other changes as well. The War takes its toll. With sugar rationing Monster Humbug sweets become more expensive and decline in suckability. Then television entrudes in the quiet village life of pre-war England. Soon television begins to replace the vicarage tea parties. Some things, however, do not change. Violet Elizabeth Bott becomes no less obnoxious. Of course the major constant through the years is that William keeps his chracteristic clothes, especially the askew cap and fallen kneesocks. British schoolwear of course during the long publushing run of the books has changed significantly.

William and Television

William was not impressed with early British television. We believe that he would have very much approved of modern television as he developed, although he would not approved of the limited number of channels available to British kids. A reade writes, "I beg to differ. In a William book that I think was published in 1938 when British TV was just starting, William's seeing television appears in one of the stories. I recollect his describing television as 'two heads talking in a hole', and his general attitude towards this new phenomenon was, to the best of my recollection, distinctly derogatory. As far as I know, Britain started TV broadcasts before Word War II, and suspended for the duration so that the germans would not be able to 'home in' on the TV signals as broadcast." [Reiss] Well HBC's think you are correct. But remember what William saw was very early English. Not only were early TV screens very small, but the picture quality was not good. Not was there very much interesting programming. Our point is that William was a typical English boy and I can tell you that English boys like most other children like television.


Figure 4.--The British television productions have made a real effort to accurately produce the costuming portrayed by Henry Thomas in his illustrations. Crompton fror her part rarely mentioned what William wore, note the angle of the cap and the crumpled kneesocks with patterned turn-over-tops. Oliver Rokison played William in the 1994/95 BBC television adaptation with great pleasure. production.

Changing Views

William has passed out of style in Modern Britain. To put it mildly, William is not exactly PC. William is the quintessential middle-class British boy, just as Billy Bunter represents the upper-class schoolboy role. William represents the genteel English home-counties, conservative, ideal world that perhaps never was. Much like Norman Rockwell's portrayals of America. William's xenephobia and sexism is perhaps not the perfect role model for 1990s Britons. Yet there is something about William that cannot be easily dismissed. The same kind of criticisms are leveled at Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. William's sexist dismisal of girls in general and Violet Elizabeth Bott in particular does not mean the author agrees. (The author in fact is a lady.) It means that William and boys then and now do think that way about girls. William also in a very real way preserves a slice of Britain that, if it did not precisely exist, did exist in the minds of many Britons. And it did preserve a beautiful glimpse of how a generation of British boys really did dress.

Penrod

Our hero William in fact had an American counterpart. While his name is destinctive--Penrod like William symbolizes the boy's view of life in their respective countries. Always struggling to control events beyond their abilities. Always mistified by the views and values of adults--but steadfastingly adhering to the values of boyhood which cut accross cultures. In fact, the experiences of Penrod and William are remarkably similar. The only difference is that Penrod would not be caught dead in a pair of short pants.

Dennis the Menace

There was another American counterpart. HBC could not help but notice certain similarities between Our William and America's Dennis the Menace. They both symbolize the average boy. William in the 1920s-30s amd Dennis in the 1950s althohough he is still going strng today in new hands. Both had hard-pressed parents,. Dennis had Joey as a best pal and William had the Outlaws. The gratest nemesis that both faced was of coutse the fairer gender--Margatet and Violet Elizabeth Bott.

Recollections

Several British readers have written to HBC remembering the "Just William books and films.

"I remember I had one of those 'snake' belts. Also I dressed in a very similar way to William, (Cap an' all). I wouldn't go anywhere without it." -- Sean

"I read all the Just William books when I was a boy and have probably seen most of the films and TV series." -- Malcolm

Sources

Reiss, Avraham. E-mail message, December 28, 2005.






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Created: November 18, 1999
Last updated: 12:30 PM 12/28/2005