One hundred years ago, William Brown — better known as Just William — made his debut in a short story by Richmal Crompton. In the decades since he has entertained generations of children — and their parents.
William has never really gone out of fashion but the actor and director, Martin Jarvis, can be credited with a resurgence of interest in the schoolboy and his gang of Outlaws, through his award-winning broadcasts and audio recordings. Today, Jarvis continues to read the Just William stories live for theatre audiences. Here, he celebrates a true British hero.
100 years ago William Brown - better known as Just William - made his debut in a short story, played here by Oliver Rokison
A woman was waiting for me outside the stage-door of Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. She was brandishing a fistful of my Just William recordings, and as I emerged, she thrust them at me.
‘Could you sign these?’ she asked.
As I took the pen she said coyly: ‘You know what?’
‘No?’ I replied. ‘What?’
‘I always take you to bed with me…’
Ah. I knew what she meant. William fans listen everywhere.
William Brown, star of the eponymous Just William books, was the Harry Potter of his day. But the sparky, intrepid, well-meaning, eternal 11-year-old with a keen sense of justice, continues to hold new generations in his thrall.
He lives on and on through his memorable adventures, scrapes and mishaps with his faithful friends, the Outlaws — chirpy Ginger, boffinous Henry, lugubrious Douglas (‘it’ll end in death’), forever tormented by lisping control-freak Violet Elizabeth Bott (‘I’ll thcream and thcream ’till I’m thick’).
William’s creator, Richmal Crompton, was the leading children’s author for generations. Her incredible best-selling writing span lasted 50 years to her death in 1969, during which she wrote nearly 40 William collections. But her books are not just for kids — William belongs to everybody.
It was one hundred years ago, in 1919, that the first William story — entitled Rice-Mould — appeared in the family-friendly Home Magazine. William’s mission in Rice-Mould: to steal a cream blancmange and deliver it to the little girl next door who’s fed up with rice pudding. Simple enough? Not quite.
First he has to sneak into the larder. Inevitably he gets locked in, along with the family cat. When he escapes, he races next door but finds that instead of blancmange, he’s purloined a virtually inedible rice pudding.
It was a dazzling debut! Mothers read it first, fell off their chairs with laughter, then read it to their offspring, who were soon reading William’s exploits for themselves.
Our hero’s literary future was assured and, as the success of the stories grew, so did William’s famous fans. Over the years, I’ve chatted about the insouciant young Brown with the great and the good, from Dame Norma Major and Terry Waite to Paul Merton.
It was one hundred years ago, in 1919, that the first William story — entitled Rice-Mould — appeared in the family-friendly Home Magazine. William’s mission in Rice-Mould: to steal a cream blancmange and deliver it to the little girl next door who’s fed up with rice pudding. Simple enough? Not quite
Working with Jennifer Saunders the other day, I attempted to congratulate her on her Ab-Fab movie, but all she wanted to talk about was Just William.
Indeed, when I was lucky enough to be invested by HM the Queen, she mentioned ‘William’ — and in happy confusion the conversation veered from one William to the other, her grandson.
So what do we know of the woman who created this iconic figure of children’s literature, and what is the secret of his lasting appeal?
Richmal Lamburn was a popular 27-year-old classics teacher at Bromley High School for Girls in Kent when she penned the first William story. Back then, there was an unwritten rule that the teachers shouldn’t have a second job. So she used her middle name, Crompton, as a pseudonym, believing nobody would ever know.
But her growing success compelled her to own up to the Headmistress. She confessed that she’d secretly been writing fiction — and was the creator of Just William.
The Head smiled with relief, gave her a hug and said: ‘My dear, we all know! We’re thrilled for you. Congratulations!’
Who exactly inspired the character is unknown. Crompton was unmarried and had no children of her own. Her family believed that she drew on the personality of her younger brother, Jack, while others wondered if her lively nephew, Tommy, provided the blueprint.
When she was 32, Crompton contracted polio and had to give up teaching; in her 40s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As her health failed and she became confined to a wheelchair, William leapt more and more into bizarre adventures in the fields and woods around his home and beyond.
Soon she was developing William’s unique imagination to a point where things, instead of always going wrong, could sometimes go triumphantly right.
Her more than 50-year journey of masterful prose and beautifully drawn character-comedy saw the William books span each decade. (Despite enjoying many birthdays, Christmases and countless school holidays, he never aged).
The Twenties, with William’s grown-up sister, Ethel, in her cloche hats, doyenne of the tennis club dances; brother Robert, Brylcreemed man-about-the-village, sporting fashionable spats and writing poetry. The Thirties, with William’s search for spies reflecting a pre-war obsession.
Actor Martin Jarvis, pictured, has spent many hours reading Just William stories
Some of the finest collections were from these two periods, including William The Conqueror, which reflected pre-WWI