The original ‘tearaway kid’ turns 100. He’s still as brilliant as ever
Before Harry Potter, before the Famous Five, there was a scruffy boy whose rampaging adventures disrupted his quiet English village home and enchanted millions of children. This year Just William reaches his 100th birthday, but he still doesn’t look a day over 11.
William Brown is often described as a tearaway. His scowling face, his ratty hair and the way he mangles his school uniform make Boris Johnson look impeccably groomed. He has a gang, the Outlaws, and a mischievous dog called Jumble. But he isn’t really a bad boy. He has lots of projects and good intentions, but they always seem to leave a trail of damage and horrified adults in their wake.
Many people thought the author of the Just William books, Richmal Crompton, was a man.Credit:Getty Images
When I was very young, I discovered Just William in my local library and I was instantly hooked because the stories were subversive, formulaic – an underrated attraction for children – and also very funny. I didn’t read all the books, and that’s not surprising, because there were 38 of them, published between 1922 and 1970. My favourite character was a little girl called Violet Elizabeth Bott, who was not much of a feminist role model. Indeed, she was truly awful and William quite rightly hated her, but she got her way by threatening to “thcream and thcream until I make myself thick”.
I always mistakenly assumed that the amazingly prolific author of the Just William books, Richmal Crompton, was a man. So did many others, as she was a shy writer who shunned publicity, described the William books as mere “pot boilers” and thought that her 41 books for adults were her real work, though they never achieved the same success.
She was a schoolteacher when her first Just William story was published in a woman’s magazine. A permanent injury from polio meant she had to give up teaching, so she became a full-time writer. She never married or had children, so there is much speculation as to who the real-life model for William might have been: the favourite is probably her nephew Tommy.
The Just William books have sold more than 12 million copies in Britain, and been translated into 17 languages. Crompton was able to live comfortably and buy a house on the proceeds. There were also spin-off films, plays, radio and TV series, and plenty of Just William merchandise, including jigsaws, toys, and stamps. Weirdly, the dirty boy was once used to advertise Lifebuoy soap.
William influenced many comedians and writers for children, including Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. One big Australian fan is Elisabeth Middleton, who first read the books as a child and now has 35 in her collection. She “still has a wallow” in them every few years.
The books are a satirical take on English village life, exposing hypocrisy and self-importance in the adult world, she says. “His creator is the J. K. Rowling of her day.”
This year Pan Macmillan has published a 100th-anniversary edition of the first book, Just William, “updated for a new generation of readers”, with the original text illustrations by Thomas Henry. If you’re really mad about the boy, you can join the Just William Society or buy biographies: Mary Cadogan’s The Woman Behind William: A Life of Richmal Crompton or Jane McVeigh’s Just William: A Literary Life.
How would William celebrate his centenary? Elisabeth Middleton thinks he’d invite all the children of England to a party. After a discussion with his Outlaw mates they’d probably bring it down to all the children in the village. Except his sworn enemies. And Violet Elizabeth Bott, but she’d come anyway.
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