I-Spy On the Road

I-Spy On the Road by Charles Warrell (first published by News Chronicle, 1950s)

Introduced by Roger Carswell, a regular visitor to Hay-on-Wye

 

 

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The I-SPY books consisted of around forty small volumes that sold in hundreds of thousands of copies each, totalling sales of 25 million worldwide to 2010. Each book in the I-Spy series covered a different subject, such as I-SPY CarsI-SPY on the PavementI-SPY ChurchesI-SPY on a Train Journey, and so on. As children spotted the objects listed, they recorded the event in the book, and gained points, varying according to how unusual the sight. Once the book was complete, it could be sent to Charles Warrell, (known as Big Chief I-SPY) for a feather and order of merit. The children participating in the game were known as The I-SPY Tribe, and by 1953 the I-SPY Tribe had half a million members.

Charles Warrell, a former head master who created I-Spy towards the end of his working life. He retired in 1956, but lived until 1995 when he died at the age of 106. After Warrell’s retirement his assistant Arnold Cawthrow became the second Big Chief, and served in this role until 1978. For part of this time he also worked as an antiques dealer in Islington. He died in 1993, and is commemorated by a stone plaque placed on the outside of the Boatmen’s Rooms, the house where he spent some of his last years in Deal, Kent.

Warrell was initially rejected by eight different publishers, so resorted to publishing the books himself, using his acquaintance with a book-buyer at his local branch of Woolworths to secure that store as a distribution outlet. The books were initially entitled Learning from Life, but Warrell changed the name on the advice of his wife Marian. Each book in the I-Spy series covered a different subject, such as I-SPY CarsI-SPY on the PavementI-SPY ChurchesI-SPY on a Train Journey, and so on. As children spotted the objects listed, they recorded the event in the book, and gained points, varying according to how unusual the sight. Once the book was complete, it could be sent to Warrell (known as Big Chief I-SPY) at “Wigwam-by-the-Water, EC4”, for a feather and entry to the order of merit. The children participating in the game were known as The I-SPY Tribe.

A success on release, the books were soon picked up to be published in the Daily Mail, where completed entries were mentioned by name in Warrell’s column. By 1953 the I-SPY Tribe had half a million members. The I-SPY Tribe was also an activity club, with events held for members, known as “pow-wows” and attended by thousands of children,featuring Warrell in a giant Indian head-dress, and one event in London consisting of 8,000 children taking part in sight-seeing tours on 80 hired double-decker buses. By the time Warrell retired in 1956, 18 million copies had been sold.

Big Chief I-Spy had a succession of assistants, usually known as “Hawkeye”. In the early 1970s, this position was held by Ralph Mills. Earlier assistants included Max Heinz and John Tagholm. In the 1980s, following a short-lived third Big Chief, Robin Tucek, David Bellamy replaced Big Chief I-Spy as the person to whom completed books were sent, and the earlier Red Indian connections were quietly dropped.

The books continued their popularity, switching between several different publishers over the years, before being taken on by current publisher Michelin Travel Publications in 1991. The original series of books remained in print until the mid-80s, and eventually sold 25 million copies worldwide.

The books were originally self-published by Charles Warrell but, after a brief period when they were published by the Daily Mail, they were taken over by the now defunct News Chronicle newspaper and based in the paper’s building in Bouverie Street. The regular I-SPY column, which appeared in the News Chronicle, reverted to the Daily Mail when the News Chronicle ceased publication, and continued to appear until the late 1980s. The books have had various publishers over the years including the Dickens Press, a company set up to continue the book publishing interests of the ‘News Chronicle’, and Polystyle Publications, a publisher of children’s comics.

Michelin Travel Publications acquired and published the series from 1991 until 2002 when they effectively ceased publication, there were ad-hoc sales after that date to clear stocks. I-Spy books were then relaunched by Michelin Travel Publications in 2009. The new I-Spy titles are faithful to the original concept but are fully updated and include all new colour images. The relaunch of the books and subsequent multiple expansions of the title list suggested that their popularity is being enjoyed by a new generation of children.

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