The Shell Guides
In a very real sense, there are two Shell Guide series to collect - those published up to 1939, and those from 1951 onwards. The pre-war guides are confusing, for not only are there the spiral bound originals (1934-38) but the Faber reissues of 1939, spiral bound within hard covers. Indeed, not all the early 'spirals' are truly spiral bound; those published after 1936 were technically comb-bound. Furthermore, it is a little known fact that some of the Batsford titles of 1936-38 were simultaneously issued in hardback, presumably in very limited numbers. These are fantastically scarce, as are the Faber reissues complete with their dust-jackets. Indeed, anyone setting out to collect a complete set of the thirteen pre-war guides, in anything like good condition, has a very hard task ahead of them, such are the numbers of variants.
Condition and edition
Condition is a major fact with the pre-war guides. The flimsy nature of the binding means some copies became disbound over time, thus limiting the numbers available to today's collectors. The card covers are easily bent and creased and therefore, genuinely fine copies are hard to find. Similarly, the paper dustjackets of the Faber reissues are frequently torn or at least chipped.
The post-1951 titles are a little more straightforward, all being cloth bound with dust-jackets. However, as stated in the history of the guides, all the titles published from 1951 to 1960 (excluding Norfolk and Suffolk), were rejacketed in the Autumn of 1963. Therefore, the following guides exist with two distinct jacket designs:- Shropshire, The West Coast of Scotland, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Northumberland, Devon, Herefordshire, Wiltshire and Mid-Wales. The earlier jackets were printed on unlaminated heavy grade paper, which is prone to tear and become soiled. The 1963 jackets were laminated and seem to have been more durable. Furthermore, many of the later jacket designs were infinitely superior to those they replaced; in particular I feel that Shropshire, Herefordshire and Wiltshire benefited from the change. The only casualty was John Piper's jacket for the Mid-Wales guide; its successor, printed in pale blue and green, is one of the least attractive of the replacement jackets of 1963.
The guides published from 1963 to 1967 have an attractively varied range of jacket designs, from the somewhat conservative (Dorset) to the more colourful, such as those for Cornwall and Lincolnshire. By 1968 however, it had been decided to adopt a standardised jacket design. The first design (of which a proof survives in Shell's archives) bore a strong resemblance to the more generalised Shell Guides published by the Ebury Press and (later) Michael Joseph, perhaps in an attempt to standardise the overall look of all Shell publications. Fortunately, this design was rejected, and instead a more unique design was adopted, featuring strong typography and a bold black and white photograph. This remained the norm for ten years.
By the late 1970s, this design was seen as outdated and all-colour jackets were introduced. Collectors should note that these jackets are more prone to fading than previous titles - for example, the dark green spine to the 1981 Buckinghamshire guide readily fades to pale green. In a further move to enhance sales, some of the existing titles were reissued in paperback in 1982, amongst them Essex, Devon, South West Wales, and Suffolk. The last three titles to be published (Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire) were simultaneously published in both hardback and paperback.
Looking at the post-1951 titles, it is clear that some titles are rarer than others. Amongst the scarcest titles are the 1951 edition of Shropshire, Herefordshire, Mid-Wales, and Rutland. Most of the 1970s titles seem fairly easy to track down, although Mid-Western Wales and the 1973 edition of Shropshire can be elusive. Some of the last titles published are surprisingly hard to find. Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire are scarce, whilst Henry Thorold's Nottinghamshire is seemingly impossible to find in hardback. This is because of the 10,000 print run, only 2000 were cloth bound, the rest being issued in paperback.
As regards the paperback editions, there is no doubt that they do not hold the same appeal to collectors as their hardback counterparts. They make quite good 'reading copies' and in a sense are a throwback to the more glovebox-friendly pre-War guides. Furthermore, a paperback of Nottinghamshire is far better than having no copy at all!
Amongst the oddities serious collectors might come across are uncorrected proof copies of the guides. So far I have only come across proofs for North Wales and Mid-Western Wales (1971), though doubtless proof copies of other titles exist. Early in 2000, a well known book dealer was offering the galley proofs for the first ever Shell Guide (i.e. Cornwall) complete with corrections in Betjeman's hand. The price? £550.
This neatly brings me onto values. When compiling this site, way back in 2000, I was in two minds as to whether I should stick my neck out and assign values to the individual guides. After all, a guide is only worth what someone is prepared to pay for it. I have seen identical guides priced at £12 and £35, and in another more extreme case, a friend of mine acquired a hardback of Cambridgeshire for £4.50 not long after I paid £30 for mine! R M Healey recalls finding several spiral guides during the early 80s for 50p each, guides which today might sell for £40+. My best bargain was a fine copy of the 1966 Suffolk guide from a charity shop for 69p.
On the whole, most Shell Guides can be picked up for anything between ten and twenty pounds. The exceptions are listed below. I have deliberately given rather broad price bands, and you can rest assured that some of you out there will find copies for less, and some of you may well have paid more. I repeat, any Shell Guide is only worth what someone is prepared to pay for it. The prices are for fine copies in fine dustjackets where appropriate.
Pre-War spiral (or comb) bound guides. Hard to generalise about values but these seem to average around £40-60. Higher prices will probably be asked for really nice copies of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Oxon, conceivably anything up to £300. A copy of Dorset was sold on Ebay in March 2003 for around £50.00, but a similar copy sold for £162 in November 2007. A VG Batsford hardback copy of Piper's Oxon (with its jacket) was sold on Ebay in January 2005 as a 'Buy It Now' item for £40 (I should know, I bought it without hesitation!). Bucking the trend for ever-increasing prices, a clean and sound spiral bound copy of Rayner's Hampshire guide sold on Ebay for a piffling £16 in February 2007. In recent years I have bought nice copies of Wiltshire and Hampshire for £30 each, both via Ebay.
The Faber reissues of 1939. As I've stated elsewhere, these seem fantastically scarce - maybe the advent of war put paid to sales? So few seem to come up for sale that there seems little consensus as to their value. I have seen Kent offered at £15, and Wiltshire for £75, both with jackets. A copy of Somerset sold on Ebay in March 2004 for £74 (another for £92 in June 2007), whilst a Northumberland and Durham sold for £32 in March 2007. A copy of Gloucestershire sold for £103 in October 2007, whilst a copy of Nash's Dorset sold for £160 in April 2009, the price possibly inflated by the prominence given to this guide in David Heathcote's BBC4 documentary barely a month earlier. Most readers will be aware that for several years a south coast bookseller had a number of these editions on ABE for £950 each. Quite what this was about I have no idea. For this price I would expect a mint copy, annotated in Betjeman's hand AND with an unpublished poem (to one of his many female muses) written on one of the blank pages!! One should also remember that most are reissues, not first editions, Gloucestershire excepted.
Shropshire (1951). I reckon only about 3000 copies were sold of this guide, which explains why many collectors find this an irritatingly difficult title to find. Betjeman and Piper collectors are after copies. A copy sold on Ebay in September 2004 for £63.
Oxfordshire (1953). Not only scarce but sought after by Piper collectors. Despite signs of values falling back a little in the mid-2000s, recent prices (in 2011) seem to have cruised past the £100 mark.
Herefordshire (1955). Total sales for this guide may have been even fewer than Shropshire, which explains its scarcity. Up to £40.
Mid-Wales (1960). Was only in print for seven years, and the first issue (with the Piper jacket) for only three. £25-35 (with Piper jacket), £15-20 (with 1963 photographic jacket).
Rutland (1963). Collectors blanche at the prospect of paying up to £45 for a guide with only 52 pages, but it is that scarce, almost the Holy Grail for collectors of the post-war series. A VG copy in its wrapper was sold on Ebay for £49.00 in March 2003 whilst another copy fetched a more modest £26 in February 2007.
Cornwall (1964). Prior to 2009 this was a fairly routine title worth somewhere in the £20-30 bracket. However, following David Heathcote's BBC4 documentary of March '09, which centred on Cornwall and Dorset, a 'price spike' ensued and a 1965 reprint sold for an exceptional £73 on Ebay later the same month. Prices now seem to be in the £40-60 bracket.
Worcestershire (1964). The first printing was in circulation for only four years, with only 2469 copies bound initially. £20-30.
Mid-Western Wales (1971). I can only guess that poor sales explain why this guide seems tricky to find. £20-30.
Cambridgeshire (1983). Only 2000 copies were issued in hardback. £20-30.
Nottinghamshire (1984). Again, only 2000 copies went out in hardback. Harder to find than the Cambs guide, and perhaps now worth £40-60. A copy (with faded spine) sold for £32 on Ebay in 2004, another for around £60 in 2007.
On a more general note, I reckon post-war guides without their jackets are worth about half (or perhaps slightly less than half) of copies with their jackets. Late paperbacks are usually offered at £5-8, although Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire ought to sell for a little more, say £10.
Author-signed Shell Guides are perhaps the rarest of all. Values are almost impossible to assign, although it goes without saying that titles written and signed by Betjeman and/or Piper are the most desirable. Recent prices on the internet suggest a guide signed by one of them would be worth anything from around £150 to £250. Guides written and signed by the more obscure authors would be worth considerably less, perhaps only a little more than an unsigned copy.
Where to buy?
Once upon a time, collecting books meant trawling round High Street secondhand bookshops in the hope of picking up one of the Guides. Nowadays we have the Internet, and most prominent amongst the secondhand websites is Advanced Book Exchange (www.abebooks.com), despite the fact that in recent years it has become polluted with bulk-seller dross, including the New Shell Guide series. The subject of buying books on the Net, compared to the option of trudging from shop to shop, was discussed by David McKie in his column in the Guardian in October 2002:-
Internet buying eliminates the thrill of the chase. I never knowingly pass a second-hand bookshop, just in case it contains Arch, or Wharton, or my favourite quarry of all, one of the Shell Guides to Britain, in pursuit of which series I have haunted second-hand bookshops since picking up Shropshire in Ludlow in 1975. Ludlow, we wiseacres like to explain, is not necessarily the best place to search for Shell Guides to Shropshire, since that is where everyone else will be looking for them. "If you want a Shell Guide to Dorset", a bookseller in Blandford Forum once told me, "I'd go looking in County Durham. There isn't so much demand for them there." This advice is half right and half wrong. My County Durham comes from Carshalton, my Derbyshire from Somerset and my Worcestershire from St Andrews. But my Essex was captured in Colchester - for only £5: amazing - and my Isle of Wight in a bookshop called Mother Goose on the Green at St Helens, which alone is worth crossing the Solent for.
An alternative for searching out the series is the auction site Ebay. Over recent years, Ebay has changed, with some feeling that sellers are being pushed towards selling items at a fixed price rather than the original auction method. There are usually between five and ten Guides for sale at any one time, with some quite startling prices achieved for rarer titles (see above). The more common editions have achieved more routine prices, sometimes under a tenner. A 'star lot' in mid-2006 comprised five pre-war guides (Oxon in hb, the others spiral) and three early 50s guides with jackets. They sold for £240, quite a reasonable price if the condition was good. A more exceptional job lot was offered in March 2009, consisting of all 13 pre-war guides in their respective first states and in very good condition. These sold to a maiden bidder for £950, a little over £70 per book. A large lot of guides (13 plus one 'New Shell Guide'), dating from 1963-87, sold for a piffling £51 in the Autumn of 2009.
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