A History of

The Shell County Guides

by Chris Mawson

New visitors: Please note this is a very 'wordy' page, having some 5000 words. You might wish to download the page and view at leisure offline.  Alternatively you can jump to the 'chapters' by clicking the links below.

1) Genesis of the Guides and the 1930s
2) The 1940s: Guides on Hold
3) The 1950s: Revival
4) The 1960s: Stormy Waters
5) The 1970s and '80s: Swimming Against the Tide
6) Aftermath and Legacy
7) The Heritage Shell Guides

The Shell Guides were first published in the 1930s, edited by John Betjeman and sponsored by the Shell oil company. Following a hiatus during the war years, the series was relaunched in 1951.  Each guide covered a specific county in a comprehensive but concise manner in a well illustrated gazetteer. They belong to an era when a feeling of both national and county identity remained strong British characteristics.  Today, your county of residence is no longer a necessary part of your postal address, so it is hardly a surprise that the age of the ‘county guide’ has passed. The series was wound up in 1984, and since then it has become avidly collected.

1) Genesis of the Guides and the 1930s

The concept of the Shell Guides was the brainchild of John Betjeman (below) and Jack Beddington, the publicity manager of Shell-Mex Ltd, who was keen to promote the Shell 'brand' rather than individual products.  In 1933, Betjeman was an assistant editor at the Architectural Review, though he had been a freelance author and review writer for several years. One suspects that one motivation for suggesting the Guides was to effectively secure some regular work (as series editor) for the foreseeable future.  Having approved the idea in principle, Beddington advanced £20 (about £750 in today's money) for Betjeman to produce a mock up guide. This having met with the required approvals, Shell agreed to finance the project, in exchange for being clearly associated with the series via the title Shell Guides. The first in the series, John Betjeman’s Cornwall, was published in June 1934 by the Architectural Press.John Betjeman circa 1940

When the Shell Guides were initiated, there was little in the way of competition. Betjeman wanted the series to represent an advance on the Little Guides, published by Methuen in the early 1900s. Writing in 1934, Betjeman summed up the Little Guides thus; "The illustrations are poor and the information is aggressively antiquarian, but the series catches the church-crawling public and the growing numbers of amateur archaeologists".  In a letter to Robert Byron in November the same year, Betjeman rather grandly claimed that his Cornwall guide had taken "the wind out of the sails of the other [guide] books by being unlike them." 

These other guides belonged to two new series which appeared within months of the Cornwall guide being published, namely Arthur Mee’s King’s England county books and Batsford’s Face of Britain series, with its distinctive Brian Cook dust-jackets. All were aimed at weekenders who toured the countryside by automobile, as well as ‘armchair travellers’ at home. In 1937, Betjeman outlined his philosophy towards the Shell Guides;

[They] had at once to be critical and selective. They had to illustrate places other than the well known beauty spots and to mention the disregarded and fast disappearing Georgian landscape of England; churches with box pews .. provincial streets of the late Georgian era; impressive mills in industrial towns .. These things, for various reasons left out by other guides, are featured in the Shell Guides.

At the same time, Betjeman was sanguine about the typical Shell Guide reader;

... probably not an intellectual in search of regional architecture of the early 19th century but a plus-foured weekender who cannot tell a sham Tudor roadhouse from a Cotswold manor.

Whilst the difference in emphasis may have been lost on the less enlightened reader, the distinctive format of the pre-war Shell Guides was unmistakable. The King’s England and Face of Britain volumes were chunky novel-sized books with long tracts of text punctuated by sections of sepia-toned photographs. The Shell Guides were of the larger quarto format, no thicker than a pencil, with card covers and a spiral binding. The text was profusely illustrated throughout and printed on varying thicknesses of paper, the whole evidently designed for use ‘in the field’ rather than for armchair consultation at home.  Betjeman was fascinated by typography and layout and whilst the early titles had this aggressively modern feel, the flowery text on the title pages revealed his love of the topographical books of a century or more earlier. Cornwall, for instance, came "Illustrated in a Series of Views: Castles, Seats of the Nobility, Mines, Picturesque Scenery, Towns, Public Buildings, Churches, Antiquities & c."

The early (i.e. pre-War) Shell Guides have been assessed by Timothy Mowl, in the course of his book Stylistic Cold Wars: Betjeman versus Pevsner (John Murray, 2000). In it, he asserts his belief that the Cornwall guide was not an auspicious start to the series. The short gazetteer (titled 'Towns') was "grudging on facts and devoid of atmosphere", the individual entries featuring the kind of "staccato jargon" that wouldn't have been amiss in the guides of old.  However, Betjeman's guide to Devon (1936) is seen by Mowl as altogether superior, which he ascribes to the influence of Edith Olivier, whose gazetteer to Robert Byron's Wiltshire guide of 1935 is described as "informed and allusive, engagingly devoted to the supernatural". In influencing Betjeman's Devon (which in turn helped shape Piper's Oxon), Edith Olivier could well be the largely unrecognised catalyst of the distinctive Shell Guide approach to conveying the 'spirit of place'.

Reading between the lines of Mowl's expert (but ultimately subjective) assessment, one senses that if one had to have just three of the pre-War guides, then Betjeman's Devon, Paul Nash's Dorset and John Piper's Oxon would suffice. Dorset is described as "artistically the most experimental and memorable of all the guides" whilst Oxon is "the definitive article in the interaction of text and photographs and line drawings . . a copy is a bibliophile's treasure". John Rayner's Hampshire is "brilliantly eccentric" whilst Stephen Bone produced "a clever and serious evocation" of The West Coast of Scotland (pictured right). Less impressive were the volumes on Kent and Somerset, with Thomas Sharp's Northumberland and Durham being judged "a grave editorial mistake", despite the fact that this title featured a notably gritty entry on Jarrow:

"Shops closed, an air of death and decay over everything. All M.P.'s, all prosperous Southerners and smug optimists should be made to spend a month a year here".

Mowl refers to the pre-War series as 'The Great Shell Guides', as if they were not only ground breaking but also effected a sea change in British topographical writing. To the best of my knowledge, they didn't and I would disagree with that 'great' for other reasons too. First and foremost, I have a problem with the overall design of the guides, particularly the limp and rather fragile spiral or comb bindings employed. The use of differing colours and quality of paper only rarely worked, simply being a tricksy device that might have worked on The Architectural Review but wasn't always appropriate for a topographical guide. The cover photographs were hardly inspired either. Whilst the use of the bled-off black and white images was striking, the images themselves were often bland and somewhat pointless. The lone puffin on the cover of Sharp's Northumberland and Durham hardly conveyed the spirit of the counties it was concerned with. More successful were Lord Berner's riotous photomontage for the Wiltshire guide and Paul Nash's design for his Dorset which, if you look hard, is another montage.

By the outbreak of World War Two, no fewer than thirteen Shell Guides had been published, by three different publishers; the Architectural Press (1934-36), Batsford (1937-38) and finally Faber & Faber Ltd. (1939). Writing during the War, John Betjeman conceded that the series, "despite excellent notices and good sales for certain counties and poor sales for others, could never have been produced without the commercial backing from the Shell Company."

Probably the most significant event of this pre-War period was Betjeman’s introduction to John Piper in 1937. Piper had been recommended by J.M. Richards of the Architectural Review, largely on his strengths as a typographer - his artistic career was still in its relative infancy. What Betjeman didn't know was that in his teens, Piper had been a keen 'church crawler' and had compiled topographical notebooks of the places he had visited. Viewed with hindsight, these notebooks bear an uncanny resemblance to the early Shell Guides. When the two finally met there was an instantaneous meeting of minds and they became lifelong friends and collaborators. Writing to Piper for the first time in April 1937, in order to engage him to write the Shell Guide to Oxfordshire, Betjeman outlined the terms for the prospective author:

Fifty guineas for your work, ten guineas expenses, and we pay outside photographers for any of their photographs you want to use. We also supply you with a photographer free of charge. We have not before had someone writing a guide who is also a photographer .. when we have seen how many of yours you are using, we might come to some financial arrangement for them. The Guide need not be illustrated entirely with photographs .. and if you have drawings, engravings and paintings, let’s have them.

Although 50 guineas was enough to buy a reasonable second-hand car in 1937, Piper later wrote "What a job. It is worth five hundred pounds..." His Shell Guide to Oxon, not including the City of Oxford was published in 1938.  The unusual decision to omit the city of Oxford may well have had something to do with the fact that Betjeman was about to publish his book An Oxford University Chest, which had an architectural gazetteer of the city towards the rear.

The last title scheduled for publication in 1939 was Betjeman and Piper's Shropshire.  According to Peterson's excellent bibliography of Betjeman, much of the ground work was carried out in 1938.  It was on one of their trips that Betjeman dreamt up Piperís nickname of "Mr Piper" or "Mr Pahper" - they would often converse in a cod Northern accent they picked up from a waitress in a Much Wenlock hotel.  By the summer of 1939, Betjeman and the Pipers were reading early proofs but all progress on publication was halted in late September.

2) The 1940s: Guides on hold

The 1939-45 War put paid to all guide book publication through a combination of required secrecy and paper shortages. The immediate post-war years saw the Shell Guides as either defunct or simply in limbo, depending on your point of view.   Part of the reason for this was that the Betjeman-Beddington partnership had ended at the outbreak of the war and never resumed. Beddington had been Director of the Ministry of Information's Films Division during the war and with the end of hostilities, he declined a senior position back at Shell, opting instead for a directorship at a London advertising agency.   In the void left by the Shell Guides,  several publishers started their own series of topographical guides and first out of the blocks was Paul Elek, whose series The Vision of England was launched in 1946. Elek used the same small quarto format used for the Shell Guides and employed authors such as Geoffrey Grigson and Olive Cook to write on individual counties or regions such as The Black Country.  According to Peterson, Elek even approached Shell asking if Betjeman and Piper's 1939 manuscript for Shropshire could be incorporated into their series. Interestingly Reginald Turnor, in the Oxfordshire title of the series published in 1949, makes frequent references to Piper's Oxon guide, rather odd considering it had been so recently published.  At times he agrees with Piper's observations, but at others he is quick to pick holes and in two instances describes the Oxon guide as "frivolous" and "rather facetious."  Quite why the author had to go to such lengths to put down Piper's Shell Guide is something of a mystery.

Meanwhile, Betjeman and Piper were collaborating on the first two titles in a new series entitled ‘Murray’s Architectural Guides’, which they had suggested to Jock Murray as far back as 1943.   In agreeing to a trial run of three titles, Frances Spalding has unearthed the extraordinary fact that Murray entered into a gentleman's agreement with Nikolaus Pevsner for the latter to 'keep away' from the counties in question.  Spalding suggests that the 'advancing shadow' of Pevsner might explain the 'burst of energy and erudition' which the two Johns put into Buckinghamshire and then Berkshire, published in 1948 and 1949.  Lancashire followed on six years later, by which time it was clear the series had no further to go and that Pevsner had now taken up the running with his Buildings of England series.  With hindsight, the failure of the Murray series, aside from the obvious lack of sales,  was due to the crude division of text and photographs, in contrast to the skilled interweaving of the two in the Shell Guides. The hefty price tag of 18 shillings was also a disincentive to potential purchasers.

3) The 1950s: Revival

'Coalport' by Piper (1951)

Whilst the first two Murray's Architectural Guides were being published, the decision to revive the Shell Guides was made. The first of the post-War titles was the long-overdue Shropshire, co-authored by Betjeman and Piper. It was a fitting way to restart the series, which went on to cover some 34 counties, several in more than one edition. Most of the early '50s titles were partly or fully revised versions of the pre-war Guides, such as Stephen Bones The West Coast of Scotland and John Piper’s Oxfordshire (1953). By now, the characteristic spiral bindings had given way to conventional cloth bindings with pictorial dust-jackets, but the distinctive quarto format (about 9" by 7") remained. (Right: Piper's 'Coalport', from the 1951 Shropshire guide).

The revival of the guides had been part of a remarkable renaissance of topographical writing during the 1950s. Pevsner’s Buildings of England series got underway in 1951, whilst around the same time the Methuen Little Guides (which of course Betjeman disliked) were revised and reissued in new Brian Cook dust-jackets. The Shell Guides were the most topographical in scope, with an emphasis on the landscape, buildings and ‘spirit’ of a place. John Betjeman was sceptical about Pevsner’s academic approach to architecture and there was a degree of rivalry between the two, extensively discussed in Timothy Mowl's Stylistic Cold Wars. Shells files reveal there was no shortage of authors queuing up to write new Shell Guides in the 1950s, including established names such as S P B Mais alongside lesser known authors such as one H J Wilmott, who revised Betjeman's 1934 Cornwall guide only to have it rejected by the publishers!

Despite critical acclaim, there is plenty to suggest the series was not commercially successful. Figures in Shell's library, dated July 1957, show that several guides had sold barely over 1000 copies since publication, including Piper's Oxfordshire (1953) and David Verey's Herefordshire (1955). Curiously, the best-selling title is revealed to be Stephen Bone's West Coast of Scotland, which in the five years since publication had sold 1951 copies! Around the same time as this survey, Bill Mitchell, of Shell's Publicity Department, left the company.  Mitchell had worked well with Betjeman, and his departure left the position of the guides as "a little obscure". For this reason, the Norfolk guide, published in July 1957, was the last Shell Guide to be published for a full three years.  This hiatus is large illusory, as several authors, including David Verey, Norman Scarfe and the luckless H J Wilmott, were in the field researching new guides for subsequent publication.  Meanwhile, in June 1959, John Piper was appointed 'Associate Editor' to the series, advancing to Joint Editor in 1962.

4) The 1960s: Stormy Waters

Mid Wales (1960)

The 1960s was a difficult decade for all parties associated with the Shell Guides. The two new guides published at the end of 1960 had fared very differently, both commercially and critically.  There were high hopes for David Verey's Mid-Wales guide, published in November 1960. However, within days of its release, the people of Llandindrod Wells were up in arms about Verey's suggestion that the visitor would find nothing but rain in the town, and threatened to boycott Shell petrol! This was despite the opinion of David Bland (of Faber) who felt the guide "promises to be one of our best . . thanks to John Piper's splendid editing". The matter found its way into the local press and onto television, Cliff Michelmore referring to the affair as "a storm in a Welsh teapot". Numerous letters survive in Shell's archive, several aimed at the editors suggesting they "might bear in mind the effect on local feeling of the author's criticisms" in future guides.  Needless to say, this rankled with Betjeman and with hindsight marks the beginning of the breakdown of his relations with Shell, leading ultimately to his resignation as series editor in 1967.

By contrast, Norman Scarfe's Suffolk guide, published in December 1960, received excellent reviews and sold out its first print run of 5000 within a year of publication. This ought to have reassured Shell as to the potential of the series, but by 1962, doubts had arisen once again. By this time, Shell had entered into an arrangement with George Rainbird Ltd to produce a series of A5 pamphlets called the 'Shell Shilling Guides' to British counties. Sold at petrol stations (or direct from Shell-Mex House), they featured attractive colour wrappers with artwork by the likes of John Nash, David Gentleman and S R Badmin. Each featured a short introduction to the county, followed by a highly selective gazetteer. In February 1962, Piper wrote to David Bland bemoaning the new series:

I do not see how these can fail to affect the sale and production of our own series. It has been such a pleasure working on our guides but it would be very sad indeed to find the long and careful building up of interest in the series being sapped and destroyed

Betjeman regarded the guides as 'piratical' and went as far as consulting the Society of Authors as to whether they could be viewed as an infringement of copyright in relation to the 'Shell Guide' name. At Shell however, the preference was definitely weighted in favour of the Rainbird series, and a draft letter dated February 21st 1962, from Shell's Sales Promotion and Advertising Department to David Bland, would have signalled the end of the Shell Guides, had it been sent:

I have to tell you that there is a distinct change in the Shell attitude towards institutional advertising and we have to curtail almost immediately our commitments towards the Shell Guides. One of the reasons for this decision has been the slow growth of these county guides…

Fortunately, the draft is crossed through as 'cancelled' with a more conciliatory letter dated March 9th taking its place, asking for a programme of forthcoming titles and some idea of Shell's financial commitment to the series in the near future. In an attempt to boost the sales of the existing guides, all the titles published between 1951 and 1960 (though excluding the Norfolk and Suffolk guides) were given new redesigned jackets in the Autumn of 1963.

At the same time, he first new titles since the end of 1960 were published, namely W G Hoskins's Rutland and Vyvyan Rees' South-West Wales. Both came with the new-style photographic laminated jackets and seem to have sold respectfully, Rutland selling close to 1000 copies in the first two weeks following publication. But once again, dark clouds were on the horizon, this time regarding James Lees-Milne's forthcoming guide to Worcestershire. Before broaching this subject, of which a great deal of material survives in Shell's files, it is worth remembering Betjeman's philosophy towards the guides, as outlined in his letter to Juliet Smith in 1963:

The value of the Shell Guides is to tell people what places are really like . . a record of what England is now and a candid personal opinion of each parish and town. It’s no good writing a comprehensive and impersonal catalogue. That is already being done in Pevsner’s Buildings of England. Don’t bother too much about dates and styles . . Pick out [the buildings] you like . . and don’t be too frightened of saying a place is hideous if you don’t like it.

As architectural advisor to the National Trust, James Lees-Milne was well qualified to comment on the buildings and landscape of Worcestershire and was not afraid of speaking his mind. On seeing the finished draft, Betjeman wrote congratulating him for the "affection and delicious grumpiness" the author had shown. This view was not shared by Shell's Sales, Promotion and Advertising Department, where memories of the effects of Verey's Mid-Wales guide were still fresh. Late in 1963, a flurry of correspondence reveals the depths of Shell's concerns, one letter baldly stating that "it would not be in our interest to publish this document". David Bland was forced to make changes to the text, deleting an entry referring to "a hotel of the most pronounced vulgarity inside and out". Meanwhile, Betjeman was under pressure to modify Lees-Milne's comments regarding the town of Worcester, which was "being sacked today by its own corporation". This he duly did, but not before using a meeting in Worcester of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (in April 1964) to publicly recite the offending passage verbatim, thus ensuring it found its way into print in the local and national press, even if it wasn't to appear in the book. Shell seem to have taken this inflammatory gesture in their stride, and letters in their files (dated August 1964) express gratitude to Betjeman in co-operating in amending Lees-Milne's text. Despite this, the relationship between Betjeman and Shell had taken another blow.

Despite the success of Henry Thorold and Jack Yates' Lincolnshire guide of 1965 (prompting Betjeman's slightly naÔve comment "we have got Pevsner on the run"), the guides were once again under threat of curtailment by Shell. In the Spring of 1966, a meeting between representatives of Shell and Faber discussed the "present high cost of production" of the guides "in relation to the proceeds they bring Shell-Mex and B.P. Ltd." At the time, Shell was sponsoring the series to the tune of £16,000 per annum, and despite this, it was noted that the recently published Dorset guide was making a loss of 9/7d per book. Stung by the implications of the meeting, Betjeman write to the then Chairman of Shell (Frank Stephens) in May 1966:

I founded these in 1933, through the kindness of Jack Beddington, now deceased. They were prestige advertising and not intended to be self-supporting. Now your people seem unable to back them, though they are beginning to pay for themselves. If your people no longer intend to back these guides . . we had better get the present publishers to take them on on a self-supporting basis.

John Piper was also feeling uneasy, commenting in 1966 that "the present system is really not working". He admitted that the "over-serious" style that had developed was down to him and expressed a preference for the "more larky" style of the earlier guides. As had happened previously, the matter was eventually resolved, with a new contract between Shell and Faber binding Shell to fund two new guides, and two revised guides per year. Authors and editors were no longer to be paid flat fees but moved onto royalties, 10% for the authors and 2Ĺ% for the editors.

Betjeman's 'Last Stand' with Shell concerned Juliet Smith's Northamptonshire guide, eventually published in 1968. Once again, the author's forthright views, this time concerning the Norwich Union building in Peterborough, caused alarm at Shell, where they were described as "quite outrageous and could lead us into serious trouble with the Norwich Union". On this occasion, Shell firmly put their corporate foot down. In a letter to David Bland dated March 3rd 1967, J P Gaudin of Shell wrote:

It is irresponsible of the editors to permit offensive remarks of this sort to remain in the text of a book that is intended to create goodwill for Shell. We wish for no repetition of the Mid-Wales and Worcester episodes. Needless to say, the last thing we wish to do is involve you personally in embarrassing arguments with Messrs Betjeman and Piper. If they should be disposed to argue the matter, perhaps you will kindly refer them to us, as the company that is paying for the Guides.

The matter was the last straw for John Betjeman, who used a private function in June 1967 to resign from his editorial role, although it was not made public until the Northamptonshire guide was published in March 1968. At the same time, he was aware that Piper was now the driving force behind the series. "As one gets older, oneís ideas run out" he wrote to his friend, though earlier, in March 1966, he had conceded that "My work for the Weekend Telegraph and wireless and telly have to come first with me."  It's worth noting that, using historic inflation rates, Betjeman's salary of £800pa at Shell in 1934 would be the equivalent of around £45,000 in today's terms (2008), whereas his annual stipend for co-editing the Guides in 1966, £200, would equate to around £2800 using the same methodology.  It was income Betjeman could afford to live without, especially with so many other new avenues opening up to him.

Interestingly, the Shell company was "pleased to be associated" with Norman Scarfe’s Essex guide of 1968, but was "not responsible for any expressions of opinion" in Piper and Cheetham’s Wiltshire guide published later the same year. As if to emphasis the end of the 'Betjeman Era', a number of post-war titles, including Shropshire, Oxfordshire, and Mid-Wales went out of print around the same time as his resignation.

The Guides seemed to reach of peak of popularity during the mid-1960s. All the titles published from 1964 to 1968 reprinted at least once, some as many as four times, as in the case of Cornwall and Lincolnshire. For all the titles published from 1969 through to 1984 (with the odd exception of North Wales), a single print run was sufficient, as had been the case for many of the 1950s titles.

5) The 1970s and '80s: Swimming against the Tide

It is true that under Piper’s sole editorship, the Shell Guides became less individualistic and sometimes a little too stiff and ‘efficient’ in their compilation. However, the guides had grown from the average 80 or so pages during the 1950s to the much more substantial 150-225 page books of the late-'60s onwards. A standardised three-colour dust-jacket design was introduced in 1968 which remained the norm for ten years. Whilst the ‘larky’ engravings and line illustrations had gone, the quality of the photography remained high - frequent contributors in this period included John Piper, Edwin Smith and Piper’s son Edward. Despite this high standard, it appears the series came in for criticism over the choice of photographs. Piper chose Michael Moulder's 1973 Shropshire guide to make his point, perhaps in response to recent comments:Cut End (photo from Lincs 1965)

The pictures in these guides are not chosen for their holiday appeal, nor as advertisements for the places and buildings they show. The special character of a village or a house or a stretch of country is what, in the end, is exciting and memorable about it, and this character may be brought out not only by camera angles and quality of negative and print, but by cloud or lack of cloud, in fact by many different effects of lighting, mood and season. These considerations have influenced the choice of pictures more than demand for conventional compositions in sharp focus and perpetual sunshine.

Norman Scarfe believes the "dark printing" of the photographs in the later guides could be "sometimes impressive, sometimes rather unilluminating". The Great British Public was steadily getting used to the more conventional colour photographs Piper was alluding to and by the early 1980s, the series' dogged use of artistic black and white photographs must have seemed a little archaic. However, the fact that so many were devoid of people, cars and the increasing 'clutter' of modern life means they appear timeless today, which is more than can be said for the photography in other guides.

As the 1970s progressed, so the market for topographical guides declined. The British population seemed to be losing its identification with its counties, even though regional affiliations remained strong. Norman Scarfe believes "the travelling public no longer settled down to look at a single county, and just wanted the half-dozen best things in each one". Worse still, marketing executives were beginning to carve up and rebrand Britain into areas such as "Shakespeare's Country" or "Bronte Country". Against this background, attempts were made to broaden the appeal of the Shell Guides, firstly by the introduction of full colour dust-jackets in 1979 and secondly by issuing some of the later titles in paperback in 1982. Eventually, the decision to pull the plug on the series was taken in 1984, just as guides to Bedfordshire, Berkshire and Huntingdonshire were in preparation (where are the manuscripts?).

Some 25 years later, light has been cast on the series' demise by Frances Spalding in her excellent biography of the Pipers (John Piper Myfanwy Piper - Lives in Art, OUP, 2009).  Apparently the decision was first announced in 1980, but according to the Daily Telegraph's 'Peterborough' column (November 1984), it had all ended in acrimony with Faber criticising Shell for not advertising the series in their petrol stations, whilst Shell were equally miffed with Faber for not making enough effort to maximise sales through bookshops. The series' rather archaic photography and absence of practical 'tourist information' also lurked in the background.  Piper, along with Richard Ingrams, tried to find a new publisher for the series (including Chatto & Windus, who had published Piper's Places  in 1983) but these efforts came to nothing.  Ironically the last guide, Henry Thorold's Nottinghamshire, won the Thomas Cook prize for best guide-book. It was fitting, albeit entirely coincidental, that the series should be wound up in the same year that its founding father, John Betjeman, died aged 77.

John Piper circa 1975Despite his efforts, John Piper (right), who had first become involved with the guides aged 34 and had just turned 80 may have felt that the time was right to let the series go. How little he could have known, back in 1938, that his nascent artistic career would lead him to design stained glass which itself would merit inclusion in the Shell Guide series, as in the Buckinghamshire guide of 1981. Perhaps his only regret was that many counties remained uncovered.  Indeed this is a legitimate criticism of the series.  Why for example, was South West Wales revised when South East Wales was to remain outside the scope of the series? Likewise, why the revised guides to Wiltshire (1968) and Gloucestershire (1970) when neighbouring counties such as Somerset should have taken priority? The major gap in the series’ coverage was the north of England; Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. Perhaps they were thought too large for a single guide although it appears that guides to the West Riding of Yorkshire and the Scottish Borders were in preparation during the mid-1960s. Nonetheless, the Shell Guides were comprehensive in their coverage of East Anglia, the Midlands and the counties between London and Land’s End, quite an achievement.

6) Aftermath and Legacy

Although there were no new titles after 1984, the Guides remained available for most of the decade, although in 1989 the remaining stock of the paperback guides was sold off to the Alastair Press of Bury St Edmunds, who took over the marketing and distribution. In 1987, the same company chose to reprint the final editions of the Norfolk and Suffolk guides (omitting the ‘Shell’ name) meaning that both titles had remained in print for well over 30 years.

An ‘official’ attempt to revive the format came in the late 1980s when publishers Michael Joseph introduced the ‘New Shell Guides’ under the general editorship of John Julius Norwich. Rather than reproduce the county by county format, these new guides covered regions such as ‘The North-East of England’ and ‘Devon Cornwall and the Scillies’. In tackling larger areas, the guides could only cover the more interesting or obvious places, like many a selective guide before. Perhaps as a result of this, the series faltered and within a few years, all the published volumes were out of print.

In March 1994, Radio 3 broadcast four short programmes, designed to fill in the intervals of live classical recitals, based upon the pre-war Shell Guides. The series was called 'Going for a Drive' and featured programmes based on Oxfordshire, Kent, The West Coast of Scotland and Cornwall. All were a little dry and could have been done a great deal better but at least the programmes on Scotland (presented by poet Joy Hendry) and Cornwall (hosted by Patrick Heron) quoted heavily from the original guides and attempted to contrast the 1930s era with the present day.

In 1999 a peculiar twist to the story came to light when a 'forthcoming' title, The Shell Guide to Yorkshire was listed on an edition of the Books in Print database.  The book was to be a hardback priced at £14.99. Enquiries with the publishers (Weidenfeld and Nicholson) revealed one simple truth - no-one there knew anything about it!  It seems likely that the project had been abandoned, but it revealed that Shell were apparently still interested in putting their name to a topographical guidebook. I have no doubt that had the book been published it would have been selective and glossy, and therefore not a 'true' Shell Guide of the old school. Nonetheless, it would have been the first new Shell Guide to an English county for some 15 years.

Of course, a lot can change in six or so years, and in the Spring of 2006, John Betjeman's centenary year, Michael Russell published a new book, entitled North Yorkshire: A Guide, by Peter Burton (hardback, ISBN 0859552977).    This book was first brought to my attention by Steve Page, who described it as "a Shell Guide in all but name."  At first I wasn't sure whether to believe this, but once I'd sourced a copy, I realised it was true.  The book is 9" x 7", the photographs are reproduced in the same high-contrast fashion, almost all devoid of cars and people, and the gazetteer format is exactly the same.  It's a little thinner than the later Shell Guides, but there must be an equal if not greater level of content thanks to the smaller typeface employed.  Of course, Peter Burton provided photographs for the original guides from the 1960s onwards, and in his introduction acknowledges his debt to his friend John Piper, noting that "his are amongst the finest photographs of place ever taken."  One should quickly point out that Betjeman regarded Burton's as "some of the best topographical photographs I have ever seen."  Also acknowledged is Henry Thorold - Peter Burton worked with him on nine out of his ten books.  Writes Burton, "I have tried to model all my entries on Henry's Shell Guides."  Interestingly, like the original Guides, it appears that this new book was not a entirely commercial proposition, and was in part funded by the likes of the North Yorkshire Millennium Fund.  Whether this opens to door to future guides remains to be seen.

Interestingly, Burton is the first author to really tackle the new geography of Britain following the boundary changes of 1974. However, I'm not entirely sure whether he has succeeded.  As it is now a unitary authority, he has decided to leave out the City of York, which as a southerner I've always assumed falls within North Yorkshire, spiritually if not administratively.   Indeed, the map at the back of the book makes no attempt to indicate the city's separate boundary.  I suppose it provides a neat throwback to Piper's Oxon guide which of course left out Oxford itself.  However, as if to undermine this decision, Burton includes Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, all unitary authorities!

Barely a month later, in May 2006, another book was published which in my opinion, shows the influence of the original Guides.  Roy Brinton's The Isle of Wight - A Complete Guide (Dovecote Press, ISBN: 1904349420) has the same small quarto format, the b/w photos and A-Z gazetteer format.  However, I feel the Shell Guide influence may have been more subliminal here, and the end result perhaps resembles what the original series would have evolved into, had it been allowed to continue.  The photos are much more routine, and come from a variety of sources spanning the 20th century, for example a 1930s aerial view of East Cowes.  At the back are useful addresses and contacts, the kind of practical information absent from the Shell Guides. 

In late August 2006, as part of Radio 4's celebrations of John Betjeman's centenary, a series of short features based on the Shell Guides were broadcast within the daily consumer programme You and Yours.  The established broadcaster David Stafford visited four counties - Cornwall, Shropshire, Northumberland and Suffolk - interviewing locals as well as Candida Lycett Green (in Cornwall) and Norman Scarfe for the Suffolk programme.    These 'featurettes', each about ten minutes long, would be best described as having been 'inspired' by the guides, rather than being specifically about them.  The final feature (broadcast September 1st) was a round-table discussion between David Stafford, travel writer Nick Meyes, Lonely Planet editor Tom Hall and none other than myself, as Shell Guide 'scholar' (!).  In this pre-recorded interview, the guides were discussed in the wider context of 20th century travel and guidebook writing, very much geared to the 'general interest' listeners to the You and Yours programme.

Around the time these programmes were being aired, the Hertfordshire  guide's author R. M. Healey produced a lengthy and erudite article on the guides in the magazine Rare Book Review, again published to tie-in with the Betjeman centenary.  Interestingly there's very little overlap with what I've written above, with Healey's article particularly strong on the pre-war guides and Betjeman's involvement with them.  It's a thoroughly recommended piece.

In March 2009, BBC4 screened a two-part documentary about vintage travel guides, fronted by David Heathcote, the first looking at the Baedeker Guides, the second the Shell Guides.  Heathcote had previously curated an exhibition about the Shell Guides, held at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA) in north London between March and November 2008, and trailed his TV series with an appearance on Radio 4's Excess Baggage programme in February 2009.  The highlight of the BBC4 documentary was an interview with Juliet Smith, looking remarkably sprightly, though sadly this was the only interview with someone directly connected to the original series.  I personally felt that the interesting history of the series was cast aside in favour of a more 'televisual' approach, with avuncular, slightly eccentric middle-aged man (Heathcote) trawling round Dorset and Cornwall, finding places described in the Guides but rarely quoting from them, perhaps for copyright reasons?  It was a good enough job for an audience that had barely heard of the Guides, but the overall feel was one of slight superficiality, more a travelogue than documentary. 

David Heathcote contributed a short chapter on the guides in the limited edition 2010 book Piper in Print, and in the Spring of 2011,  Libri Publishing produced his book A Shell Eye on England: The Shell County Guides 1934-1984.  Needless to say, this is an essential purchase for any collector, and as of 2012 appears to have been partly remaindered, so can be found quite cheaply compared to its rather hefty r.r.p. of £24.95.


7) The Heritage Shell Guides

In April 2012, quite out of the blue to me, a new 'Heritage Shell Guide' to West Yorkshire was published by Canterbury Press.  Written by William Glossop, the book is clearly an attempt to restart the original series and is therefore big news.  The author was first commissioned to write the book in 1974, although a guide to the West Riding of Yorkshire had been mooted as far back as 1961, with Piper and Verey as the authors. As a result, this new title arguably has had a gestation period of 50 years!

As can be seen from the picture, West Yorkshire has been given a cover that echoes the original series' format, but in a much-updated fashion - I personally find it very attractive. There has been one major compromise in the production in that the book is paperback only, with an r.r.p. of £20.00, doubtless a reflection of the printing costs.  With 244 pages, the book is much chunkier than Burton's North Yorkshire guide, and again this puts it closer to the original series in terms of 'feel'.  Inside, whilst there is a small colour section, most of the photos are black and white, the bulk by Harland Walshaw, the author, and Peter Burton.  Most conform the original house style of 'no people, no cars' etc, doubtless an increasingly hard task these days.  Whether this is the right decision for our times is another question.

Inside the book mirrors the original series with its interplay of photos and text, the latter in two columns as against the original three, a conscious decision by the designers.  Unlike Peter Burton's guide, the author has bitten the bullet and included the major towns of the area; Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Leeds and Wakefield.  Aside from the colour photo section, the only other concessions to the 21st century are lists of market days and major country houses and parks, with their web addresses.

Backing the title is the Heritage Shell Guides Trust, which includes Stephen Platten, Bishop of Wakefield, amongst its trustees.  It will be very interesting to see how the title fares, and whether the Trust's ambition stretch to further titles in the future.



Although our towns and countryside have changed immeasurably over the last sixty years ("traffic changes everything" Betjeman once lamented), most of the Shell Guides have much more than the simple nostalgic appeal of the older Little Guides or Highways and Byways books. Most are imbued with Betjeman and Piper’s love and vision of the British landscape, sometimes a little romantic, at other times blunt and scathing about the modern ‘enhancement’ of the time.  The authors, whose backgrounds varied from architects to playwrights and academics, were instrumental in giving the guides their unique feel, which Candida Lycett Green, speaking in 2006, neatly summarised as "human reactions to places, rather than academic reactions." Even the Shell Oil Company, whose support for the guides was a little tacit at times, should be admired for sponsoring the series over such a long period. The series will remain a unique record of Britain in the mid- to late twentieth century, and a lasting monument to the two men who oversaw the entire series, John Betjeman and John Piper.


Above:  A superb double page spread of Shell Guide covers from Peter Ashley's Unmitigated England (Adelphi Publishing, 2006)


Bibliography and Further Reading

Richard Dalby, ‘The Shell Guides’, Book & Magazine Collector no. 73, 1990 (partly revised in B&MC no. 310, August 2009)
Candida Lycett Green (ed.), John Betjeman Letters Volumes 1 & 2 (1994, 1995)
R M Healey, Best of British in 'Rare Book Review', August/September 2006 edn.
Bevis Hillier, John Betjeman - New Fame, New Love (2002)
Richard Ingrams & John Piper, Piper’s Places (1983)
Timothy Mowl, Stylistic Cold Wars: Betjeman vs Pevsner (2000)
William Peterson, John Betjeman: A Bibliography (2006)
Peter Ashley, 'Unmitigated England - A Country Lost & Found' (2006)
Jim Rayner, 'The Shell Guides 1934-39, A Reassessment', Book & Magazine Collector no. 310, August 2009
Frances Spalding, 'John Piper Myfanwy Piper - Lives in Art' (2009)
David Heathcote, A Shell Eye on England: The Shell County Guides 1934-1984 (2011)

Thanks to Sue Aylward and John Maynard of Shell for arranging access to the company's archives way back in 1998/99. Also to R M Healey, Norman Scarfe and Bruce Watkin for their assistance.

Chris Mawson 2012