Saturday, 10 February 2018

Be inspired by Mr Cole! Moira Butterfield

Are you feeling a bit ‘meh’? Damp and cold and weighed down by low cloud? Then I hope you will take some inspiration from a truly amazing book character who put a great deal of joyous fun into children’s books over a century ago. Meet Mr Edward William Cole, late of Melbourne, Australia.

Mr Cole's bookshop and most successful book 

I love vintage children’s books and try to seek them out wherever I go, so I was delighted to stumble on Mr Cole, Australian book hero, when I wandered into his recreated bookshop in Melbourne Museum. I’d never heard of his Cole’s Funny Picture Book, but Australians I met definitely had, and no wonder. It was first published in 1879 and sold hundreds of thousands of copies down the decades, making it the most successful Australia picture book ever. It was expanded and updated again and again, modernized most recently in 2013.
Cole was born in Tenterden in Kent and was variously a gold miner, farmer, moleskin trouser-maker, plant collector and photographer before he set up a large bookshop in Melbourne – Cole’s Book Arcade - and used his incredible selling skills to make it a marvel. It had a fernery, a hall of magic mirrors, a Chinese tea salon, a menagerie, a lolly shop, a clockwork symphonium and automaton chickens that laid eggs full of sweets if you put in a penny (or an egg with a hankerchief in it if you were unlucky). No wonder famous shop visitors included Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. Who could have resisted! Come on Waterstones! Where’s your fernery?

A mechanical hen who laid sweetie-filled eggs in the shop. Come on, Waterstones! 

Cole self-published his crazy picture book and sold, sold, sold it for all he was worth – at a shilling a time. He produced other books, too, and in a great example of branding he used his shop logo (a rainbow) on the book covers and created some fabulous advertising:

The guy had flair! 

The Funny Picture Book was a random breakneck ride of rhymes, puzzles, tales, homilies, and Coles' own political beliefs. He railed against water waste in Australia and promoted the idea of education, health, kindness to animals and a world without country borders. This is evident in the currency he produced - collectible medals which could be used to buy more stock in his shop.

The illustrations in the book are frankly terrifying but children loved them, especially the hilariously terrible Electro-Micro Scolding Machine for Scolding Naughty Girls (so the nasty teacher could bellow over a wide area), and Snook’s Patent Whipping Machine for Flogging Naughty Boys, deemed too soft by the horrible headmaster overseeing it.

Yaargh! I'm scared (but I'm smiling). 

Cole died a rich man, and though his shop didn’t long survive the loss of his big personality, his book soldiered on, delighting Australian children. I was given one to look at when I found myself in an Ozzie hospital, and I can testify that it brought a smile to my face. Though it’s weird, random and obviously dated now, it’s subversive, full of joie de vivre, warm, idealistic and child-centred…All the ingredients for a great children’s book. So let’s take some February inspiration from the fabulous Mr Cole and his enthusiasm. 

I’d love to hear which book (for any age) never fails to give you a joyful feeling. And I hope the very thought of it lifts the clouds, Cole style!

Moira Butterfield

Moira has written many non-fiction and picture books for children. Her new Nosy Crow book Welcome To Our World combines both genres. It will be published this summer.

An edition of the Cole’s Funny Picture Book is online in the National Library of Australia’s Trove collection.


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for introducing me to Mr Cole, Moira - he really IS fabulous!

Penny Dolan said...

Now that's just the kind of fantastic bookseller one wants - although I hope that the fernery was more restful than he sounds. Wonder if he wore his own home-made mole-skin trousers by then?

Sue Purkiss said...

Mr Cole sounds glorious!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Goodness, it has been a while since I’ve read about this book and the Arcade. I see that it was located In what is now a very expensive department store called David Jones.

I didn’t know you could find the book on Trove. Must look. Trove is very good, by the way, for research on Australian history. It has newspapers dating back to 1803 that can be searched by keyword and you can find editions of the Australian Women’s Weekly between 1933 and 1981. Tha’s amazing if you want to research daily life in, say, the war years. There are recipes for dishes you can make using your rations and chatty articles about those nice young stars Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and even a strange issue with Stalin on the cover! I mean - Stalin? On the cover of a women’s magazine?