THE CAMELS ARE COMING - HOW TO IDENTIFY THE FIRST EDITION

by Roger Harris

 

First Edition Replica Dust Jacket

A reproduction of the first ever dust jacket

 

'The Camels are Coming' was the very first Biggles book ever published.  The Biggles stories had first been published in 'Popular Flying' Magazine edited by W. E. Johns.  He wanted a character to represent the real pilots he knew and wrote the first Biggles story - 'The White Fokker' - for the April 1932 first edition of 'Popular Flying' which was actually published on Wednesday 16th March 1932 by a London company called John Hamilton Ltd of 32 Bloomsbury Street, London, W.C.1.  Seven Biggles stories ran in the first seven monthly issues of 'Popular Flying' from April to October 1932 and these seven stories were published with ten further stories in the first Biggles book, 'The Camels are Coming'.

 

The book itself was also published by John Hamilton Ltd, who tended to specialise in aviation books.  The book was published on Wednesday 7th September 1932, exactly 25 weeks after the first appearance of Biggles in the first issue of 'Popular Flying'.  How can we be so precise about the date?  Well, there exists a lovely first edition copy of the book in a very good dust wrapper that was a review copy and still has the slip inside it giving the date of publication.  You can find out more about that particular book below.

 

The Camels are Coming was published in at least eight editions by John Hamilton.  The first edition was in September 1932, with the next edition following either in the October or November 1932 and a third edition in March 1933.  In the March 1933 edition of 'Popular Flying' Magazine there is an advert on the back page stating "Flying-Officer W. E. Johns has autographed one hundred copies of each of his books, "Fighting Planes and Aces" and "The Camels are Coming".  These signed copies are now available.  I suspect that these 100 signed copies must be newly published third editions.  Does anyone out there have one?  If so, I would love to hear from you!

 

Signed Camels Advert March 1933

 

The price of the first two editions was 7 shillings and 6 pence and I believe the third edition was also this price as well although I have yet to see a third edition dust wrapper to confirm that.  The first three editions of the book had 259 pages and I have noted a distinctive typing error in these books.  There is a distinctive error in the text which occurs in the first three editions, on page 224 of the story "THE FOG!". The code number of the spy is given incorrectly as "2792" when it should be "2742".  Below you can see the error.  On page 220, six lines down, a spy identifies himself only by a four digit number - "2742".  However, on the last page of the story, page 224, when Biggles gives credit to the spy who helped him, the spy is referred to by the wrong number(!) - "2792".  This error was corrected in later editions of the book.

 

 

Page 220Page 224

 

A fourth edition of 'The Camels are Coming' was published in October 1933 as part of the John Hamilton "Ace" series and this time the price of the book dropped to 3 shillings 6 pence.  From the fourth edition onwards the book featured a colour frontispiece which was not in the first three editions.  The page count was now 220 pages and the error with regard to the number of the spy was corrected.  You can see the colour frontispiece in this picture taken from my own copy of the fourth edition.

 

Camels 4th frontispiece

 

 

 

 

NOTE THAT THE JOHN HAMILTON LOGO IS HALF-WAY UP THE SPINE

THIS IS COMPLETELY UNIQUE TO THE FIRST EDITION OF “THE CAMELS ARE COMING”

 

I am lucky enough to currently own THREE copies of the first edition.  It took me over ten years of collecting the works of W. E. Johns to even find one and fifteen years to buy three.  The first time I obtained a copy, I bought it from a bookshop in America (of all places) and I received it on 27th October 2010.  I know the precise date as it was such a memorable occasion for me.  In fifteen years of serious collecting, I have only ever seen five copies come up for sale, and I am looking all the time.  I was lucky enough to be able to buy three of them.  The two I didn’t buy included the really expensive one in dust jacket, referred to below, that sold for £11,000 (I don’t have pockets that deep) – and I also passed on a really tatty ex-library copy that sold on eBay for an absolute fortune).  What was particularly thrilling for me was that when I bought my third copy of the original first edition of THE CAMELS ARE COMING, it was inscribed and signed by W. E. Johns himself!   That is something I thought I would never be able to get.  A true signed first edition of the first Biggles book.  The REAL Holy Grail of Biggles collecting.

 

 

The photos I did for my website below are of the first copy I ever obtained.  The boards of my first edition are slightly worn and the gold lettering on the spine has faded but of course, around 80 years have passed since publication.  Sadly, my copy does not have an original dust wrapper (although it does have a very nice reproduction jacket that I have added since).  I have displayed photographs of my original first edition to show the dimensions of the book and also to show what the first few pages look like to assist people in identifying first editions of the book.  The top pages of the first edition were originally tinted black.

 

Camels first edition

Camels length

Camels width

Camels Spine1

Camels Depth

Camels Spine2

01

02

03

04

Above you can see half a dozen pictures of the size of the first edition book cover.  The book is 190 millimetres long and is 30 millimetres wide (compared to my fourth edition copy which is 40 millimetres wide).  The depth is 130 millimetres from the back of the spine to the tip of the cover.

 

You can also see the first few pages of the book leading up to the "Forward" by W. E. Johns.  You will notice that no other books published by John Hamilton are referred to in the preliminary pages.  This feature is unique to the first edition of "The Camels are Coming".

 

As with all of the John Hamilton books, there is no publication date.

05

 

 

 

Although generally speaking, it is hard to determine the different John Hamilton editions of "The Camels are Coming", the first edition itself is very easy to determine.  The first edition is the only edition to have the John Hamilton logo of a sundial half way up the spine.  Here is a picture of a near mint copy of the first edition with an unfaded spine.

 

Camels - first edition review copy

 

 

The boards are said to be black but it may be the case that they are in fact a very, very dark blue.  It is very hard to tell.  The general consensus of opinion is that the boards are black.  But if you have a copy of 'The Camels are Coming' with black boards and the sundial logo halfway up the spine - then congratulations - because you have an elusive first edition of "The Camels are Coming" - the "Holy Grail" of Biggles collecting!  I have heard it rumoured that only 2000 copies of the first edition were ever published but I cannot be definitive about that.  Certainly, the first edition is astonishingly rare.  By the time the second edition was printed the John Hamilton 'sundial' logo had moved to the bottom of the spine.  The pictures below are of the second edition and an original dustwrapper from that second edition.

 

 

 

Camels - second edition cover1

Camels - Section Edition Boards

Camels - second edition cover2

 

 

Just a brief note about "old money".  Prior to decimalisation there were 12 pence to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound - so there were 240 pence in a pound.  7 shillings and 6 pence was therefore 90 pence (pence was referred to by the letter "d" in old money).  When the price dropped to 3 shillings and 6 pence this was only 42 pence.  On decimalisation, a shilling became 5 new pence so in "new money" the book would have cost 37.5 pence on first publication reducing to 17.5 pence from the fourth edition onwards.

 

How much would it cost now? Well, the review copy I referred to earlier was sold on "ABE" (www.abebooks.com) in February 2011 for $17,754 - see the box below.  This was £10,995.  I attach some pictures of this fantastic first edition book and like the rest of us dedicated Biggles collectors we can merely look at it with awe and envy ............

 

 

 

Camels - first edition DJ front

Camels - first edition review copy

Camels - first edition DJ rear

 

Abebooks February 2011

 

And here is a final word on the rarity of the first book from W. E. Johns himself …….

 “As for the first Biggles books I wouldn’t hold out much hope.  “The Camels are Coming”.  No. 1. is now a collectors piece.

I have only my file copy – and have refused substantial offers for it from people who are trying to get the complete saga, now 80 books.

Unfortunately I sold this book outright and so lost control.  It has been reissued many times

by publishers for the chain stores but never under the original title ……….”

 

CLICK HERE TO READ ANOTHER LETTER BY W.E. JOHNS IN MY COLLECTION WHERE HE TALKS ABOUT LOSING CONTROL OF HIS FIRST FIVE BIGGLES BOOKS

 

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