Imdb, the International movie data base, list Billy Mayerl’s composition ‘Marigold’ as being included in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. This intrigued me. I looked up the music as I couldn’t think where it had been featured. Listen to the original version and see if you can recognise it:
It was ‘played’ on the radio in the chandlery in Rio, laid over the scene when the film was dubbed at Elstree Studios. We didn’t hear it when we were in the actual shop.
The Swallows bought ‘grog’ (ginger beer) and rope for the lighthouse tree. Postcards and wicker shopping baskets hung in the chandlery, which had weighing scales on the counter.
This shot was taken during the filming on the corner of Woodland Road, Bowness-on-Windermere during the filming in June 1973. I wonder who the people in the background were – possibly members of the film crew. The man in the blue top looks like Gareth Tandy the third assistant director who would have been asking passing traffic to wait while filming was in progress. The building looked like this in 2012 but I need a more up to date photo.
Jenny Maconchy wrote in to say, “It may be of interest that we still have the bamboo fishing rods that were used in the film. They belonged to my father Leslie Borwick and lent to the film crew. They are rather worse for wear but still treasured as I was a big fan of the books when I was young. Unfortunately I was living abroad when the film was made so have no memories of it.”
As a boy, Arthur Ransome had his own perch rod with a colored float to use at Nibthwaite. Towards the end of the filming, Claude Whatham gave Simon West a similar fishing rod, which Ronnie Fraser taught him to use on Derwentwater.
A member of the Arthur Ransome Group wrote, "I did not realise that the Lakeside Railway had only just re-opened in time for the filming. Of course, although Lakeside Station does get a mention in one of the books, it was the Windermere Station where the Swallows always travelled to. Although Lakeside Station would have been far more convenient from Beckfoot,the Great Aunt always insisted on Windermere as it meant less changes for her. Incidentally both Lake Windermere and Coniston Water had rail connections years ago (which is the likely route for the slate from Slater Bob’s mine although this is not mentioned being outside the scope of a childrens’ story).
“‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) was instrumental in helping me through a very stressful period of my life, and writing was a great healer for me. The results of my efforts are in the The Arthur Ransome Society library : ‘Prospectors Afloat’ and ‘Coots in the North’ a completion of the short portion which was published. I will be obtaining ‘The making of Swallows and Amazons’ and no doubt many more of your other publications in due course.” Charles H Ball
I’ve just read that in Zulu folklore, the swallow is known as Inkonjany – the one who points the way to summer. “The swallow, and other birds like it, is regarded by our people as a symbol of effort and hard work as well as of unity, because you will see these birds gather together in large groups as they come and go. The name Inkonjany means the little pointer, and it comes from the verb komba, which means to point out something. It was said that if you saw a lot of swallows in the sky, it meant that the summer and the harvest would be very good.” I felt this applied quite well to the Walker family migrating north for their summer holiday and working hard as being the best crew they could be.
One of the film fans has called her hens Titty and Nancy. I’m sure Mrs Jackson would approve. Do use the comments box below to write in with any connections you have to ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and the original film.
You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available from libraries, bookshops or direct from the publisher . The Nancy Blackett Trust have signed copies and it can be purchased online here:
There is also a similar multi-media ebook entitled, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons'(1974). You can see inside the first section for free here
“One pandemic discovery for my family was 1974’s ‘Swallows and Amazons,’ a charming British film about kids just playing on a lake. On their own, they’re plenty capable of making their own tents and adventures”, the US film critic Jake Coyle wrote in a review for the Associated Press of a new movie released on Netflix called ‘Yes Day’.
Many people have fond memories of watching the original movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when it first came out in cinemas nearly forty-seven years ago and list it in their Top Ten feature films of all time.
David Kerr wrote: “I first saw the film while I was a junior projectionist. I was 17 at the time. My cinema was called the Astor in Bromley, part of south east London. While an independent cinema, we took the ABC circuit films. Somewhere, I have the LP record and a poster of the film. I went on to a career spanning 40 years in international film distribution.”
“It remains one of my top ten films even to this day. I worked for 20th Century Fox…Polygram…and United International Pictures which distributed Universal, Paramount and Dreamworks films. I had a good career and witnessed the good the bad and the ugly during my travels.”
“From memory, I can recall that the film was released over the Easter school holidays in 1974. It’s just been helped as I have found a press ad online and it lists South London unusually running the film first on April 14th.”
“I believe the film was supported by ‘The Lion at Worlds End’ …the documentary that Virginia and Bill Travers made with George Adamson about returning an African lion to the wild. I know I ran the film again either in 1975 or ’76 as an afternoon matinee only with a Kung Fu adult programme in the evenings.”
“The film means a lot to me and has done so since 1974. It made me revisit the books…which I still read (currently dipping in and out of an old hardback edition of ‘Pigeon Post’) but I believe I had only read one during my childhood, which I think was ‘Swallowdale’. I also embarked on a number of holidays in the lakes because of the film. That first year I camped on a farm at Torver on the west side of Coniston.”
“The reason I include it in my top ten is simple. It is pure storytelling that takes the viewer on an adventure. You do not notice the individual aspects of film making you just become engrossed in the story. And that is what a good film should do. I watched it again just last week on a streaming service… It makes me smile ….what more can I say.”
John Rose wrote: “I can remember watching the film in 1974 with my mum and grandma when I was a nine or ten year-old, at the then called Mecca Cinema in Horsham, Sussex (sadly now demolished). I remember loving the natural setting and the adventure in the film and remember it being thrilling and suspenseful! Still my favourite film, so cheerful and up-lifting. The lovely music! All still brings a tear to my eye. Back then in the ’70s we didn’t have the lakes but at every opportunity our little band of local children would run off over the fields playing, building camps and climbing trees in the woods – such happy, carefree days.”
Last time the film was broadcast on BBC Two, David Stott, who worked as a unit driver on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when he was fresh out of college, wrote in to say: “I remember how cold you all were whilst filming the swimming scene. The lily pond scene brought back memories of a very wet day on Pull Wyke caravan park. Most of the day was spent in the two double decker buses that were your school room and the canteen waiting for the rain to clear. Everyone was so grateful to pack up and go home.”
“I had many incidents with the parrot that I had to collect in the morning and return at night. I hated the bird, often it was let free in a bathroom at Kirskstone Foot and l would have to catch it and put it in its travel bag. I notice in the film that it is chained down whilst it is sitting on your shoulder.”
“I would spend a lot chatting to Ronnie Logan the hairdresser while the shooting was taking place, such a nice man.”
“The day they filmed the walking the plank scene I remember very well. I took Ronnie Fraser to the Lodore Swiss hotel at lunchtime and he was really very well plastered by the time I got him back for the afternoon filming. I suppose it was the only way they managed to get him in the water. He was not a happy chappy that afternoon when I eventually took him back to Ambleside.”
“I had to put the rushes on the train to London in the evening and collect developed film (how times have changed). One of my treats was that I was allowed to watch the rushes with the production team in the evening. Watching it again this afternoon was a real trip down memory lane. I cannot believe that I was a student starting out in life at the time and now l am a pensioner. Where has all that time gone?”
Since the experts on BBC Antiques Roadshow have been taking an interest in the original feature film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974), I thought I ought to add to a few facts. Although the movie was released forty-seven years ago, the cast list remains incomplete. A few credits are missing:
Jim Stelfox was in uniform, playing a guard or station master at the Haverthwaite Steam Railway station in the opening scenes, when the Swallows first arrive in the Lake District. He ended up appearing in some of the publicity stills that were used in magazines and newspapers. One features on a jigsaw puzzle that accompanied the release of the movie. The little boy leaning out of the train window is Robin Smith, who grew up in Ambleside. He came along with his mother Eileen and his brother, Alan Smith, who became a newsreader on BBC Radio 4.
Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Virginia McKenna, Simon West Suzanna Hamilton with Jim Stelfox, the station master.
David Watkin Price, also from Cumbria, played the native on the jetty in Rio. His speaking part was cut from the television version of the film broadcast on ITV but remains in the remastered 2014 cinema Bluray and DVD available online.
Mr Price played an important part in our lives when the film was being made as he owned and ran the Oaklands Guest House in Ambleside where we stayed. His daughter Jane, told me, ‘They wanted you to stay in a place that had a family atmosphere with other children.’ I expect that she did a lot to help.
Jane appeared with her two brothers as film extras in the Rio scenes, remembering that it gave her a day off school. Sadly, her little brother’s knickerbockers kept falling down. You can see Jane in a grey dress with long pigtails, hoiking them up in this behind-the-scenes shot. To see other photos of the Price family in costume, please click here.
The people of the Lake District have written in with other stories. Philippa Poulson knew the real charcoal burner, Norman Allonby – ‘I lived around the corner from him in 1973. He lived in a tiny one up, one down traditional cottage, walked everywhere, and made a lovely cup of tea. He was very interested in my English Literature A’ level course, being a keen reader. I wonder how many people know he knew Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, by heart, and in their entirety and could recite any part, at any time, on request. He would happily talk for hours on the subject, with a twinkle in his eye and his pickle catching front tooth. Lovely, gentle man, living life at the right pace.’ You can read more about the real charcoal burners of Grizedale Forest here.
Susie Trezise said, “I remember them filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – it was right in the middle of my O’Level exams and their walkie-talkies kept coming through my stereo speakers! It was fascinating listening. I lived at Stock Ghyll Mill, so about five miles away from the filming. The strangest thing was it still came through the speakers when they were turned off but still plugged in!”
~Comic strips based on the 1974 film found by Arthur Herbertson~
Joss Bundy wrote to say: “My Father, between being the technical director of the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre, worked with Richard Pilbrow at Theatre Projects in the ’70s. He had been a friend of Richard’s for many years. Theatrical lighting design was still in its infancy and designers tended to stick together. Richard and my Dad were the founders of The Association of Lighting Designers, along with various others.
“My mother, Rosemary Lindsay, had been a ballerina at the ROH, which is where they met. My Mother had sailed since a small child and had devoured each new Ransome book as it was published and loved them more than any others. When Richard mooted the film, my father mentioned what an expert Rosemary was and when the project was getting up on its feet she was given an early script to vet. Various things had been added in for dramatic effect and she vetoed one: Roger getting stuck on top of a cliff, as she felt John and Susan would never have let him get in such a situation.”
“I was clearing yet another box of theatre-related photos and as well as a couple of publicity stills.” One shows filming the Amazon boat house. “I can only assume Richard or Molly sent them back to my Dad, who would have been running Theatre Projects while Richard was away.”
“After the film was finished, Richard offered Swallow to my Mum, but she didn’t want the responsibility of another wooden boat. We still own the one she sailed as a child, a smaller version of a Swallow type boat. She also felt that a boat only sailed in fresh water would not necessarily do well in salt water.”
Do add any memories you have to the Comments, below. It would be lovely to hear from you.
It would be great to have some more review on the film on the International Movie Database. You can easily add one here.
Movies are made for watching. In the end, they belong to those who love them and it is wonderful to hear of the impact they have had on people’s lives.
The screenwriter Caleb Ranson wrote: “You’ve no idea how thrilling this is for me to hear from you. Swallows & Amazons was a life changing cinema visit for me, set me off on my path writing/producing TV/films. I played the soundtrack album every night for years. And I love your book BTW, bought it when it first came out.”
Paddy Heron of Children in Read describes the movie Swallows and Amazons(1974) as “a national treasure of a film.”
Nigel Seymour wrote to say, “that the original film has an ambience which cannot be calculated. It sits in time, yet it is as fresh as if it was made yesterday!” An international musician today, Nigel believes, “It possesses a simplicity of life we’ve lost, so watching it is a refreshing reminder of great days… a journey into another dimension and another world steeped with love and belonging, adventure and moral understanding, which is shared between a family and accepted. The characters are brought to life almost as if they are an infinite, integral part of the immortality of the story, each giving that picturesque understanding the viewer finds impossible to explain. After watching this film one arrives back in real time with a resounding bang! We wonder why such a simple story can create such an iconic understanding. Why watching this film can make you feel happy, totally complete and yearning to return again and savour that wonderful, eternal landscape we have all learned to grow and love as the Lakes.”
Tracy Kenny from Ketts Books wrote: “Swallows and Amazons is a firm family favourite in our house and for a while there, your movie was the only film my eldest would watch!”
The author Catherine Randall said: “I lived and breathed Swallow & Amazons including your film. Knew nearly all the words!”
The fan letters continue to arrive. Each one treasured.
Nigel Young writes: “‘Swallows and Amazons’ is one of those films which sets itself in that timeless space no one can quite fathom or understand, almost verging on ‘Immortality’. I’m sure no one at the time working on it ever thought the film would achieve the cult status it seems to enjoy today. You are possibly smiling when you read this, but it’s a true reflection of a film, which is more than a film and touches on those beautiful innocent moments and times which have been lost forever.”
Charles H Ball wrote: “‘Swallows and Amazons’ was instrumental in helping me through a very stressful period of my life… I will be obtaining ‘The making of Swallows and Amazons’ and no doubt many more of your other publications in due course. “
C.H.B. left a review of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ writing: ‘the feelings of anybody who would have loved to have had the opportunity of actually taking part in the film are summed up by Nancy Blackett when the D’s are explaining how they managed to get to the North Pole a day earlier than planned. ‘And you two came by yourselves and got here through that blizzard?’ said Nancy. ‘However did you find the Pole?’ ‘The blizzard helped really,’ said Dorothea. ‘We were sailing,’ said Dick………..’And we’ve gone and opened the stores,’ said Dorothea. ‘And eaten some of them. You see we lost our food when the sledge turned over and the mast broke…’ ‘Capsized!’ cried Nancy. ‘Mast gone by the board! Oh. you lucky, lucky beasts!’ Some of us will forever envy the lucky children who had the opportunity of a lifetime.
I hope to include all these quotes in the 3rd edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, to be brought out for the 50th Anniversary of the films release in April 2024. Do leave a comment below or write in, letting us know what the film meant to you or how it effected your life.
Viewers of the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) have written to point out that when the Amazons sailed up to Captain Flint’s houseboat there was a terrible crash. I found the quote from ‘The Picts and The Martrys’, which made me realise why this horrified anyone who knows the characters well:
“…when you come sailing along and fetch up with a bump against Jim’s new paint.”
“We never do,” said Nancy. “Remember when we came and made you and Uncle Jim walk the plank last summer? We were aboard and rushing the cabin before you knew we were anywhere near.” ‘Picts and Martyrs’ by Arthur Ransome p.14
Jane Sullivan noticed Captain Flint yelled, “Death or Glory!” as the Swallows and Amazons laid siege to his houseboat. ‘Is that a pre-echo of the East Anglian stories?’ she asked.
Jane also noted: ‘In the closing credits, I notice they spell For Ever as two words, which it is as it should be, rather than the modern way which confuses the adjective “forever” with the adverbial phrase “for ever”.’
Most people are familiar with the fact that Peel Island was used as the location for Wild Cat Island in the 1974 film.
Peter Dowden of the Arthur Ransome Group, pointed out that Peel Island is a classic example of a rocher moutonnee or sheepback, shaped by glacial erosion. Larger examples in Sweden are known as flyggbergs. Others comment that it’s easy to imagine the island as Captain Flint’s schooner the Wild Cat, which sails to the Caribees in ‘Peter Duck’ and is set on fire by Gibber the monkey in ‘Missee Lee’.
Peter also wrote about burgees. He noted, ‘Traditionally, creatures shown on flags face towards the “hoist” – the bit of the flag that is attached to the mast. So head near the mast and tail near the flappy part of the flag (called the ‘fly’). He went on to say, “someone did the research and Arthur Ransome drew the Swallow flag both beak to hoist and beak to fly!”
Our art director, Simon Holland, made what I considered the mistake of having the swallow on Swallow’s burgee flying away from the mast.
My publisher asked me to draw our crossed flags, a sketch which was later stolen and used all over the place from the call sheet of the 2016 movie to badges for sale on eBay.
Paul Thomas, of the Arthur Ransome Group, explained that Swallow and Amazon are standing lugsail dinghies, rather the balanced lugsails as I had been told. “Swallow’s keel was designed for sailing in shallow estuaries and grounding on shifting shoals with sails tanned to protect them from rot and sunshine.”
“What is particularly impressive, to me,” Roger Barnes, president of the Dinghy Crusing Association, commented, “is how well done the sailing scenes are, and sometimes in pretty strong winds. Most sailing in films is really unconvincing.” Roger added: “The boom jaws off the mast as they first approach Wild Cat Island is the only major flaw with that aspect of the film.” I had never noticed! We were bitterly cold on that day when we first sailed Swallow in front of the camera.
Roger Barnes’ illustrated book, The Dinghy Cruising Companion, published by Bloomsbury, included my behind-the-scenes photo of Swallow, where you can see the jaw back in place.
You can also see the jaws in this film still (c) Studiocanal:
Please do add a comment below or write in with any points you notice that I can add to a third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, an ebook available from a variety online stockists. You can look at the first pages here.
~Contact sheet shots taken from Albert C Clarke’s film stills~
‘I have just been watching on BBC catch-up, the famous and wonderfully entertaining film ‘Swallows and Amazons’. As a 12 year old boy in 1974, my little brother and I were taken to watch the James Bond film ‘Live and Let Die’ in Coulsdon. As we sat down to watch it we found ourselves sat at the wrong place. We were so upset! When the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ started playing we totally forgot about 007 and found ourselves glued to the screen watching this wonderfully entertaining film. In short, even at 58 years of age I still enjoy this beautiful film about four children and their adventures.’ George
‘My best #lockdown viewing so far has been the 1974 film version of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons‘. Reliving the joy of discovering those books, and remembering the freedom of grubbing about in the wildness…’ Judy Darley
‘Never read Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows & Amazons’ or seen an adaptation until yesterday. What a delight the 1974 film was. Captured the spirit of childhood adventure so charmingly. Didn’t stop smiling for a moment during the whole thing.’ David Rattigan
‘Watching the original ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with daughter. Get to the “better drowned than duffers, if not duffers won’t drown” telegram and daughter remarks: “I see. So their dad’s gone mad and is writing gibberish.”’ Patrick Kidd – Times Diaryist
‘Ooh. The original ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has come onto Amazon Prime. The one with Titty. The real one. The only one.’
‘Best children’s film ever made. Perfect lockdown viewing. BBC iPlayer – ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – Tim Bonner
For homeschooling ideas relating to the films, such as watching the DVD in French, please click here
You can read the first section of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ for free in the preview here:
RTE Guide declared, ‘The definitive adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows & Amazons’ is on BBC Two.’ More people than ever seemed to watch the classic film, starring Virginia McKenna, which attracted comments on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram while emails were being sent in.
Dr Lucie Bea D – And Swallows and Amazons is on! A very very early cinema memory for me; I saw it in Hereford and was given a colouring in picture of the Amazons hiding in the reeds watching Swallow.
I’ve just enjoyed watching the film on tv again (I watch it every time!) I can remember watching the film in 1974 with my mum and grandma when I was a nine or ten year old, at the then called Mecca Cinema in Horsham,Mecca Cinema in Horsham, Sussex (sadly now demolished) I remember loving the natural setting and the adventure in the film and remember it being thrilling and suspenseful! Still my favourite film, so cheerful and uplifting. The lovely music! All still brings a tear to my eye.
Back then in the 70s we didn’t have the lakes but at every opportunity our little band of local children would run off over the fields playing, building camps and climbing trees in the woods – such happy, carefree days. Been looking at your website too – what a huge resource about the film – good time at the moment to look through it! Thank you for all the information and being in such a happy film, John Rose
Michael – I spent my summers up in the Lake District as a boy and loved/love the book
Peter Hamilton – Swallows and Amazon’s was one of my all time favourites as a child, it was an adventure that seemed more attainable than famous five etc. I really hope my son loves it as much as I did when he’s older…. I adore lake Coniston. Even in high summer that water is icy and very deep innocent happy times… I‘ve tried to sail out to the island on Coniston lake but there wasn’t enough wind so didn’t quite make it. I collected a fair few of the books in my 20s, brings back lots of memories
Duncan HallIt’s such a good film. Doesn’t feel dated at all, to me.
Peter Ashby something timeless about the film. I can happily sit and watch it any time
Graeme Wood – Just goes to show how timeless the story is..
Graeme Wood – It’s a lovely film. As a kid I wanted to jump through the TV screen and join in (ditto the BBC adaptations of Coot Club and The Big Six). Hopefully kids will watch and want to read the books.
Michael – I’ve loved it all my life. I remember my dad rowing me out to an island on lake Windermere and showing me holes in trees, he said they’re from arrows!!!!!!
Maddy Knibb – I also had a wooden swing that collapsed so I turned it into a boat, with broom handle and sheet mast and sail. Guess which books were played out – Swallows and Amazons! It was by a laurel hedge and the leaves made great fish to be cooked on pretend fires!
Perfect opportunity for children to replicate #WildcatIsland with homemade tents in the living room
Glenn Evans – Read this to all my children when they were toddlers. And saw the film in 1974 myself.
Michael – It was only yesterday as far as I’m concerned
Jude – Remember watching the boats on the lake being being filmed from my bedroom window – what a lovely way to slip back into my childhood
Mandy Morley The most classic, and my favourite quote: “I’ll shiver your timbers for you if you don’t stop chattering Peggy!”
Portway Junior School say, ‘the Portway Press also contained a link to the children’s classic ‘Swallows and Amazons‘ film – an excellent watch in this wet weather’.
Please add any questions about how the movie was made to the Comments below.
For the latest edition of the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ with details of the film locations and what those who appeared in it are doing now, Please click here
You can read the first section for free in the ebook, entitled ‘The secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ This is similar to the paperback but has a few more stories for adult readers and links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It can be downloaded from iBooks, iTunes, Smashwords,Kobo and Amazon Kindle
For homeschooling ideas, why not get hold of a copy of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in French or enter Into Film’s movie review writing contests? Read more here.
It would be lovely to hear from anyone who saw it in the cinema when it first came out in cinemas in the summer of 1974 – more than forty-five years ago.
Lat time ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) was screened on BBC Two, at least one film fan held a TV party with a 1930’s theme. Others ‘stoked up the wood-burner and settled down to spend an afternoon re-living summer in the Lake District’, adding, ‘It is as if Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – a timeless classic to watch again and again.’
For the latest edition of the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ with details of where the film was made and what those who appeared in it are doing now, Please click here
The ebook, entitled ‘The secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ is similar with a few more stories for adult readers and has links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It can be downloaded from iTunes, Smashwords,Kobo and Amazon Kindle
It would be lovely to hear from anyone who saw it in the cinema when it first came out in cinemas in the summer of 1974 – more than forty-five years ago.
Simon Hodkin kindly sent in this cinema programme that he has kept since watching the movie when he was a boy growing up in North Wales.
Arthur Herbertson managed to track down these rare publicity sheets for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ typical of movie games of the period:
Arthur has a collection of the four jigsaw puzzles and the Puffin paperback that came out with the film.
There was a vinyl LP narrated by the screenwriter David Wood that you can still purchase.
Arthur found a publicity brochure that I had never seen before.
To read comments from people who saw the film at the cinema in 1974, please click here
The original story was written by Arthur Ransome in 1929 ninety years ago, so the film hits the half-way mark between the original readers and today’s audience. It’s funny, the critics in 1974 are asking the same question as raised in the billing this week: Do ‘modern youngsters struggle to relate to such old-fashioned game playing’?
Do add your thoughts to the comments below.
~Billing in the Christmas edition of the Radio Times 2019~
An article first published in Mixed Moss, 2019, the journal of The Arthur Ransome Society:
‘I can’t see it.’ The man was standing in the rain outside the cinema. ‘You said Swallows and Amazons has parallels to missionary life but I don’t get it.’ He was a vicar, camping with his family in the Lake District. After spending a week at the Keswick Convention, he’d brought his children to see the original film Swallows and Amazons (1974) at the Alhambra where I was giving a Q&A after a screening of the movie.
‘I once went on a short-term mission to Australia,’ I told him. ‘People would ask me if I was going to convert the natives.’ I explained the archaic idea of berating aboriginal people filled me with horror but use of the word ‘natives’ reminded me of Swallows and Amazons. This led me to consider how deeply Arthur Ransome was influenced by missionary journeys of the early 1900s. As the author, Julian Lovelock points out, ‘exploring, trading and being a missionary were, in Victorian times, all shades of the same colonial activity. Dr Livingstone is often described as an ‘explorer-missionary’. This is the 80th Anniversary year of the publication of Secret Water where ‘missionaries’ enter Ransome’s world in their ‘mission ship’ Lapwing.
Linda Hendry, of The Arthur Ransome Society (TARS), observed that as a boy of ten, Arthur envied his Aunt Edith and Aunt Jessie who were going off to China as missionaries. Did this idea of adventures last with him?
Although his father, Cyril Ransome, came from a clerical background and ensured Arthur received a biblical education in Windermere, Margaret Ratcliffe of TARS reports that ‘there is never a hint of spirituality’ in his letters and diaries. ‘Arthur and Genia were not of an active religious persuasion; Christmas and Easter were ordinary days for them.’ The only time he went to church on a regular basis was when he lived in Finsthwaite and his closest fishing friend was the vicar, the Rev. Roland Pedder. ‘Arthur Ransome never mentions that they discuss spiritual matters, rather hooks, bait and water levels.’ I agree with Margaret’s view that any analogy ‘would have been subliminal on his part, rather than conscious’ but it is embedded in the story, all the more interesting for being unintended.
The reality of going on overseas missions does have parallels with Swallows and Amazons. You tend to set off as a group or family, like the Walker children, and usually end up helping people who need a bit of support, even if it is not what you might expect. Those once wounded often make the best doctors. One of the key themes, perhaps driving force behind Swallows and Amazons is fatherlessness. Is the story an out-working of Arthur Ransome’s grief for his own father who died when Arthur was thirteen? Was he desperate to prove that he is as reliable and resourceful as Captain John, planning the expedition while Commander Walker was in Malta preparing to sail to Hong Kong? As it is, the Swallows gain Daddy’s permission while remaining under the umbrella of their mother’s care, making sensible preparations before setting sail. This is very like missionary groups who usually need permission from the church with back-up and support from their mission organisation.
Peter Wright, chairman of The Arthur Ransome Society, added, ‘The Amazons seek out the Swallows in much the same way as indigenous people came to find out about early explorers.’ Any number of missionaries have had arrows fired at them. The Swallows discover that Nancy and Peggy not only prove to be the same age but share their terminology and outlook on life. They too have no father around and have recently been rejected by their uncle who is busy writing. As a result, they are being naughty, letting off a firework on the roof of his houseboat. The Swallows make friends with them and end up helping Uncle Jim to see sense.
Everyone’s moral values are tested in Swallows and Amazons. Uncle Jim realises he has been neglecting his relationship with his nieces and sees what ‘a cross-grained curmudgeonly idiot’ he’d been to ever doubt John Walker’s integrity. Although this casts a shadow on idyllic island days, it almost visibly builds John’s character before his leadership skills are stretched by challenges set by Nancy. The other characters use their gifts to the full, Susan becoming the practical facilitator and Roger learning to be helpful. Titty is the one keen on diving for fish like a cormorant. She keeps the journal or ‘ship’s log’ and takes guidance from Robinson Crusoe that, ‘tells you what to do on an island’, being well-aware that missionaries could be eaten by cannibals. Although her active imagination is undervalued at first, she comes up with ideas that prove vital.
When the Swallows meet indigenous people of the area like the charcoal burners, they are both polite and respectful, taking an interest in traditional beliefs, such as keeping an adder under the bed for luck. Although Roger makes a bit of a gaff, saying Old Billy ‘doesn’t look much like a son’, the others take an interest in ‘savage’ language and culture.
The Swallow’s mother looks out for them constantly. She reprimands John and sets rules when he goes too far, ‘No more sailing at night’, but continually ensures they are provisioned and their needs met. It might not be expected, but there are battles to be won on the mission field. They are usually tricky, demanding timely action and often involving discomfort akin to sleeping in a dinghy moored by Cormorant Island. Interestingly, it is Titty, the littlest girl, who finds the strength and courage to also find the buried treasure and bring restitution.
‘What did the burglars do when they found the treasure had gone?’ one little girl in the cinema asked?
Quick as a flash, Marc Grimston of TARS EAST, who was in the audience, said, ‘Captain Flint carves a fish for them to find instead of the trunk.’ Repentant and forgiven himself, Jim Turner opts to convince the thieves of their guilt rather than report them to the police.
The great thing is, that whilst fishing from boats and weathering the storm, firm friendships are forged that take the Swallows and the Amazons on further adventures, even to the ends of the Earth. There is something inspirational about these that stories lead others to extend themselves, hoist their sails and live life to the full.
You can’t go out as a missionary expecting to convert the natives. You need to come alongside people who are hurting, find the key to their needs and help them use their God-given ability to fulfil their dreams. It can be scary and things won’t always go smoothly but you are usually warned of danger. There will be a need for strong leadership when times become testing but it should be fun. If you can gain people’s trust and hold on to the unity there will be celebration and feasting in the end.
The vicar, standing in the rain beside his bicycle, began to appreciate the parallels. You may find more. One thing is certain: there is something about the Swallows and Amazons series of books that enables adults to enjoy them as much as children. We can escape pressures of contemporary life and are inspired to fulfill our dreams, becoming all the good Lord wants us to be, doing all the things He has prepared us to do.
You may disagree completely, you may can find parallels in other Arthur Ransome books please write in, using the comments box below.
Duncan Hall of the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook wrote: ‘Of course, throughout (the series of Swallows and Amazons books) there are references to fictional and non-fictional adventures of exploration and discovery which historically sat with Empire, missions and trade as well as with piracy, etc. They do contrast with a political outlook that is clearly oppositional to those traditions. We always end up being impressed by savages (in the Lakes or the Walton backwaters) rather than hoping to civilise them. In Missee Lee, we obviously want to protect the location of the Three Islands, rather than send Daddy’s gunboats over there (despite the pretty monstrous business that Miss Lee presided over, we are convinced that the Brits destroying their way of life would be more monstrous still).