State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 60 Spring 1997

31

John Mystery: ‘The Nation's Storyteller’*

In 1994 the State Library of Victoria acquired the Ken Pound Collection of Australian children's literature through the benefice of the Victorian Government's Community Support Fund. A particular feature of this collection is the large number of reprints, variants and ephemeral publications, which few individuals and fewer libraries bothered to collect. The collection contains probably the most complete collection of authors such as Mary Grant Bruce and Ethel Turner but also abounds in such items as Weet-Bix and Liptons’ tea albums and gratis publications from oil companies. Ken Pound endeavoured to collect every edition, reprint, and variant copy of every Australian children's book — an ambitious objective! — and so the collection is unique in the number of variant copies of individual titles it holds. This has resulted in a challenging task for the Library's cataloguers who must now make the collection accessible to the public. It was particularly difficult to adhere to the required Australian Bibliographic Network (ABN) standards for items which in many cases have no imprint details and have not been recorded in any standard bibliographies or catalogues. In recent years the Retrospective National Bibliography Project, which concentrated on cataloguing books published between 1901 and 1950, has at least managed to record many John Mystery titles, thus providing some bibliographic data.
The John Mystery publications in the Pound Collection were new to this writer and typify the sort of item that Ken Pound collected and libraries ignored. The Collection holds 93 John Mystery titles. For only a few of these was there a record on the ABN, and often that record had to be considerably edited, especially the imprint dates.
Dismissed all too readily in the past as either ‘…unworthy of detailed entry’1 or ignored altogether in histories and bibliographies of Australian children's literature, in more recent years an effort has been made to at least record John Mystery items. They are certainly now very collectable. Stella Lees has included an entry on John Mystery in The Oxford Companion to Australian Children's Literature,2 and Marcie Muir fists 68 titles of John Mystery in her revised edition of Australian Children's
32
Books: a Bibliography.3 I would estimate that there could be more than 300 John Mystery titles published, and certainly not all can be considered ephemeral items. Many of the stones have a distinctively Australian context, in particular the stories of the Woolly sisters, Pearl and Plain, and the characters of Dr Platypus and Ernie the Emu.
Irrespective of their literary merit, John Mystery books were extremely popular during the War, often being the only locally produced children's books available. They were distributed mainly through the major department stores. As evidence for their popularity I have seen two contracts between Woolworths and Publicity Press, each for one year's sales, one dated 4 December 1944 for 4.5 million copies of 228 titles, and the other dated 15 February 1946 for 5 million copies of 234 titles. The net value of each contract was £140,000 and £145,000 respectively. Certainly wartime import restrictions would have contributed to a favourable climate for John Mystery items, but there also seems to have been considerable marketing expertise.
In later years John Mystery books proudly proclaimed that ‘John Mystery's books for children are now being published in every country in the world. Soon, in many, languages, to many countries…John Mystery's books will carry Australia's message of happiness and blue sunshine.’4 Then follows an address for Spicers (Export) Ltd., where enquiries for publishing and distributing rights were to be made. There is no evidence that John Mystery books were published overseas, but if they were not recorded in Australian catalogues it is hardly surprising that overseas bibliographies also ignored them. (Plates 1-4)
The post-war flood of imports saw the demise of John Mystery publications, contrary to the author's wish that when the war was won the ‘Red dawn of victory will be shining, and then you, my cobber, will be able to get all the favourite John Mystery books your heart desires.’5
Many John Mystery books were printed on poor quality or even yellow paper, all that was available during the war years. In My little sailor's book, the author apologises for the shortage of books, reminding his readers that ‘… the fighting services must of course, come first in everything and, therefore, paper for my books is not so easy to obtain as in normal times … The government has been good to us, and everybody is doing everything possible to give you books.’
Perhaps the most endearing aspect of the John Mystery books is the ‘Dear Cobber’ letters, often with reference to the progress of the war and encouraging the young reader to communicate with the author. It is an indication of the popularity of John Mystery that the only address required was ‘John Mystery, Adventure Castle, Sydney’ for young correspondents’ letters to reach their destination. In Adventure time, for example, the ‘Dear Cobber’ letter states that ‘I want you to know that I am always
33

Figure 1: Lester Sinclair (‘John Mystery') ca 1945. Reproduced with permission of the Sinclair family

34
your friend. If there is anything you want to know, any trouble you may be in — please let me know, cobber, and I will do my best to put things right for you. I am here in my castle and you are in your home, but our letters will bring us ever so close together.’6 It is easy 50 years on to view these letters with a certain cynicism, but John Mystery did respond to and correspond with his readers. The ‘Dear Cobber’ letters invariably had an invitation to write off for ‘lucky beans'. The author told his readers that they were from the actual bean-stalk which grew up when Jack threw the beans out of his bed-room window. They were of five different colours representing Health, Wealth, Happiness, Wisdom, and Good Fortune. One Melbourne John Mystery reader related to me that as a child he wrote to Adventure Castle for his beans and received by return post a set of ‘magic beans'. These beans were painted broad beans and his mother was right — the soil in inner Carlton just wasn't right for magic beanstalks!7
John Mystery was certainly an author who lived up to his name. Probably the most prolific producer of children's books in wartime Australia, this pseudonymous resident of Adventure Castle must have been familiar to most children who lived through the war. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that such a huge literary output was the result of a collaboration or a coalition of writers, despite the assertion that ‘John Mystery is a very real and most alive person … [and that] All the original stories and characters are the idea-children of this one story-teller.’8 In fact the pseudonym ‘John Mystery’ did conceal a ‘very real and most alive person’.
Marcie Muir has correctly identified John Mystery as Lester Sinclair,9 but beyond that, information has been hard to come by.10 (Figure 1) Lester Basil Sinclair was born in Yorkshire on the 29 August 1894. As a teenager Lester came to Australia from New Zealand where he had joined a circus. It was probably his service at Gallipoli that encouraged Lester's earlier career as a singer and composer of patriotic and war songs.
The ABN lists only one entry for Lester Sinclair — Lester Sinclair's Airforce song album.11 The Mitchell Library copy still has the overprint ‘McDowells Ltd.', the department store where copies of the songbook were given away when purchases were made to the value of £1 or more. The Airforce song album is a compilation of some of Lester's war songs. Advertisements for the book describe the songwriter as the ‘famous Australian composer’,12 and Lester certainly seems to have been as popular under his own name as under his John Mystery identity. In particular, ‘March
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Figure 2: ‘Adventure Castle’, Illawong Peninsula, ca 1950. Reproduced with permission of the Sinclair family

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Australia', a patriotic song published in 1940, was played by the 2nd Garrison band which headed the Anzac March that year. Lester composed this only four days after the outbreak of war and the 2nd Garrison Battalion quickly adopted the tune as its marching song. Lester Sinclair composed 35 war songs in 1939 and 1940, and they were all played in a special Australian Broadcasting Commission programme called ‘Somewhere in France tonight’. One of the songs, ‘Out of the blue’, was officially adopted as the marching song of the R.A.A.F. In addition, Lester was under contract to a Sydney radio station to sing his own compositions.
If not for an extraordinary coincidence, Lester Sinclair's career as a wartime songwriter might have reached much greater heights. In September 1939 Lester wrote a song called ‘Let's hang our washing on the Siegfried Line’, which was copyrighted on 19 October. But before the sheet music and recording were in the shops, the announcement came from England of the publication of the similarly titled ‘We're gonna hang out our washing on the Siegfried Line’, and it was the English song which caught the market.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the John Mystery phenomenon is Lester's marriage to his second wife, Ellen. Ellen Sinclair was food editor for the Australian women's weekly for 20 years and was a prolific author in her own right, chiefly of cookbooks. It is interesting to speculate on the degree of Ellen Sinclair's actual involvement in the John Mystery books. Ellen is prepared to admit to being ‘up every night painting beans’ but it is not hard to see a woman's hand in such John Mystery stories as Pearl and Plain.
Adventure Castle (Figure 2) at the tip of Illawong Peninsula, sadly no longer stands, having been demolished to make way for units, although some of the animal carvings in bas-relief on the sandstone cliffs on the property still survive. These were sculptured by Ilja Chapoff, the same artist who fashioned the wooden box containing Faerie Blue Mountains, a presentation volume featuring Pearl and Plain. This volume was presented to the Queen during her tour of the Blue Mountains on the Royal visit of 1954. Although the Post Office clearly knew the address of Adventure Castle, one interstate visitor to Sydney as a child during the war tells me she was shown Rose Bay Convent by her father, who convinced her that it really was Adventure Castle!
Lester Sinclair died on 5 October 1974 and was cremated on 9 October at North Shore Crematorium. Ellen Sinclair is still very much alive and is resident in Sydney.

A Note on dating John Mystery books

All John Mystery books have one of three imprints: ‘Publicity Press (1938)', ‘Lonsdale & Bartholomew’, or ‘John Mystery's Productions’. None of the John Mystery books have a date of publication. The ‘1938’ in the Publicity Press imprint is not a date of publication but was added to the imprint in 1938, so it indicates a terminus ante quern. Both Publicity Press and Lonsdale & Bartholomew were flourishing well before 1938. Lester Sinclair certainly used Lonsdale & Bartholomew
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before Publicity Press, mainly for the publication of music but also possibly for some John Mystery items. Books with ‘John Mystery's Productions’ as the imprint are later publications and can tentatively be dated to the early 1950s.
Probably the best way of dating John Mystery books is by the ‘Dear Cobber’ letters. I have identified at least seven different letters, and from references to the war or in some cases to the length of time ‘we have been friends’ an approximate publication date can be determined.
1.
‘It has been great fun writing this new book … We've grown such friends — you and I — in the year that has passed …’ (= 1941?)
2.
‘We are coming to the end of the third year in which I have been writing letters to you…’ (= 1943?)
3.
‘Soon four years will have passed, during which time we have been good friends’ (= 1944?)
4.
‘It is over five years now that we have been friends’ (= 1945?)
5.
‘Whenever I sit down before my typewriter to write a letter to you, I always feel excited’ (=1947?)
6.
‘It is such a long and happy time now that I have been writing books for you…’ (= late 1940s)
7.
‘I think that almost all the children in Australia must be my friends, now’ (= 1950s)

John Mystery books held by the State Library of Victoria

1.
10 little nigger boys. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
2.
The adventures of Pearl and Plain. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Not in Muir)
3.
The adventures of the Woolly sisters: Pearl and Plain Jane. Publicity Press. (Muir 5243)
4.
Alice through the looking-glass. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
5.
Bumper book for boys. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Not in Muir)
6.
Bunny's tale. Publicity Press. (Muir 5296)
7.
Bunny's tale. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Not in Muir)
8.
A Christmas carol. Publicity Press. (Noted by Muir but not seen)
9.
Cobbers: Australian children's annual. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Muir 5260)
10.
The coral island. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
11.
Father Noah's animals. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
12.
Huckleberry Finn. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
13.
In blinky land with the brothers Grimm. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Not in Muir)
14.
John Mystery presents again Pearl and Plain in Green waters. Publicity Press. (Muir 5245)
15.
John Mystery presents Gipsy boy in torture town. Publicity Press. (Muir 5272)
16.
John Mystery presents “Mother's go-to-bed tales”. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Muir 5283)
38
17.
John Mystery's Adventure time. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Not in Muir)
18.
John Mystery's Basket of flowers to colour. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
19.
John Mystery's Big book o’ the year. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
20.
John Mystery's Big lot o’ things to colour. John Mystery's Productions. (Not in Muir)
21.
John Mystery's Big nursery rhymes to colour. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
22.
John Mystery's Big parade. Publicity Press. (Muir 5246)
23.
John Mystery's Blue sunshine: again, the Woolly sisters Pearl and Plain. Publicity Press. (Muir 5244)
24.
John Mystery's Boys’ bumper book. Publicity Press. (Muir 5248)
25.
John Mystery's Boy's story time. Publicity Press. (Muir 5247)
26.
John Mystery's Boys’ treasure book. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
27.
John Mystery's Buried treasure. Publicity Press. (Muir 5251)
28.
John Mystery's Button bunnies home sweet. John Mystery's Productions. (Muir 5255)
29.
John Mystery's Button bunnies hopeful hearts. John Mystery's Productions. (Muir 5255)
30.
John Mystery's Button bunnies joy bells. John Mystery's Productions. (Muir 5255)
31.
John Mystery's Camp fire hour. Publicity Press. (Muir 5256)
32.
John Mystery's Clock book. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Not in Muir)
33.
John Mystery's Cobbers’ annual. Publicity Press. (Muir 5261)
34.
John Mystery's Cuddley [sic] bear tales. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
35.
John Mystery's Deedledum's fairies. John Mystery's Productions. (Not in Muir)
36.
John Mystery's Deedledum's teddy bears. John Mystery's Productions. (Muir 5264)
37.
John Mystery's Doggy Dimple's rag and bone rhymes. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
38.
John Mystery's Eenie Weenie Winnie has a party. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
39.
John Mystery's Exciting tales. Publicity Press. (Muir 5266)
40.
John Mystery's Fairies A.B.C. John Mystery's Productions. (Not in Muir)
41.
John Mystery's Fairy frolics. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Muir 5267)
42.
John Mystery's Famous robbers. Publicity Press. (Muir 5269)
43.
John Mystery's Famous romance. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
44.
John Mystery's Girls’ bumper book. Publicity Press. (Muir 5250)
45.
John Mystery's Girls’ get well book. Publicity Press. (Muir 5273)
46.
John Mystery's Girls’ story time. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
47.
John Mystery's Girls’ treasure book. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
48.
John Mystery's In Blinkyland with Grimm. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Not in Muir)
49.
John Mystery's Money book: pink pig. Publicity Press. (Muir 5280)
50.
John Mystery's Puddin ‘Puss in The dismal dragon. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
51.
John Mystery's Puddin ‘Puss in The mirthful monk. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
52.
John Mystery's Puddin ‘Puss in The wicked witch. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
53.
John Mystery's Puppies and pussies. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
54.
John Mystery's Romantic hour. Publicity Press. (Muir 5297)
55.
John Mystery's simplified version of Pilgrim's progress. Publicity Press. (Muir 5295)
56.
John Mystery's Sleepy bye bye and the parcel post. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
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57.
John Mystery's “Surprise” fun book. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
58.
John Mystery's Sweethearts good book. Publicity Press. (Muir 5299)
59.
John Mystery's The Toobooty twins “find a mother”. John Mystery's Productions. (Muir 5301)
60.
John Mystery's The Woolly sisters get-well book by Pearl and Plain. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
61.
John Mystery's Three wise monkeys: what they heard. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
62.
John Mystery's Three wise monkeys: what they said. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
63.
John Mystery's Thrill time. Publicity Press. (Muir 5303)
64.
John Mystery's Tinies rhyme book. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
65.
John Mystery's Tinker Tim: “how the stars shine”. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
66.
John Mystery's Tinker Tim: how the sun shines. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
67.
John Mystery's Why birds sing. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
68.
John Mystery's Why cows moo. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
69.
John Mystery's Why frogs croak. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
70.
John Mystery's Why frogs croak. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Muir 5307)
71.
John Mystery's Why lambs baa. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
72.
John Mystery's Zoo book. Lonsdale & Bartholmew. (Not in Muir)
73.
King Midas. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
74.
Kitty cats and puppy dogs. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
75.
Let's paint: John Mystery's funny elves and fruit. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
76.
Little women. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
77.
The Magic slippers. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Not in Muir)
78.
Mother boots. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
79.
My best fairy tales. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Muir 5284)
80.
My big book of aeroplanes. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Muir 5287)
81.
My Boy Blue book. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Not in Muir)
82.
My little sailor's book. Publicity Press. (Muir 5292)
83.
Omnibus for everyone. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Muir 5294)
84.
Puppy Smut at the pictures. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
85.
Sleeping Beauty. Publicity Press. (Muir 5300)
86.
The Snail's tale. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
87.
Thrill time for boys. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Muir 5302)
88.
Tom Brown's school-days. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
89.
The Water babies. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)
90.
Wee Willie Winkie‘s off-to-bed tales. Lonsdale & Bartholomew. (Not in Muir)
91.
What Katy did. Publicity Press. (Noted by Muir but not seen)
92.
What Katy did at school. Publicity Press. (Noted by Muir but not seen)
93.
What Katy did next. Publicity Press. (Not in Muir)

*

This article would not have been possible without the very generous assistance of the Sinclair family who made scrapbooks and illustrations available. I also wish to thank Terrence O'Neill for providing much of the information on dating and also for reading the text. Since writing, a considerable amount of John Mystery material has been acquired by the State Library of Victoria from the Sinclair family.

1

Marcie Muir, A Bibliography of Australian Children's Books (London: Deutsch, 1970), p.443.

2

Stella Lees, The Oxford Companion to Australian Children's Literature (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1992), p.311.

3

Marcie Muir, Australian Children's Books: a Bibliography (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1992), pp.290-293.

4

The Toobooty turns “find a mother” (Sydney: John Mystery's Productions).

5

Blue sunshine (Sydney: Publicity Press).

6

Adventure time (Sydney: Lonsdale & Bartholomew).

7

Correspondence with John Magor.

8

Thrill time (Sydney: Publicity Press).

9

Muir, Australian children's books p.290.

10

But see Judith Crabb, ‘Collecting Ephemera. Part 2: John Mystery', in In-House no.5, March 1982, pp.5-12; and a brief reference in Edward Duyker, ‘Sutherland, towards a Literary Landscape’, in National Library of Australia News, March 1996, pp.16-17.

11

Lester Sinclair's Airforce song album (Sydney: Lonsdale & Bartholomew, 1940).

12

Sun, 15 October 1940.