There once lived a tribe of Red Indians, each of whose Braves embarked on a quest to spot every minute detail of the world around them. At its peak this tribe was over half a million strong. Everything they saw they faithfully recorded, and when they had completed each task they reported back to their Big Chief, who rewarded them from his wigwam by presenting them with feathers for their head dresses. This is the story of the I-Spy Tribe.
I-Spy doesn't sound like a Native American word, and indeed it isn't. This tribe was a club for British children of the 1950s and 1960s, who became hooked on a series of pocket-sized spotter books of the same name1. I-Spy on the Pavement sent them off to identify street furniture. I-Spy on the Farm had them snooping around in the countryside. I-Spy at the Airport ensured that they were nowhere to be found when the final call was made for the summer holiday flight departure to Malaga. There were upwards of 40 titles to collect, originally costing sixpence each – thicker ones like I-Spy Wild Flowers cost a shilling. Many sold in excess of 100,000 copies.
Each book had pictures of items to spot and a box to record the time, date and place. Sometimes there would be a supplementary question to verify that the little Redskin hadn't been economical with the truth. Each spotted item also gained them a number of points: generally five or ten points for something common (a fire engine, say), but 20 or 30 points for valued rarities (perhaps a particular design of Gothic bootscraper found only within the lychgates of 15th Century Northamptonshire churches).
When the book had finally been completed, it had to be countersigned by a parent or teacher beneath the following sworn affidavit:
I certify I have examined the record in this book, and as far as I can judge, the entries are genuine.
The book was then mailed to Big Chief I-Spy, c/o the Wigwam-by-the-Water (later Wigwam-by-the-Green), London EC4. By return of post, the Brave would receive a coloured feather and an order-of-merit certificate franked with the chief's personal seal.
Had any inquisitive little Indian chosen to follow up on either of these London addresses, they might well have been disappointed. No tepee had been pitched out in the park nor on the banks of the Thames. Their books were delivered to a fairly seedy and by-all-accounts chaotic office, first located in Blackfriars, and later above a hardware store in Edgware Road. No doubt the rooftop pigeons donated plumage in a good cause.
Yet there was indeed a wigwam, and it sat in one corner of the editorial office. It would get an occasional airing whenever Big Chief I-Spy called one of his regular pow-wows for the Redskins. These were held at various locations across the country and involved activities like tours, treasure hunts and prize-giving ceremonies. Thousands would turn up. On one notable occasion, 8,000 children were given a sightseeing tour of London in a fleet of 80 double-decker buses.
Big Chief I-Spy communicated to his tribe neither through smoke signals nor war drums, but via coded messages issued in his daily column in the Daily Mail newspaper2. The I-Spy Club recruited young Redskins for a shilling, and awarded them a badge and a booklet which initiated them into the secret codes, passwords and hand signals they would need to know. To be honest, the codes wouldn't exactly have taxed Alan Turing for too long - single letter shifts were about as tricky as they came. Club members who submitted completed books with particularly high scores might find their names printed in the newspaper and be awarded an I-Spy pen for the achievement.
The Big Chiefs
So who was the mysterious Big Chief I-Spy? Well, in fact there were four over the years, but the man who created the movement was a Somerset-born school headmaster named Charles Warrell. He had written a number of books on self-help topics, and the first spotter book I-Spy at the Seaside appeared in 1948. Warrell couldn't sell the idea to publishers, so financed it himself. He persuaded Woolworths to stock the books, but they became well-known nationally after the Daily Mail snapped them up and serialised them. In future years, the books were issued by a series of publishing houses, the most recent being Michelin in around 2000. Despite a long gap, the books are not yet dead, and at the time of writing a further relaunch is expected.
Warrell was approaching the end of his career in education, and, having built up the brand and launched the I-Spy club, he retired in 1956. He was to live until 1995, only travelling to the happy hunting ground at the ripe old age of 106, despite the Daily Telegraph having prematurely announced his death five years previously. Warrell handed over the Big Chief's head dress to Arnold Cawthrow, a part-time antiques dealer from London, who held the post until 1978. Cawthrow was certainly a colourful character, and is described on the website of Ralph Mills, aka 'Hawkeye' – one of his assistants – as:
...a frightfully camp antiques trader with a shop in Camden Passage and a love of boys, pork chops, Italian food and the theatre. He smoked and coughed continuously, and would regularly drop inches of cigarette ash onto any papers I had on my desk. Overgenerous, kindhearted, intolerant, Arnold was constantly, eyebrow-archingly astonished by me, the company for which we worked, everyone we came into contact with. His favourite (repeatable) expletive was 'Chaaarming!'
Further Big Chiefs were appointed in the 1980s as interest began to wane in the I-Spy phenomenon. The final post-holder was the celebrated naturalist David Bellamy, but all the Red Indian trappings had by then become a thing of the past.
Our world has changed rapidly since the Second World War. You may be able to track down some of the early I-Spy books, but to complete them nowadays would be an almost impossible challenge. You may spot the odd 'Alvis TB 21 Sport Roadster' at a vintage car rally, but you'll never now see 'a policeman on point duty directing traffic'. Similarly, the village blacksmith is a distant memory, as the village post office will be in a few years' time. Still, the books provide a fascinating record of everyday life at one period in our recent history.
The I-Spy phenomenon emerged from a post-war era of austerity and rationing. In the absence of television, computer games, pop music and disposable income, perhaps it was only natural that children would make entertainment by observing the world around them. The books, although designed by an educationalist, were entirely ex-curricular and marketed as good, clean, competitive fun. Nerdy fun, certainly, but fun nonetheless.
We'll finish with a few memories from h2g2's own little Redskins:
I seem to remember there being some sort of pledge when you joined the club. On the certificate there was a thumbnail image of 'Big Chief I-Spy', and you were supposed to put your finger on it and recite some pledge of allegiance to the tribe in the presence of a parent.
My younger brother and myself used to collect these. I well remember our first one, It was 'I-Spy Car Badges'. We lived near Walton Heath Golf Club, and all but filled up the book by prowling around the Jags, Mercedes, Aston Martins, etc parked in the car park.
I remember thinking how astonishingly difficult it all seemed. I had 'I-Spy Birds', for example - you would get five points for a robin, fifty for a peregrine falcon - where was I going to see a falcon in a dormitory town outside Bristol?
I was a member of the I-Spy Club, providing me with the only valid reason I will ever have to buy and/or read the Daily Mail.