One of the wombles; Bungo, in UK television series "The Wombles"
|Illustrator||Margaret Gordon (initial book illustrations)|
|Published||1968 - 1976|
|Media type||Print (hardcover and paperback)
|No. of books||6|
The Wombles are fictional pointy-nosed, furry creatures that live in burrows, where they aim to help the environment by collecting and recycling rubbish in creative ways. Wombles were created by author Elisabeth Beresford, and originally appeared in a series of children's novels from 1968. Although Wombles supposedly live in every country in the world, Beresford's stories are concerned with the lives of the inhabitants of the burrow on Wimbledon Common in London, England.
The characters gained a higher national profile in the UK in the mid-1970s as a result of a BBC commissioned children's television show which used stop motion animation. A number of spin-off novelty songs also became hits in the British music charts. The Wombles pop group was the idea of British singer and composer Mike Batt.
One Christmas, Elisabeth Beresford took her young children for a Boxing Day walk on Wimbledon Common, where one referred to it as "Wombledon Common". On getting home, Elisabeth Beresford wrote down the idea and started developing the characters and storylines. Beresford developed most of her Womble characters around members of her family, and named them after places the family had associations with.
Wombles are essentially burrowing animals. They have retractable claws (like cats), but as they mostly live in long-established burrows, they rarely use these even for digging. Their size and physical appearance has changed somewhat over the years: in the original editions of the books, Wombles are pictured as bear-like and between 4 and 5 feet (about 1.5 metres) in height, making them only slightly smaller than adult humans. This changed with the TV series where they were portrayed as being about knee-high to humans, with pointy snouts like those of raccoons. In the book and movie Wombling Free they are described as "short, fat, and furry", roughly between three or four feet (about 1 metre) in height.
Wombles are herbivores and are very fond of mushrooms. They eat a variety of plants, fungi, and tree products that human beings cannot (or will not) eat, so daisy buns, acorn juice, fir-cone soufflé, elm bark casserole and grassbread sandwiches are part of the Womble menu - augmented by any food left behind on the Common by human beings. All Wombles are strong swimmers and can survive for long periods even in ice-cold water. Several sub-species of Womble are revealed throughout the books: the Loch Ness Monster is actually a clan of water Wombles and the yeti of the Himalayas are giant snow-white Wombles. Wombles have a sixth sense which allows them to sense green spaces and wildlife; this is first mentioned in the Wandering Wombles but developed to a keen long range telepathic sense by Dalai Gartok Womble in The Wombles Go Round The World.
Wombles are extremely long-lived. For example, in The Wombles Great Uncle Bulgaria recalls being "a young Womble" at the time of Queen Victoria's coronation in 1837 suggesting that he is somewhat - but not very much - older than 140. However the song Minuetto Allegretto begins with the words "Back in 1780 when Bulgaria was a Lad", indicating that he is at least 200. (However, as this was written by Mike Batt and not by Beresford it could be considered less canonical.) Other sources indicate the life expectancy of a Womble is over 200 years, with some reaching 300. In the feature-length special World Wide Womble Day Great Uncle Bulgaria's 300th birthday is celebrated - again probably not canonical, as the novels frequently feature Great Uncle Bulgaria complaining that he will never understand humans even if he lives to be three hundred, implying that this age is not common amongst Wombles.
The Womble mode of reproduction is never explained. Wombles of both sexes exist (the males being apparently more numerous than the females) but there is never any mention of conjugal union. Though all the Wimbledon Wombles are often described as being "a family", the family relationships between them are never specified. There are a few possible exceptions such as "Cousin" Yellowstone and "Great Uncle" Bulgaria, though these titles might be honorific; Cousin Yellowstone refers to Bulgaria as "Uncle Bulgaria" before Bungo informs him that he is now "Great Uncle Bulgaria". Also Ness refers to the other water Wombles as her "sons".
Culture and society
Though it is stated that Wombles live all around the world, Beresford's collection of stories, as well as the television series and the music, focus on the group living in Wimbledon Common in London, England. Some of the Womble customs described below might therefore be local to the Wimbledon community.
Wombles care for and educate their young at a communal level. Like human children, immature Wombles are taught reading, writing and athletic skills, which they learn by playing a game called "Wombles and Ladders". (Some older Wombles play this game too, though most regard it as childish.) Below a certain (unspecified) age all Wombles are nameless; upon coming of age, a Womble chooses his or her name by looking through Great Uncle Bulgaria's large atlas until they find a name that suits them. Some (Bungo for example) "merely shut their eyes tight and point and hope for the best." They then leave Miss Adelaide's "Womblegarten" and join in the communal work of the burrow, which is mostly clearing up and recycling human refuse.
Wombles are very careful to keep their existence secret from human beings - at least in the books and TV series. In the movie Wombling Free this is reversed as the Wombles seek to get human beings to listen to their "make good use of bad rubbish" pleas. Otherwise secrecy is the rule, though there have been a few exceptions, such as Mr. Smith, a lonely senior citizen who is invited inside the Wombles' burrow on Christmas Eve.
Wombles generally have a low opinion of other animal species, though they are never unkind to them. They have a poor opinion of human beings in general, though there are exceptions; royalty for example, especially the Queen. They also have a respect for human literature; the Wimbledon Wombles maintain a large library of books left by humans on the Common, and Great Uncle Bulgaria is fond of reading The Times.
Wombles are extremely honest creatures. On the rare occasions they are forced to take things from humans without permission, they always leave money to cover the cost. They dislike lies and deception, though on occasion they are known to stretch the truth or to omit important details.
- Great Uncle Bulgaria – the oldest and wisest of the Wimbledon Wombles and their leader. He is based on Beresford's father-in-law and named after the country. He terrifies the younger Wombles with his stern manner (and particularly his habit of glaring at them through two pairs of spectacles) but is actually very kind.
- Tobermory – an engineer, based on Beresford's brother, a skilled inventor, and named after the capital of the Isle of Mull, in the Scottish Inner Hebrides islands. He has a gruff and surly manner but like Bulgaria (with whom he has been friends for many years) he has a very kindly heart.
- Orinoco – a shirker who loved sleep and food, styled on Beresford's teenage son and named after the River Orinoco in South America. Though slothful by nature, Orinoco is capable of some surprising acts of moral and physical courage.
- Bungo – over-enthusiastic and bossy, named after Bungo Province in Japan. He is Orinoco's best friend.
- Tomsk – an athletic Womble with a rather low IQ, named after Tomsk in Russia. He is extremely keen on golf, and plays on the London Scottish Golf Club course situated on the common.
- Wellington – scientifically inclined, but very insecure and absent-minded. Named after Beresford's nephew's school: Wellington School, Somerset.
- Madame Cholet – a prim and proper female Womble. The Womble cook, styled on Beresford's mother and named after the town of Cholet in France. She has a very noticeable French accent.
- Miss Adelaide – schoolmistress, named after the city of Adelaide in Australia.
- Alderney – Madame Cholet's assistant, named after Alderney in the Channel Islands where Beresford lived towards the end of her life. She appeared in the early books, but did not make it into the first TV series. Her character was revived in the second TV series, when many viewers wrongly assumed she was a new character.
- Snodgrass – the acting accountant of the wombles, known for her foul smell and habit of wagging her tail when she is lying.
- Cousin Cairngorm McWomble the Terrible – named after the Cairngorms, a mountain range in Scotland. He was introduced in the second book (The Wandering Wombles) as a Highland Womble clan chief. He appeared in the TV series when he visited the Wimbledon burrow. He was usually known simply as McWomble.
- Shansi – often paired with Alderney, as Bungo was with Orinoco, named after a Shanxi province in China.
- Stepney – East Ender with dreadlocks, who got his name from the Stepney area in London's East End where he came from.
- Obidos – named after Óbidos, Pará in Brazil.
In the first book, Bungo is the youngest and least experienced of the team, and the story is mostly viewed through his eyes. Later Wellington (who was not introduced until the second book) took over the role of "new boy". Alderney and Adelaide appeared in the earlier books but were not included in the original 1970s TV series. Alderney was re-introduced in the later TV shows produced in the 1990s (the Channel Island of Alderney was actually Elisabeth Beresford's home at the time), along with Stepney (who appeared in none of the earlier versions).
There were five novels:
- The Wombles (1968)
- The Wandering Wombles (1970)
- The Wombles at Work (1973)
- The Wombles to the Rescue (1974)
- The Wombles Go Round the World (1976)
All of these were out of print for many years, but through 2010 and 2011 they were re-issued (along with the 1973 short-story collection The Invisible Womble) by Bloomsbury with all-new illustrations. The last two books are less well known than the original three, perhaps because they appeared after the successful television series began. In The Wandering Wombles, the setting moved from Wimbledon Common to Hyde Park in central London. However The Wombles to the Rescue saw them return to Wimbledon Common.
Four of the books were illustrated by Margaret Gordon. The Wombles at Work (1973) was illustrated by Barry Leith. The appearance of the Wombles in the books followed the design of the Ivor Wood TV puppets, with the exception of The Wombles (1968) which preceded the TV series and depicted the Wombles as teddy bear-like creatures.
Wombles appearing in the books included:
- Great Uncle Bulgaria
- Madame Cholet
- Miss Adelaide
Additional Wombles included:
- Cousin Yellowstone
- Cairngorm the MacWomble
- Ness and her many sons (water Wombles)
- Cousin Botany
- Speyer and Heilbronn
- Frau Heidelberg
- Habsburg Von Hohenzollern Womble
- Ms Atlanta
- Dalai Gartok
- Cairns and Perth
- Great-Great Aunt M. Murrumbidgee
- Uncle Dunedin
- Cousin Tokyo
Beresford also wrote a collection of short stories entitled The Invisible Womble and Other Stories (1973), in which the original Wimbledon Common setting was restored. Although based on episodes from the TV series, these stories occasionally refer to events in the novels.
In addition to these books, a great many annuals, picture-books and children's early readers have been published over the years, some of which were also written by Elisabeth Beresford.
A feature-length live-action movie Wombling Free was released in 1977, starring The Wombles, David Tomlinson, Frances de la Tour and introducing Bonnie Langford. A soundtrack album was released in 1978. A region 2 DVD of the film was released by Network DVD in 2006, containing the film in its theatrical aspect ratio, the original theatrical trailer, and archive interviews with Bonnie Langford, David Tomlinson and writer/director Lionel Jeffries.
The Wombles were exported to American audiences in the late 1970s when they made occasional appearances on CBS' Captain Kangaroo.
In 2011 The Wombles performed at Glastonbury.
The Wombles and sport
Due to the Wombles' association with the area, some local sporting teams representing Wimbledon are sometimes affectionately dubbed "the Wombles". These teams include the Ladies side of Wimbledon RFC (whose mascot is Alderney), Wimbledon Volleyball Club and the Wombles Netball Club.
From 2000 to June 2003, Wimbledon F.C. used a Womble named "Wandle" as a club mascot after the local River Wandle. However, in light of the controversy over the moving of the club to Milton Keynes, the licence to use the character was not renewed. In 2006 the club's spiritual successor AFC Wimbledon agreed a licensing deal, and launched its own Womble mascot. After a naming competition in which the final name was chosen by Elisabeth Beresford herself, the club announced that the new Womble would be known as "Haydon," after Haydons Road, the nearest railway station to Wimbledon's original home ground, Plough Lane.
Elisabeth Beresford also gave permission for a team of Wombles to run the London Marathon every year raising money for Jesuit Missions UK.
In a special episode of the BBC's A Question of Sport themed around the Wimbledon tennis championships, Sue Barker mentioned having asked then team captains Ally McCoist and John Parrott to name their Wimbledon heroes. The replies were "Vinnie Jones" and "Uncle Bulgaria."
References to The Wombles
Various allusions and puns are made in reference to the Wombles in the Warhammer 40,000 book series Ciaphas Cain by author Sandy Mitchell, being referenced in the form of the "Reclaimers" chapter of the Space Marines. In addition, Space Marines models with a particular type of cone-like faceplate are referred to by hobbyists as Womble Marines.
The 2005 film Breakfast on Pluto features the Wombles.
The British comedy The Vicar of Dibley has referenced the Wombles on multiple occasions. For instance, Dawn French's character Geraldine Granger once said, "I once tried to go on Mastermind, but they didn't like my special subject. Apparently there just aren't enough questions about the Wombles."
The term "womble" is sometimes used in British slang to describe a person who is well-meaning but absent-minded or ineffectual. For example, Jeremy Clarkson often refers to Highways Agency Traffic Officers as "traffic wombles" on Top Gear.
On 19 December 2011, the Wombles were featured on an episode of Never Mind the Buzzcocks.
Wombles are mentioned in a MUD inspired by the Discworld books written by Terry Pratchet called Discworld MUD. This game can be found on discworld.starturtle.net/lpc/
Wombles are referenced in A Darkling Plain, remembered by Wren Natsworthy as the "scavenger ghosts of London"
Wombles are referenced in the title and first track of Alabama 3's 2013 album, "The Men from W.O.M.B.L.E."
In the BBC sitcom Fifteen Storeys High, the Wombles feature in a flashback to a traumatic incident from the childhood of the main character, Vince.
- "Underground, Overground - The Wombles get wired". BBC. 1998-02-17. Retrieved 2011-08-14.
- Childs, Martin (2011-01-03). "Elisabeth Beresford: Children's author who created the Wombles". The Independent (London). Retrieved 2011-08-14.
- "Elisabeth Beresford". Daily Telegraph (London). 2010-12-26. Retrieved 2011-08-14.
- Siddique, Haroon (2010-12-25). "Wombles creator Elisabeth Beresford dies, aged 84". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2011-08-14.
- "The world of Wombles author Elisabeth Beresford". BBC. 2010-11-10. Retrieved 2011-08-14.
- chapter 1, The Wombles, Elisabeth Beresford, 1968
- Beresford, Elisabeth. The Wombles at Work. Bloomsbury Childrens, 2011, p. 194.
- Carlisle, Sam (2010-10-15). "Children's Literatures". The Sun (London). Retrieved 2011-08-15.
- "My family and other Wombles". Times (London). 2007-08-11. Retrieved 2011-08-14.
- Information taken from Wombling Free entry on Network DVD website
- "Womble Lovers -- MUD (Multi User Dungeon) Sightings or How to play with Wombles". Womble Lovers. Retrieved 2010-04-12.
- "Glastonbury boss Michael Eavis regrets Wombles booking". BBC. 2011-06-08. Retrieved 2011-08-14.
- Tom Mason. "Welcome to Wimbledon RFC". Ladies.wimbledonrfc.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-04-30.
- "Wombles Netball Club - List of Committee Post Responsibilities". Angelfire.com. Retrieved 2012-04-30.
- Plummer, David (2003-05-13). "Even the Wombles refuse to follow Wimbledon to Milton Keynes". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2011-08-14.
- "Elizabeth Beresford: 'a wonderful lady'". http://www.jesuit.org.uk. 12 January 2011.
- Episode "Songs of Praise" from the first season (1994) of The Vicar of Dibley.
- "Riot Wombles offer hope for us all". ABC. Retrieved 2011-08-14.
- Tidy Bag - The Online Wombles Museum
- Womble Lovers
- The Womble Burrow
- The Official Wombles Website
- Obituary for Elisabeth Beresford, and Mike Batt's connections with the Wombles