Swallows and Amazons

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Swallows and Amazons
ArthurRansome SwallowAndAmazons.jpg
First edition dust jacket cover 1930
Author Arthur Ransome
Illustrator 1st edition was not illustrated, later editions illustrated by Clifford Webb and later Arthur Ransome
Cover artist Steven Spurrier
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Swallows and Amazons series
Genre Children's, adventure novel
Publisher Jonathan Cape
Publication date
1 December 1930
OCLC 5973192
Followed by Swallowdale

Swallows and Amazons is the first book in the Swallows and Amazons series by English author Arthur Ransome; it was first published in 1930, with the action taking place in the summer of 1929 in the Lake District. The book introduces central protagonists John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker (Swallows) and their mother and baby sister, as well as Nancy and Peggy Blackett (Amazons) and their uncle Jim, commonly referred to as Captain Flint.

At the time, Ransome had been working as a journalist with the Manchester Guardian, but decided to become a full-time author rather than go abroad as a foreign correspondent. He did continue to write part-time for the press, however.

The book was inspired by a summer spent by Ransome teaching the children of his friends, the Altounyans, to sail. Three of the Altounyan children's names are adopted directly for the Walker family. Ransome and Ernest Altounyan bought two small dinghies called Swallow and Mavis. Ransome kept Swallow until he sold it a number of years later, while Mavis remained in the Altounyan family and is now on permanent display in the Ruskin Museum. However, later in life Ransome tried to downplay the Altounyan connections, changing the initial dedication of Swallows and Amazons and writing a new foreword which gave other sources.[1][2] In 2003, the novel was listed at number 57 on the BBC's survey The Big Read.[3]


The artist chosen for the first edition of the book was Steven Spurrier; however, Ransome objected to his style and so the first edition did not have any illustrations. Spurrier's drawing for the dust jacket had to be used. The second edition contained drawings by Clifford Webb but after Ransome successfully illustrated Peter Duck himself, he decided to do his own drawings for all the books including those already published and Webb's drawings were replaced in later editions.

Plot summary[edit]

The book relates the outdoor adventures and play of two families of children. These involve sailing, camping, fishing, exploration and piracy. The Walker children (John, Susan, Titty and Roger) are staying at a farm near a lake in the Lake District of England, during the school holidays. They sail a borrowed dinghy named Swallow and meet the Blackett children (Nancy and Peggy), who sail a dinghy named Amazon. The Walkers camp on an island in the lake while the Blacketts live in their house nearby. When the children meet, they agree to join forces against a common enemy - the Blacketts' uncle James Turner whom they call "Captain Flint" (after the character in Treasure Island). Turner, normally an ally of his nieces, has withdrawn from their company in order to write his memoirs, and has become decidedly unfriendly. Furthermore, when the Blacketts let off a firework on his houseboat roof, it is the Walkers who get the blame. He refuses even to listen when they try to pass on a warning to him about burglars in the area.

In order to determine who should be the overall leader in their campaign against Captain Flint, the Blacketts and the Walkers have a contest to see which can capture the others' boat. As part of their strategy the Walkers make a dangerous crossing of the lake by night, and John is later cautioned by his mother for this reckless act. The Walkers nevertheless win the contest - thanks to Titty who seizes the Amazon when the Blacketts come to Wild Cat Island. During the same night Titty hears suspicious voices coming from a different island - Cormorant Island - and in the morning it transpires that Turner's houseboat has been burgled. Turner again blames the Walkers, but is finally convinced that he is mistaken and feels he was wrong to distance himself from his nieces' adventures all summer. The Swallows, Amazons and Turner investigate Cormorant Island, but they cannot find Turner's missing trunk.

The following day there is a mock battle between Turner and the children, after which Turner is tried for his crimes and forced to walk the plank on his own houseboat. They agree at the post-battle feast that on the final day of their holidays Titty and Roger will go back to Cormorant Island while the others go fishing. Titty finds the trunk, which contains the memoirs on which Turner had been working, and is rewarded with Turner's green parrot.

James Turner appears in some ways to be modelled on Ransome himself. The story, set in August 1929, includes a good deal of everyday Lakeland life from the farmers to charcoal burners working in the woods; corned beef, which the children fancifully refer to as pemmican, and ginger beer and lemonade, which they call grog, appear as regular food stuff for the campers; island life also allows for occasional references to the story of Robinson Crusoe.

Major characters in Swallows and Amazons[edit]

See also List of characters in Arthur Ransome books

  • John Walker – Eldest of the Walkers and captain of the Swallow
  • Susan Walker – Second eldest of the Walkers and mate of the Swallow
  • Titty Walker – Able Seaman of the Swallow. This name was the nickname of the real life Mavis Altounyan, from Joseph Jacobs's children's story, Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse.[4] It has caused titters among generations of children, causing it to be changed to Kitty in the original BBC adaptation of the book
  • Roger Walker – Youngest of the sailing Walkers and ship's boy of the Swallow
  • Bridget Walker – (nicknamed "Vicky" due to a resemblance to pictures of Queen Victoria in old age, and referred to as such in the book) Youngest of the Walkers and ship's baby of the Swallow
  • Nancy Blackett (Ruth) – Captain of the Amazon
  • Peggy Blackett (Margaret) – Nancy's younger sister and mate of the Amazon
  • James Turner – Nancy and Peggy's uncle. Known to the children as "Captain Flint"

Places in Swallows and Amazons[edit]

According to Ransome, every place in his book can be found in the Lake District, but he took different locations and placed them in different ways: the lake is a fictionalised version of Windermere but the surrounding countryside more closely resembles that around Coniston.[5] Wild Cat Island, the location of the island camp, has elements from Peel Island in Coniston and Blake Holme (or Blakeholme) in Windermere.[6] Holly Howe, the farmhouse where the Swallows stay is based on Bank Ground Farm,[7] which exists to this day. It was featured in the 1974 film.

Film, TV, radio and theatrical adaptations[edit]

1963 TV adaptation[edit]

In 1963, the BBC produced an adaptation, Swallows and Amazons, with John Paul as "Captain Flint" and Susan George as the renamed "Kitty". The series was directed by Peter Saunders.[8]

1974 film version[edit]

Swallows and Amazons
Directed by Claude Whatham
Produced by Richard Pilbrow
Starring Virginia McKenna
Distributed by EMI Films
Release dates
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget £250,000[9]

In the summer of 1973, Theatre Projects adapted the story of Swallows and Amazons in colour for the big screen and went up to the Lake District National Park in Cumbria to film it on the actual locations used by Arthur Ransome to create the fictional lake of the novel.

Released by EMI in 1974, directed by Claude Whatham and produced by Richard Pilbrow, the film starred Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser in the main adult roles and Sophie Neville (Titty), Zanna Hamilton (Susan), Simon West (John) & Stephen Grendon (Roger) as the Swallows.

Its budget was provided by Nat Cohen of EMI Films who was hoping to repeat the success of the film of The Railway Children.[9]


This has been made available on video, both in VHS and DVD, in the UK, but is not readily available in the US and elsewhere. In April 2010, the boat used as Swallow in the film was bought by a group of enthusiasts and has been restored to sailing condition. It is intended to give people an opportunity to sail in a boat like the original Swallow.[10]

Other versions[edit]

In August 1999 BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio adaptation by David Wood[11] with Jean Anderson as Titty seventy years later narrating. Young Titty was played by Phoebe Phillips, John by John Paul Ekins, Susan by Flora Harris, Roger by Joe Sowerbutts, mother by Penny Downie, Nancy by Catherine Poole, Peggy by Jackie Swainson and Uncle Jim by Nicholas Le Prevost.

The Royal National Theatre started developing a musical version of Swallows and Amazons in 2007. The Divine Comedy's frontman Neil Hannon wrote the music. The musical premiered at the Bristol Old Vic on 1 December 2010 and played at the Vaudeville Theatre, in London's West End, from 15 December 2011, prior to going on tour around the UK from January to May 2012.[12][13][14] The production features adults playing the children and has been received favourably by reviewers.[15][16]

Upcoming film[edit]

A British film Swallows and Amazons is being made in 2015 with director Philippa Lowthorpe.[17]

Release details[edit]

  • 1930, UK, Jonathan Cape, Pub date 1 December 1930, hardback (First edition, unillustrated)
  • 1931, UK, Jonathan Cape, Pub date 1931, hardback (First "Clifford Webb" illustrated edition)
  • 1931, US, J.B.Lippincott company, Philadelphia, 1931. Hardback, no full illustrations, front and back plates plus chapter headings by Helene Carter.
  • 1938, UK, Jonathan Cape, Pub date 1938, hardback (First "Ransome" illustrated edition)
  • 1958, US, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (ISBN 0-397-30015-8), Pub date ? June 1958, hardback
  • 1994, US, David R. Godine, Publisher (ISBN 978-1-56792-420-6), paperback
  • 1995, UK, ISIS Audio Books (ISBN 1-85695-974-0), Pub date August 1995, audio book cassette (unabridged)
  • 1999, UK, Jonathan Cape (ISBN 0-224-60631-X), Pub date 1999, hardback
  • 2001, UK, Red Fox Classics (ISBN 0-09-950391-3), Pub date 5 April 2001, paperback
  • 2001, UK, Red Fox (ISBN 0-09-942733-8), Pub date 5 October 2001, paperback
  • 2005, UK, Gabriel Woolf (ISBN 0-9550529-0-4), Pub date July 2005, audio book CD
  • 2010, US, David R. Godine, Publisher (ISBN 978-1567924206), Pub date July 16, 2010, paperback revised edition

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, Arthur Ransome, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis, 1976
  2. ^ The Life of Arthur Ransome, Hugh Brogan, 1984
  3. ^ "BBC - The Big Read". BBC. April 2003, Retrieved 1 December 2012
  4. ^ Origin of Mavis Altounyan's nickname of Titty
  5. ^ Hardyment, Christina (1984). Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk (1988 ed.). Jonathan Cape. p. 47. …the lake of the books is almost exactly Windermere, but that the land round about it was much more like Coniston. 
  6. ^ Hardyment (1984: 66–67)
  7. ^ Hardyment (1984: 32)
  8. ^ Staff. "Swallows and Amazons: Swallows and Amazons Episode 1 Sailing Orders". British Film Institute. Retrieved 2015-06-10. 
  9. ^ a b Tim Devlin. "A day in the life of Swallows and Amazons." Times [London, England] 20 June 1973: 12. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 July 2012.
  10. ^ Sailing Swallow - the boat from the 1973 film
  11. ^ "Other Writing 1999". David Wood. Retrieved 2011-05-18. 
  12. ^ "article revealing the Royal National Theatre's plans for a stage musical adaptation of Swallows and Amazons". Inthenews.co.uk. Retrieved 2011-05-18. 
  13. ^ "Swallows and Amazons at Vaudeville Theatre - West End". Time Out (London). Retrieved 6 September 2011. 
  14. ^ "Swallows and Amazons UK Tour 2012". Retrieved 24 January 2012. 
  15. ^ Spencer, Charles (2010-12-08). "''Swallows and Amazons, Bristol Old Vic, review''. Daily Telegraph, December 8, 2010". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 2011-05-18. 
  16. ^ Michael Billington (2010-12-09). "''Swallows and Amazons review'', Guardian, December 8, 2010". Guardian. Retrieved 2011-05-18. 
  17. ^ Barraclough, Leo (June 29, 2015). "‘Sherlock’s’ Moriarty, Andrew Scott, Joins Cast of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (EXCLUSIVE)". variety.com. Retrieved July 1, 2015. 

External links[edit]