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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Ronald Welch (Ronald Oliver Felton)

The digging I've been doing over the past couple of days has rammed home once again the fact that here, in the UK, we seem to have had a dismissive attitude to our writers and artists who fall into the 'popular' category. Finding information on 99% of the artists who worked for Look and Learn has been a case of piecing together data one line at a time. You won't find their names in reference books yet, time and again, I hear comments from visitors to the Look and Learn web site -- and I've said it myself more than once -- that the artists working on Look and Learn were some of the finest artists Britain has ever produced. The same with comic strips: I got my start researching comic strip creators simply because I couldn't find anything about them (same story for paperbacks and, to a degree, old story papers).

Looking through the lists of authors who had contributed to Swift Annual the other day led me to compile a list (most things do!) and, of the 134 named authors who contributed across the nine annuals (1954-62, numbered 1-6 on covers then 1961, 1962 and 1963) only a dozen managed entries in The Author's and Writer's Who's Who, some little more than an abbreviated list of published titles, and I've found less than a handful in Contemporary Authors (admittedly this is an American series but it is supposed to encompass authors from around the globe).

And then, sometimes, information just arrives out of the blue. I was looking blankly at my list, wondering when I'd find time to research another 134 authors, when some information on one dropped into my e-mail inbox. A friend of mine, John Tipper (who knows well that I have an interest in biographical information on children's authors), had forwarded a note he'd received from Tom McGlynn on Friday, the very same day I'd bought a run of Swift Annual. The synchronicity is too perfect for me not to write about it.

Let's start with a picture from Swift Annual 1963 (1962)...

Ronald Welch was the pseudonym of Ronald Oliver Felton, born 14 December 1909, the son of accountant Oliver Felton and his wife Alice (nee Thomas). After attending Berkhamsted School (1922-28), he earned a place at Clare College, Cambridge, where he studied history (M.A., 1931). Welch then went on to work as an assistant history master at Berkhamsted before moving to Bedford Modern School as a senior teacher in 1933. That same year, Felton joined the Territorial Army and, during World War II, Welch became a major and served in Normandy and Germany.

In 1947, he became headmaster of Okehampton Grammar School, Devonshire, where he remained until 1964. He also began writing novels, publishing The Black Car Mystery under the pen-name Ronald Welch in 1950; others quickly followed: The Clock Stood Still (1951), and The Gauntlet (1951), the latter linking Welch with the Oxford University Press, who were to publish the majority of his books. The Gauntlet was also his first historical novel -- actually a science fiction timeslip novel in which a modern day boy finds himself in the 14th century sharing adventures with a distant ancestor.

The best of Welch's early novels was Knight Crusader (1954), his first fully-fledged historical novel, set in teh 12the century as its protagonist, a crusading knight named Philip d'Aubigny, battles his way through the Holy Land and, at the end, returns to Wales to found what was to become the Carey family in later novels. In June 1955, Knight Crusader won the Library Association's Carnegie Medal for the most outstanding children's book of 1954 (and the identity if 'Ronald Welch' became an open secret).

Over the next twenty-five years, Felton wrote a further 17 books, including a biography of Ferdinand Magellan (1955) and a single novel, Sker House (1954) under his own name. Many of his 'Ronald Welch' historical novels followed the exploits of various generations of the Carey family, starting with Captain of Dragoons (1956) which followed Charles Carey at the time of Marlborough's army at the Battle of Blenheim; Alan Carey joined Wolfe at Quebec in Mohawk Valley (1958), Christopher Carey serves under Wellington in the Peninsular in Captain of Foot (1959), the family's French roots are explored in Escape from France (1960) as Richard Carey helps his relatives escape the Revolution, For the King (1961), follows the adventures of Royalist soldier Neil Carey, Nicholas Carey (1963) is a soldier at the time of the Crimean War, Harry Carey takes to the sea in Elizabethan times in The Hawk (1967), Tank Commander (1972) was the most up-to-date of his historical novels, set during the grim days of the Great War, Zulu Warrior (1974) was set during the Zulu Wars whilst Ensign Carey (1976) was set during the days of the the Indian Mutiny.

Of the latter, one reviewer recorded, "Mr. Welch makes it clear that the English officers were often both ignorant and arrogant and that for many of them the mutiny was no more than they deserved" (The Times, 26 November 1976). This was a strength of Felton's work: he would spend six months researching the backgrounds of each of his novels and made sure that each was historically accurate. He did not shy away from grim details and, as Pamela Cleaver says in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers "he never glorified war, but made it quite clear that mud and discomfort, wounds and death were part of soldiering as well as comradeship and adventure." His accuracy sometimes made uncomfortable reading, especially in Zulu Warrior which "expresses the Jingoistic sentiments of the characters which are right for the times portrayed but out of mesh with today's attitudes both to Africa and the war."

So much for Ronald Welch, the author. Ronald Felton in person was an imposing character and Tom McGlynn writes:
Few attending Okehampton Grammar School knew that 'Felix' had written even one historical novel -- fewer still that he'd published several and continued to do so into the mid-1970s. Our ignorance of his writing was mainly due to the fact that Felix rarely referred to his books, despite the fact that the thousands he had taught over several decades represented a large potential readership. Only now, 50+ years later (and a retired history teacher myself) have I discovered that Felix wrote more than a dozen historical novels for young people -- all set in diverse periods and widely scattered locations.

Felix read history at Cambridge in the 1930s and was a Tank Corps officer in World War II. Because of that background he was in appearance, accent, dress, etc., a typical upper class Englishman. Yet he was a Welsh patriot, not least because of his firm grasp on the often tragic history of 'The land of his Fathers'.

He taught only 'A' level history -- in my day "Europe 1780-1920". But to the majority [most Grammar School boys left school after 'O' levels, aged 16], 'The Boss' was a remote figure who presided at morning assemblies and fulfilled the 1944 Butler Education Act's requirements on religious instruction (R.I.). I recall that Felix seemed to find his own R.I. lessons just as tedious as we did. The Butler Act's compulsory R.I. clause, I suspect, had been backfiring ever since -- achieving more since 1944 "to promote secularism via boredom" than the efforts of all British atheists and communists combined.

Ronald Felton was a big man, maybe 6' 4" and 220 lbs. He was 43 when I met him but seemed much older -- maybe because of the massive domed head and thinning, grey, swept-back hair. As my 6th Form history teacher he came across as a very different man from the impassive presenter of Middle Eastern fairy tales of my earlier years at OGS. Lessons on George the 3rd and 4th, Chatham, Charles James Fox, William Pitt, Napoleon (& Josephine!), Wellington, Goya, Brougham, Peel, Canning, Queen Victoria, Melbourne, Cardigan, Napoleon III, Disraeli, Gladstone, Kaiser Franz-Josef, Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, Parnell, Chamberlain, the last three German Kaisers, Balfour, Lloyd-George and many others, were always enlivened with personal anecdotes.

I recall Felix expounding on Bismarck: in his student days lying in winter on a giant stove as a way of concentrating on his studies; how he took the measure of Russia as a diplomat in Sankt Peterburg; how he reacted to the news of the death in 1888 of Kaiser Frederick III (of throat cancer after an English surgeon failed to cure him) by saying with a shrug, "the young fool will soon destroy the Empire;" and how, in his last years, he warned his successors that "Germany and Europe must grasp that in the coming century the Americans will play a major role in all our affairs."

Felix added that if only the Anglophile Frederick III had died at 80 -- in 1911 -- rather than at 57, the entire 20th century would be unimaginably different. "No World War I. No Russian Revolution! But what instead?"


Biographical details are derived from Twentieth-Century Children's Writers and Author's and Writer's Who's Who. The Ronald Welch page at Collecting Books and Magazines includes a number of book cover images (and is the source for an entry for 'Ronald Welch' on Wikipedia). As you will see from the above picture (© Look and Learn Magazine Ltd.), the story 'The King's Hunt' originally appeared in Swift Annual and its appearance in Thrilling Stories of the Past for Boys (ed. Eric Duthie, 1970) was a reprint.

The year that Felton departed Okehampton School is uncertain: 1963 in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 1964 in Contemporary Authors online and 1965 according to Author's and Writer's Who's Who (6th edition, 1971). I've plumped for 1964 as the average date.

(* Many thanks to Tom McGlynn and to John Tipper. John runs a very good web site, Collecting Books and Magazines, which has a wide coverage of children's authors and is well worth visiting regularly.)


  1. I remember reading as many of Ronald Welch's historical novels as I could manage, when I was a boy growing up in Croydon in the 1960s;the children's library in the town hall,and down the stairs to the cold basement,was treasure trove for me who had an intense aversion to dinosaurs,Dr Who and children's fiction,as epitomised by Enid Blyton,and her dreadful ilk.I much preferred the reality of Mr Welch's historical novels,alongside Conan Doyle and Leon Garfield et al. More is the pity that there are not still writers of historical adventure for children rather than the awful pastiches of Rowling's Harry Potter(her work an awul filtration of others' works).No wonder so many children seem to be historically illiterate! Some publisher should try again with Welch's wonderful list.

  2. Any word of reprints?

    I *think* Ronald Welch was profoundly influential on both my imagination and my world view.

    it must have been the combination of "Sun of York" and "Knight Crusader" that propelled me into a lifelong love of the Middle Ages. To him I owe my sword scar, the battered armour in the hall cupboard, and the much notched collection of blades in the bucket in the corner of my study.

    The thing is, I only *think* he influenced me. I can't verify this because I can't seem to be able to get hold of his books without spending a fortune.

    Where's the hold up? Why isn't somebody reprinting him?

  3. Frank Chammings26 Dec 2009, 09:36:00

    I attended Okehampton Grammar School from 1950 to 1955. Felix was my English teacher and I remember him showing the class the proofs of "The Gauntlet", originally called "The Iron Gauntlet".

  4. Awesome! So, what was he like?

  5. I attended a boarding school in Herts from 7 to 13. We had a full set of Ronald Welch's novels and I read them all with relish. It was wonderful escapism, and left me with a lifelong love of history - my first degree, and the military - bizarrely, I served for 4 years with the regiment descended from that described in "Captain of Foot" though this is coincidence only.
    My reading material at the moment - Holy Warriors - Jonathan Phillips excellent history of the crusades.
    We owe a huge debt to authors like Ronald Welch who is probably far more influential than he can have imagined.

  6. Frank Chammings13 Mar 2010, 21:39:00

    Felix was my English teacher from 1950. I well remember him showing the class the proofs of The Gauntlet.

  7. It's amazing to encounter people who've met Ronald Welch. The books make me intrigued to know about his his personal and spiritual life, and what happened to him in WWII.

    Right now I have the joy of reading some of his books to my 6-year old.

    "Knight Crusader" (from my old books) right now.
    Next up is "The Gauntlet" (easy to get on the Internet, since there was a for-schools reprint)
    I also have "Captain of Dragoons" (another one of mine).

    I've also got a copy of "Tank Commander" on its way from the States.

    Regular reports here:

  8. I remember reading these wonderful books in the 1960's in Devon. Our library was the most important part of my childhood. I loved Ronald Welch especially "Knight Crusader," "Mohawk Valley" and "Captain of Foot." I also have a life-long love of history and these books plus authors like Rosemary Sutcliffe, Henry Treece, Showell Styles, Geoffrey Treese and so on gave me a fantastic background. Like many of your posters I am not sure why these books aren't reprinted?I have bought quite a few at big prices from UK, USA and even Tasmania. I read them to my children and they loved them. Oh to go back to a Saturday afternoon in the 1960's with a cup of tea, a couple of digestive biscuits (!) and my latest Ronald Welch! Heaven!!

  9. @Carnon

    I think they're too unreflective on Empire, Class and War for modern tastes, and not lyrical enough. Plus the author is a man.

    Despite all this, my son seems to love them.

  10. I devoured all his books as a child, through to my late teens. I read and re-read them all. From these books and those of C.S. Forester I gained a huge interest in History and Military History in particular.

    I am now trying to hunt down as many as I can, despite the ridiculous prices. Like so many here I wish they would re-print!

  11. The only dud is the first one - "The Gauntlet" - which has the rambling beginning traditional for children's time travel tales of the time. The rest rock.

    If you like Welch, you might want to try Harold Lamb (same era, but was an Intelligence Officer in WWII) who hits some of the same notes. "Swords from the West" is probably the best collection to kick off with.

  12. As a young teenager in the 1970s I also devoured his books. Mr Welch put me on a course of loving history so much that it became my career in the museum sector. I just started to collect all his books again as they are now becoming scarce (my CC is still bleeding from the shock!). I also agree that much modern kids literature is rather poor in comparison, (farts, vomit, acne and magic seem to set the main themes). I'm so over Harry Plodder. From Nipper, Australia.

  13. This topic has become a shrine to the great man, hasn't it?

    There are some modern books knocking around with similar content and themes for children of a similar age. Look for books by J Eldridge.

  14. I'd also love to see these reprinted, and would happily buy the complete set. I loved these as a child, and my own are getting old enough to read them - but I can't find any (affordable) copies any more...

  15. I'm fascinated, but not surprised, by how others' experience of reading Ronald Welch's Carey books paralleled my own: I was an asthmatic and so slightly plump prep schoolboy in Broadstairs, Kent in the late '60s, and to the Carey books in the school library I returned time and time again. Ronald Welch's and Rosemary Sutcliffe's historical novels kindled my love of reading and of history which has last all my life. A love of reading leads to an involuntary appreciation of good literary style, grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and is a vital building block in the education of a child.

  16. I've just managed to complete my Carey family collection, at the often ridiculous prices that they can command, and am enjoying myself rereading them. They stand up very well to the test of time and I appreciate their historical detail. I, as a girl, always enjoyed his books and they, along with Rosemary Sutcliffe, Cynthia Harnett and other very good historical novelists for children inspired me with a life-long love of history. As a school librarian, I do not think that the calibre of these authors can be matched today, fantasy and chick lit are the popular genres.

  17. We bought our boys the entire set of Welch books for $1 each in hardback. They were being chucked out of the local library in Melbourne as being unsuitable. [Guess what is now suitable]. They grew up reading them over and over. The eldest emigrated to UK and now lives and works in Warwick at the castle! He adores all the history and literature in UK and France - all because of Authors like Welch, Sutcliffe and Treece but no - no likelihood of reprints. Modern kids are served up diets of suicide, family breakdown, racial tension and disaster, just in case they forget it for a minute. I'm glad my boys could grow up with some inkling of courage and friendship to make them into good men and boyfriends for their girls as well!

  18. All of them! So unfair!

    ("Knight Crusader" is being republished, by the way.)

    Some similar books are creeping into the modern corpus of boys YA, e.g. Jim Eldridge "Black Ops" series, and Scarrow's Gladiator series (but not the adult one...)

  19. Out here in Darwin I have almost a complete set of RW's great works. Had and lost (loaned?) a copy of Zulu Warrior though so that is gone....and enormous prices to get another.

    Who owns the copyright to these? I have a publisher friend who might be interested....

  20. I think Oxford still have it, though I have heard rumors his daughter owns the ultimate rights.

  21. I have heard from RW's daughter to say that more of his books will soon be available: the publishers of Slightly Foxed magazine are reprinting his Carey books in hardback beginning in September.

  22. (Formerly Zornhau here)
    THANKS! Yes, I also heard that from somebody who collects. This thread has been going on so long, I am now following in my hero's footsteps and writing historical adventure professionally!

    Is there a non-creepy way of contacting Ronald Welch's daughter? I have a couple of questions about his influences and unwritten books, and also... well, I'd like to thank her for her dad's influence on my life and my son's.

  23. Drop me a line directly (my e-mail address is below the photo top left) with your contact details and I'll pass them on.

  24. Hello there,

    We're delighted to announce that Slightly Foxed is republishing all 12 of Ronald Welch's Carey Novels. Knight Crusader, The Galleon and For the King out 1 September. Subsequent titles to follow throughout 2014-2016.

    Each title will be published in a cloth-bound hardback, hand-numbered limited edition of 2000 copies. £16 each.

    For more information, please visit our website - - or drop me an email:

    I do hope this is of interest!


    Jennie Paterson

  25. I have a complete set of Ronald Welch books beginning with The Gauntlet (and including Ferdinand Magellan which was the first one I read in my primary school library, and Zulu Warrior. My parents gave them to me for birthday day and Christmas gifts as each was published and reached New Zealand. I once wrote to Ronald Welch and his reply is a prized possession. I developed a family tree and added to it as the books arrived. I started with the details of his grandfather that the pilgrim gave Phillip in Knight Crusader and included Jocelyn's family from the same book down to his wider family's descendants mentioned in Captain of Dragoons. Ronald Welch told me the William d'Assailly in Bowman of Crecy is descended from Gilbert as much as the French d'Assailly characters are in the later books. He also told me that Peter in Zulu Warrior is in truth a Carey but vagaries of publishing meant he could not be so identified. I make a point of reading my copies through every 5 years so I'm pleased to hear they're being reprinted so that I can replace my battered ones. I'm looking out for the pre The Gauntlet ones and those short stories I'd love to find too.
    I'm now a History teacher five years from retiring. Ronald Welch helped put me on that path. I'm in his debt.

  26. That is amazing! I don't suppose you'd like to scan that letter and share it with us?

    1. E mail with the scanned documents relating to Ronald Welch that I promised you on 22 September 2013. I am sorry for the nearly 7 year's delay. I recently rediscovered the letter sent to me in 1974 by Ronald Welch. Enjoy it.
      J.G.M (huge Ronald Welch fan)

  27. You might have heard that Christchurch NZ had 6 earthquakes bigger than 6 Richter in the 15 months beginning 4th September 2010. My home, damaged in those events is at last about to be repaired so all my family's possessions are in storage. When I retrieve them I'll see to doing as you requested.

  28. That would be like a talisman for me. Sorry about your troubles.

    Please drop me a line... zornhau AT

  29. I also wrote, as a boy, to Ronald Welch and was thrilled when he very kindly replied. I'd been reading the Carey stories and had just finished Nicholas' the end quietly weeping in secret because in those days I believed men didn't cry.
    RW's stories had an enormous influence on me and how I learned to relate to the world. My love of history (yes, I became a history teacher) stems in strong part from his influence. My understanding for geography (yes, also taught it) follows on from relating his stories to geographical maps.

  30. I wish I too had thought to write to him!

  31. Slightly Foxed ( has now completed republishing all the Carey books. They are very nice editions, reproducing the original illustrations and with a completed family tree on the end papers. At £16.00 per title for a hardback book, sewn bound, the cost is very rwasonable. They are also planning to republish Son of York next spring and I have asked them to investigate getting the rights to Zulu Warrior as that was originally intended to be part of the Carey family sequence.

    I wish I'd bought his books when I first read them, but Slightly Foxed has done a marvellous job making them available again.

  32. Verily this is the comment thread that refuses to die! I shall tweet this!

  33. Mmm, it just might be time to have a look at one or two of the re-prints...Does anyone know if there's an Australian distributor...better get onto it. Be nice to have a bit of christmas reading.

  34. I had correspondence with Ronald Welch's daughter, Mrs Mary Simmons, about twenty years ago. There are two or three unpublished novels which Oxford declined to publish in the late 1970s. I tried to persuade her to allow me to fund their publication and had discussed with Victor Ambrus the idea of him illustrating them. Sadly she declined, for reasons I never understood. I have had a few goes at it and even offered her 50,000 pounds but she was adamant (in the nicest possible way).

    I also commission Victor Ambrus to do a complete set of copies of the art work from The Galleon which now sits in my home in London. And very fine they are too!