Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Sign of the Scarlet Ladybird Flickers Out

The news that F. W. Woolworth & Co. has gone into administration with the potential loss of 815 high street stores and 30,000 jobs reminded me that Woolworths has had a variety of comic connections over the years. The first store, with nothing priced over sixpence, was opened in the UK in 1909, thirty years after Frank Winfield Woolworth launched the chain with his first "five cent" shop in New York in 1879. In the 1920s and 1930s, you could buy bundles of American magazines and (at the tail end of the Thirties) American comics for 3d., remainder copies used as ballast on cargo ships coming from the USA. Distributors discovered there was a market for these "Yank mags" and began importing titles for distribution. Not in vast numbers, but if you hunted around some of the newsagents and market stalls of the era you might have stumbled across imported copies of Superman and Detective Comics. I remember the late Syd Bounds telling me that he had discovered his first science fiction magazines in Woolworths.

Woolworths also became synonymous with the Ladybird brand of clothing which ran one of the most sustained advertising campaigns in comics ever. Readers of Swift and TV Comic will remember "The Sign of the Scarlet Ladybird" comic strip that ran in colour on the back covers of those two titles.

The strip first appeared in the first issue of Swift in March 1954 and continued to appear, with only a brief break, until December 1962, shortly before the paper merged with Eagle. The premise was very much like the Walls ice cream advertising already appearing in Eagle, where Tommy Walls had his own secret sign. The secret sign of the Scarlet Ladybird was actually the Ladybird label in the clothing of the stars of the strip which confirmed that they were all members of the Ladybird Adventure Club (the title of the strip changed in 1957 to 'The Secret Sign of the Ladybird Adventure Club').

I'm not sure when the strip began in TV Comic, although it was some time in the late 1950s (1956-59); it came to an end in the spring of 1967 around issue 805 or thereabouts. Between the two papers, it ran for an astonishing 13 years.

The creator of the strip was Eric Walter Pasold (1906-1978), who took over as head of the Pasolds family textile firm in 1930. Born in Bohemia, he built up a substantial business in Britain in the 1930s and, at its peak, was supplying Ladybird branded garments to 4,000 stories in the UK and 65 overseas markets. The company was taken over by J & P Coats, Paton & Baldwin Ltd. in 1965, which later became Coats Viyella; Woolworths became the exclusive distributors of Ladybird branded clothing in 1984 and, in 2000, bought the brand outright.

The Ladybird clothing brand is likely to survive the collapse of Woolworths as it is now a global brand, with over 160 stores and concessions worldwide everywhere from Ireland to Saudi Arabia. But for many years it has been associated with Woolies and it's sad to see the Sign of the Scarlet Ladybird flicker out.

(* From the top: Woolies photo © Museum of London; "The Sign of the Scarlet Ladybird" artwork from Swift Annual 3 © Look and Learn Magazine Ltd.; panel from TV Comic 384 © Beaverbrook Newspapers Ltd.)


  1. Woolworth's in Brum's old bullring was a grand old store. I think it passed into the hands of a string of discount clothing stores in the lates 1980s. I'll never forget the huge open staircase down into the lower floor (where all the toys were!) - it was grand and more befitting a large theatre or cinema.

    According to it had 95,000 sq ft!! A far cry from the totty wee stores of today.

  2. I still can't believe this news. This is incredibly sad - No more Woolworths - I get all my cheap CD's from there.

  3. Got my first ever Superman comic from Woolworths...

  4. I still have a vivid memory of buying a Dan Barry Flash Gordon comic in Woolworths when on holiday in the late 60s.

    Thanks to that, Barry is my favourite Flash Gordon artist.

    The store was still there when I went back last summer, though sadly it no longer stocks comics.

    David Simpson

  5. Dan Barry is a fantastic artist and the basis for the DC Comics "house style" in the fifties.

    Tivia Corner: Dan Barry's collaborations with Frazetta, Kurtzman etc are well known, but less well-known is that British artist Martin Asbury, later of Look-In and Garth, was his art assistant in the sixties.

  6. And another British comics' artist, Tony Coleman, was assistant to Wally Wood in the mid-1960s, working on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.



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