Treasures from the Magazine Room: The Story of the British Empire

In May 1939, London’s Amalgamated Press began a fortnightly magazine, telling what they named as The Story of the British Empire through prose and pictures. Led by a board of four distinguished editors, the magazine was to be truly encyclopaedic in scope; 13 major categories dealing with a range of subjects including history, geography, government, people, natural resources. Each category was to be further broken down into more specific subjects as, for example, profiles of colonial governors. In total, there were four pages listing dozens of proposed topics. With publication of around six topics per issue, it would take years to embrace all these themes, let alone any new ones as they arose.


The publishers also anticipated occasional added bonuses. The first issue (2nd May 1939) came with a circa 75 x 50 cm “Map of the world on Mercator’s projection.” The Mercator projection was fortuitous for, while it rendered navigation at its simplest, it came at the cost of exaggerating land area as latitude increased. Thus, the British Empire pink was prominently splashed right across the page (particularly conspicuous thanks to Canada). But I’m sure the Brits didn’t object to this: after all, “the sun never sets on the Empire” or as, the banner headline proclaimed, “We hold a Vaster Empire than has been.” Issue 12 (19th September 1939) was planned to include the first of free sets of collector cards beginning with those of “… soldiers, sailors, airmen, aeroplanes, battleships, guns and tanks.” Alas this was not to be.  Adolf-“no further territorial ambitions”-Hitler put paid to this. The magazine closed with Issue 11 and was no longer. 

During the short life of the magazine, there were many articles of Australian interest: The Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Australia House in London, and the wool and wheat industries, to name just a few. Aviation, especially long-haul international routes across the Empire lately provided by Imperial Flying Boats, was deemed of particular importance.  There is a beautiful full-colour, two-page fold-out of a cutaway diagram of an “Ensign” Air Liner, which flew the England-South Africa route until superseded by flying boats. 

The quality of photographs throughout is outstanding. I am particularly drawn to the large duo-tone images (the prevailing newspaper minuscule dots of the time with an extra layer of  a single colour – here, orange) While the colour is not “natural,”  the overall coppery bronze is most attractive. 

I am sure that the magazines will have their critics. It is a pity the editors chose not to acknowledge individual authors and photographers. Younger readers may well struggle with the conversion of the old British Imperial weights and measures into metric—and with the far more challenging task of turning Pounds, Shillings and Pence into present day currency and values. No doubt, many will be disturbed by the brutal pictures of a fisherman dispatching a shark and of teams of commercial hunters racing across the ice in pursuit of juvenile fur seals. Still, that’s the way it was.

Overall, the condition of these magazines is excellent. The paper is not brittle nor foxed, with only few of the inevitable minor tears. Some covers are loose and the staples within are sometimes slightly rusted. But they have survived the past 80 years remarkably well.

Look for this single offering at the next UQ Alumni Boor Fair® in May 2020. This will be sure to please be one lucky buyer.

Merv Cobcroft