The Riddle of The Painted Box by Malcolm Saville

I grew up in the early 1950s in a small town in Lancashire. One of my prize possessions as a lad was a wooden pencil box with a sliding lid and a pivoting top that gave access to a lower layer. My most valued possessions were always stored in the bottom layer along with my rubber (eraser for US readers). Your pencil box was kept either in your school bag, or your school desk, but you always took care of it because loosing it could make life difficult.

When  I searched the internet a few months ago for old canal books I noted a children's novel with canal connections called The Riddle of the Painted Box that was set in the 1940s. It was outside my normal range of books, I normally go for non-fiction, but it looked interesting. From the description I had no idea what the "painted box" was.

Michael and Mary examine the Painted Box

The box of the title turned out to be a wooden pencil box decorated in traditional Rose and Castle style. It was the  prize possession of the daughter of a boating family who in the book ply their trade along the Grand Union. The box features in a tale of crime and intrigue with the heroes being two children of a family "on the bank" who live not far from Brentford. The author is Malcolm Saville who wrote many children's books, this being the second in a series of adventures featuring Michael and Mary Bishop who lost their father in the war and live with their mother in Laburnum Road. The book is charmingly illustrated by Lunt Roberts who was a talented cartoonist - the drawings add a lot to its qualities.

What impressed me about the novel was Saville's attention to detail. Even though this is a book for children, there is no lack of technical detail concerning working boats and canals. The author manages to evoke the period and the setting wonderfully well. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it despite being nearly sixty years older than the target audience! Published only three years after Rolt's Narrow Boat, in 1947, the story is very evocative of that time of austerity and the economic difficulties that followed WWII. As the author states in the foreward, although some canals at that time were no longer used, some such as the Grand Union Canal were very busy indeed.

Examples of the The Riddle of the Painted Box are available on the internet for a range of prices varying from just over £6 for a "reading copy" like mine to over £60 for an "excellent" copy complete with the illustrated colour dust jacket. My copy is a first edition from 1947 so it is as old as me!

First edition wrapper. Click to enlarge (File size=32KB)

For those interested in canal books for children the excellent Old Waterways Books web site has numerous pages dedicated to this genre. There is also a site dedicated to the work of Malcolm  Saville. It appears that Painted Box was his only canal-related book and he wrote it at Westend Farm, Wheathampsted just outside Harpenden.