Scrap Book Project – I-Spy Books

I-Spy books were small paperback volumes that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s.  Each book covered a subject such as I-SPY Cars, I-SPY on the Pavement, I-SPY on a Train Journey, and so on and so on.

The object was to be vigilant and spot objects such as animals, trees, policemen, fire engines, sea shells etc. etc.  and they were recorded in the relevant book, and this gained points.  More points were available for the more difficult spots.  Once you had spotted everything and the book was complete, it could be sent to Big Chief I-SPY for a feather and order of merit.

No, I kid you not! 

The books was supposedly written by a Red Indian chief called Big Chief I-Spy who turned out to be a man called Charles Warrell who was a former school teacher and headmaster who created I-Spy in 1948. He retired in 1956, but lived on until 26th November 1995 when he died at the age of 106.  For part of this time he also worked as an antiques dealer in Islington.

Those who played the I-Spy game became members of the I-Spy Tribe and were called Redskins.  The head office was variously known as the Wigwam by the Water or the Wigwam-by-the-Green.  Neither of these exotic sounding places were situated on the American Plains or in the Black Hills of Dakota, the former was located next to the Mermaid Theatre at Blackfriars and the latter was in London’s Edgware Road.

I had quite a collection of I-Spy books but to be honest I never finished any of them because some of the items were absurdly difficult to track down (how, for example, do you I-Spy fish unless you are a deep sea fisherman working on a trawler or a scuba diver?) and I never got a single feather although I did join the club and had an I-Spy badge that I used to wear on the lapel of my school blazer.

I-SPY Badge

The original first thirty-two I-Spy books were in black and white only and cost sixpence each and the titles were:

At the Seaside The Army
On the Farm The Wheel
History Sport
On a Train Journey People and Places
Dogs Musical Instruments
In the Country Men at Work
At the Zoo- Animals Antique Furniture
At the Zoo – Birds and Reptiles The Universe
In the Street Road Transport
On the Road Town Crafts
The Sights of London Country Crafts
Horses and Ponies The Sky
Ships and Harbours People in Uniform
Boats and Waterways Motorcycles and Cycles
Aircraft Bridges
Cars Sports Cars

Some of these books were extremely useful for parents, especially on long jouneys.  For a small investment there would be short periods of peace while children were preoccupied with spotting things –  ‘On a Train Journey’‘Road Transport’ and ‘Cars’ were good for this sort of thing.

On a long car journey my dad would invent his own I-spy games and challenge us to spot a red lorry, spot a black cow, spot a petrol station, in fact spot pretty much anything he could think of if it successfully kept us all quiet.  This didn’t last very long of course and when he got desperate he would tell us to look out for the sea and when we were on the way to Cornwall or Wales he usually started this little distraction roughly at about Oxford which is of course just about as far from the sea as you can possibly get!  That was very optimistic.


At the Seaside’ was also useful for parents because they could send you off for hours at a time staring into rock pools and poking around at the shoreline to find things while they sat and enjoyed the sunshine.  I suppose some would be frowned upon today because they encouraged kids to go off to places that parents today would consider dangerous, ‘In the Street’, ‘Boats and Waterways’, ‘Bridges’ and especially, probably the most dangerous of all, ‘Wild Fruits and Funghi’!

Some were useless of course and we didn’t buy them, I mean what chance was there of completing ‘The Army’ I-Spy book unless your dad was a squaddie? And how were most normal kids supposed to spot ‘Aircraft’?  I never went near an airport until I was twenty-two and neither did most of my mates.

Some people took this all a bit too seriously and here is an entry that I have found on : “Glad to know that others remember the I-SPY Books. I used the books regularly as a child in the 1950s and 1960s (and beyond), was a member of the I-SPY Tribe and won various prizes, including a wigwam (or tent!) I led my own local “patrol” and we met the second Big Chief I-SPY, Arnold Cawthrow, on a number of occasions. He visited my home in Barking twice and mentioned me and my Red Arrow Patrol in a number of his Daily Mail columns. I kept in touch until he retired in 1978 and remember the whole I-SPY experience with much affection.”

I-Spy a sad man!

36 responses to “Scrap Book Project – I-Spy Books

  1. how i would have LOVED these!! if i ever run across any here in the States while antiquing or at yard sales I will buy them!!

  2. Pingback: Simple Pleasures – I-SPY Books | Have Bag, Will Travel

  3. What a shame that they came out so late, 2 or 3 years earlier and I’d have enjoyed them for sure, Never heard of them until now, Thanks Andrew loved this post! 🙂

  4. Those would have been fun.. now the kid just looks at a little screen..

  5. I kind of remember the books but never used one. What have I missed! I would love to win a wigwam 🙂 🙂

  6. I only had a few but they were something that I greatly enjoyed. We lived near Swadlincote in South Derbyshire so we occasionally visited Burnaston and then the East Midlands Airport set up, so I got quite a few of the smaller airliners. We were also under the Severn-Trent flyway so we saw a lot of RAF types, and even a few Coastal Command aircraft such as Shackletons. Aircraft were very distinctive then such as Vulcans, Victors and Lightnings.
    Did anybody collect car numbers though?

  7. I had a handful of them, but as you say some of them were so esoteric back when people didn’t travel the way they can now/. I seem to recall quickly getting bored with them because you simply couldn’t actually spy much of the stuff they told you to look for.

  8. Growing up on the Cumbrian coast At The Seaside was a doddle! Fish, rock pools, sand dunes, stones, flowers, ….. we had them all. We also used to vanish for a whole day at weekends into the woods and hills, returning late evening with ripped trousers and black from fire smoke! Happy days.

  9. I remember these, but didn’t know about the big chief

  10. Here’s to us still blogging about ice pie at the age of 106.

  11. Oh, I had quite a few ISpy books as a kid, and we used to invent ISpy games on long car journeys! I used to frequently
    spot Ford Anglias, Minis for my sister!

  12. I remember those, but didn’t have any. Maybe it was a boy thing?

  13. I remember one of my brothers having these books. He used to go out with his mates, the little Gang of Four, not sure how well they did.

  14. Pingback: Yorkshire – Seaside, Countryside and a Train Journey | Have Bag, Will Travel

  15. Pingback: Yorkshire – Flamborough Head and A Face in the Cliff | Have Bag, Will Travel

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