British comics have seen the creation of many comic characters who in their day were as famous as Dennis the Menace, Mickey Mouse or The Simpsons – but few might remember today. The Daily Mirror strip Pip, Squeak and Wilfred is surely a classic example: characters that had such a following they inspired the creation of three World War One medals, and their own fan club – in the 1920s.
I first came across the characters in a copy of the 1931 annual I think I found in a box at my grandparents on holiday. Their antics had a lasting impression. Launched in 1919 and running in the Mirror through the 1920s and 30s, the strip was created and written by one of the paper’s journalists, Bertram J. Lamb (who signed himself as Uncle Dick), and beautifully drawn by the cartoonist Austin Bowen Payne (A.B. Payne).
The strip centred on the adventures of an orphaned family of animals and friends: the Father figure, Pip the dog; the Mother, Squeak, a penguin; and Wilfred the young child – a rabbit with very long ears, who all lived at “Mirror Grange”. (A book about this fictitious property, Mirror Grange, The book of the Daily Mirror’s house for Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, was published in 1929 and is a popular item among dolls house and model collectors).
It is believed that, during World War One, A. B. Payne’s batman had been nicknamed “Pip-squeak” and this is where the idea for the names of the dog and penguin came from.
Over on his blog, Philip Battle notes the origins of the characters, detailed in the strips themselves. Squeak was found in London Zoological Gardens after hatching on the South African coast years before. Pip was discovered begging by a policeman on the Embankment, and was sent to a dogs’ home, where he was bought for half-a-crown. Wilfred was found in a field near to his burrow and was adopted by Pip and Squeak, who were in turn looked after by Uncle Dick and Angeline, the housemaid of their family house on the edge of London.
It’s a bizarre set-up on a par with the sort of Fairyland-inspired surrealism you’d associate with Little Nemo or other British comic characters of the time, such as Tiger Tim or Teddy Tail. But along with the secondary characters such as a devious aunt whose money-making schemes know no bounds (and invariably landed her in trouble) and the crazy anarchist villain Popski, the strip certainly gelled with its audience, with annuals selling in their thousands, spin-off merchandise aplenty (including children’s tea-sets, board games, toys, lead figures, handkerchiefs), a series of 25 silent cartoons created by Lancelot Speed – and its own fan club.
The Wilfredian League of Gugnuncs (WLOG) launched in 1927, running until 1939 when it was wound down after war broke out – one of many inter war children’s clubs encouraging good deeds and charity work. (Phillip Battle explains that Gugnuncs is a combination of two baby-talk words used by Wilfred, Nunc being his version of Uncle). They organised many competitions and events thousands of members (whose number may, apparently, have included the Queen Mother, reportedly a fan of the strip), especially at the British coastal resorts.
An annual rally at the Royal Albert Hall raised funds for children’s hospitals and charities. Its event in 1928 attracted some 8000 attendees.
The Club issued members a WLOG badge featuring the long ears of Wilfred (along with others for those earning spiral merit) and offered a set of rules encouraging “Gugnuncliness” that included being kind to animals, protecting younger children – and never eating rabbit.
The WriteAntiques web site, which details numerous items inspired by the strip, reports the Daily Mirror “Gugnunc Sing-Song” was very popular, both as a printed songsheet and a now rare 78 rpm record produced by His Master’s Voice.
The three names of the characters also became associated with three campaign medals issued in the 1920s to many thousands of returning servicemen, whether under fire or not, which somewhat demeaned their significance. As a result, it was not long before the trio of awards were christened Pips, Squeaks and Wilfreds.
British Miscellany, reporting that the Pip, Squeak and Wilfred strip is the only mention of British comics at the Kyoto International Manga Museum in Japan, notes that three RAF training aircraft of the interwar period were named Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, as were some armoured cars in service in Iraq. Handley-Page also named their HP39 aircraft “Gugnunc” in Wilfred’s honour, and a small operation to mine the Norwegian coast in 1940 was codenamed “Operation Wilfred”.
There are many more cultural references of the period inspired by the strip, too numerous to detail here.
Lamb died in 1938 and Payne left the strip in 1939, the strip continued in its original form into the war years by uncredited artists. It was revived in the Mirror in the 1950s, its creators sadly also uncredited; this version features a bow-tied now speaking Wilfred, a ginger Auntie and a young penguin, Stanley, that has little of the charm of the original.
There have been attempts to revive the strip: Sparky and Doctor Who? script writer Tim Quinn and artist Nick Miller pitched a quirky revival to the Mirror in the 1990s without success.
For many today, their only encounter with Pip, Squeak and Wilfred might be as a bizarre mention in a computer game, but for me, their antics were another inducement toward a lifelong love of comics.
• Hawk Books released The Nostalgia Collection: Pip, Squeak and Wilfred in 1990 – you can find copied on Amazon. The original annuals are often offered on eBay for reasonable sums
• You can listen to version of the Gug Nunc song here on Soundcloud and sing along as you do
Gug! Gug! Nunc! Nunc!
Gugnuncs Merry are we!
We sing this song, for we all belong
To the W.L.O.G.
Stand By – Friends all –
Members merry and free!
For hand-in-hand goes the gugly band
Of the W.L.O.G.
Nunc! Nunc! Wilf! Wilf!
To Wilf we bend the knee,
To Wilf we sing, to the gugly king
Of the W.L.O.G.
Gug! Gug! Nunc! Nunc!
To Friends of all degree!
Give gugly hugs to the nuncly gugs of the W.L.O.G.