The wonderful librarian at Monash University’s Rare Books (Stephen Perrin) has shared with me just a few of the many ‘John Mystery’ publications in the collection.
John Mystery was an Australian children’s publishing phenomenon. He published hundreds of small, cheap books for children during the late 1930s and 1940s, for very young children (his Fairies and Fairies ABC, for example, are directed at pre-readers), to more complex tales for teen readers, such as the short stories contained in Buried Treasure, including ‘The Death Clock’, ‘Monte Christo’, ‘Aladdin’, ‘Ocean Gold’, ‘The Gold Bug’, ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’.
According to a news item that appeared in the Daily Mercury (Mackay) on May 30, 1946, and which was based on an interview with the author, “A particular quality of John Mystery’s books parents will welcome is that they are fundamentally good. His stories outlaw evil, selfishness, and disrespect, while encouraging fairness and honesty, goodwill and friendship, correct speech, respect for law and order.” (p. 2)
The paper stock is cheap, and the covers flimsy thin card, but the covers are brightly covered, and each publication is packed to the brim with illustrations. Best of all, many issues have a letter from the author to his ‘cobbers’ in the back. These letters address his readers directly, sometimes quote from his fan-mail, and refer to current events (including occasional references to the ongoing war).
According to the short biography in Austlist, John Mystery was really Lester Basil Sinclair, born in New Zealand, who came to Australia during his teens, and joined the circus (yes, he really did run away to the circus!). He was a soldier at Gallipolli, and wrote a series of war poems and songs, but is most famous for the voluminous output of children’s works he published as ‘John Mystery’. He published out of a ‘castle’ in Sydney (Illawong), which he dubbed ‘Adventure Castle’. His second wife, Ellen Sinclair, was a food writer for the Australian Women’s Weekly, and probably helped out quite a bit with the enormous number of publications that Publicity Press (1938) Pty Ltd published.
Monash University have about 140 of John Mystery’s publications in their collection: he published many more, but they are highly ephemeral things. Many of them little more than over-sized chapbooks.
I thought you’d most like to read one of the letters to his cobbers from around 1943. But first, here’s a little snippet inserted into the front matter of Buried Treasure:
And now, for a letter from our illustrious author:
It is over five years now that we have been friends. Thank you so much for your letters–you know how much I love to have them–and also for the gifts you have sent me. Now, the letters you send to me are very private, and nobody knows about them except myself–but this year I had such a lovely gift from a Little Girl from Gympie, I feel I want to share it with all my cobbers. I know she won’t mind. This is the verse Shirley sent to me–
“There are always those who love us in their own particular way,
While the skies are bright above us, and success attends each day;
But the things that keep us going in the right path to the end,
Is the really truly knowing that a fellow has a friend.”
That’s how I think we all feel. The world is a happy place for me, because of my cobbers, and I like to think you are glad to have me for your friend. No matter what may happen, it does help to know that, as the verse says, “a fellow has a friend.”
Thank you for asking again and again for my books. If the book you want is not at your shop to-day, it may be there to-morrow. Soon, when the final Victory has been gained, and the dream of peace is a dream no longer, I will be able to write all the books for which you have asked. Until then–please keep enquiring at your book shop for the John Mystery book you want.
And now–to my new cobbers! Please, when you write to me, enclose a stamped, addressed envelope, and I would like to have a photograph of you, too, to put in my Giant Album. Don’t forget to remind me to send you five of the Lucky Beans from Jack’s Beanstalk, which I discovered in an old oak chest in my Castle. It is said they will help to bring you all kinds of Good Luck!
I shall be looking for your letters!
My Address is–
That’s all you need to put!
You can read more about John Mystery in two research papers:
Juliet O’Conor’s ‘John Mystery and the Australian Book Trade’, which appeared in Explorations into Children’s Literature, Volume 22, Number 1. 2012: pp. 68-80; and,
Derrick Moor’s ‘John Mystery: The Nation’s Storyteller’ which appeared in La Trobe Library Journal, Spring Number 60. 1997: pp. 31-39.
Also, if you have access to it, Austlit have a fully digitised copy of John Mystery’s Buried Treasure.
Quite an amazing man. I am his grandson, Warren Sinclair. Not all the info above is correct. I often wonder about the "John Mystery" pen name as Dads nickname was John and Lester was parted from dad when dad was six years old, never to see his father again.
Hi Warren! I'd love to know which details aren't correct--I had some trouble finding much information. That's so fascinating about the possibilities of his pen name's inspiration. What a sad story.
Hi, I have several John Mystery books with illustrations signed MATT or MATT/- (looks like a shilling sign after MATT) I have been told the illustrator was Matthew Johnston Heriot by relatives of Heriot. Can anybody help? Regards, Tony
Dear Tony, I'm so sorry to have taken such a long time to respond to your comment. I'm really fascinated by the information you have about the illustrations by Matthew Johnson Heriot. In a 2012 paper by Juliet O'Conor from the State Library of Victoria (available here), the author notes that:I've not seen much other information published about who the other illustrators might have been, but some of those listed in the Austlit database records for these publications include: J Butler (John Mystery's Big Picture Nursery Rhymes in Glorious Colour), J.L. (Tinies Rhyme Book), and Betty Van Der Pot (John Mystery's Eenie Weenie Winnie Lovely Book of Laughter). I'm sure there are many more!
Hi, I would be interested in seeing more photos of Adventure Castle in Illawong.
I remember my mother and my elder brother visiting friends at Como on the Georges River. On one visit I was taken to see John Mystery's Castle and this visit has stayed with me all my life. I am now 76. I must have read his books but unfortunately I can't remember any of them. . What a pity. One thing I do remember is we had to visit the friends by boat. The surname was Irwin. Does anyone know of this family of that time?
Hello Warren, In trying to track down your grandfather's recording history. If you've any information is be grateful if you could contact me
Hi all...and fascinating. Lester Sinclair was my uncle - married my dad's sister - and I have photo of myself at the castle with my mum and a couple of the three great danes, Lester and his wife Ellen (Maud) Sinclair had at the time (1949'ish). I still keep in touch with my cousin John Sinclair (Lester's eldest son), if anyone's interested.
Dear Dan, Thanks for dropping by and posting. How wonderful that you have a connection to Lester Sinclair! I'd LOVE to see this picture of you and some of the family at the castle - do you suppose you could scan and share it? That would be lovely. How wonderful to still be in touch with John. I hope you have happy memories of the castle and of your family :)
Hi Nike. Thanks so much for your prompt response. Not sure if it will work or not, but I uploaded that photo of myself at the castle, as my avatar. Hope it works...
It's tiny, but I can see it (if I put my glasses on!). Great picture, Dan, thank you so much for sharing it with me/us :)
My grandmother Betty van der Pot illustrated a quite a few of the John Mystery series. Sadly we didn't keep all her work. She illustrated a fair bit for Offset printing.
How wonderful, Dimity! Lovely to have such a creative family heritage ????
Further info re my Grandfather Lester Sinclair; He was born in 1899 in Bridlington, yorks, England, his name was James Basil Pearson. He emigrated to Sydney, Australia via the Dreadnought Trust. Later he enlisted in the army under the name of James Basil Franks and went to Gallipoli, when he became very ill and was returned to Australia to hospital. He took leave and went AWOL and took a new name, Len Courtney Esq. He came to New Zealand where he took a position opening picture theatres around the country. At this time he used the name Lester Sinclair and married my Grandmother, She was his second wife. My father was born and christened Bryan Lester Sinclair, although he was always called John or Johnny. When Dad was six his parents separated and Dad and his mum returned to New Zealand. Lester began to write songs,records,and childrens stories, and hired Elen as his secretary who he then married and had children with. As my grandmother prevented Lester from ever finding my Dad and dad from knowing about his father I often wonder about the reson he wrote under the name "John Mystery". Dad eventually tracked Lester via his death cert and travelled to Australia where he met Lesters two sons. I myself was fortunate to meet Ellen where I could eventually learn more about my grandfather that i never got a chance to know, I was 14 when he died. I have lots more details etc, hope this is of help.
Hi Warren, Dan Wilkinson's my name, and I am/was a nephew of Lester Sinclair. You may see I posted about three years ago. Only a few weeks past, I spent four days with my cousin John Sinclair - one of Lester's two sons with Ellen (Maud) Sinclair - my dad's sister, in Melbourne. I spoke with John about an hour ago re your post, and he would be thrilled to be able to get in touch. Trust you feel likewise...and do hope hear...
Hi Warren…not sure if you received my earlier post, but I am/was a nephew of Lester Sinclair. Funnily, a few weeks ago I spent a few days at the Melbourne home of my cousin - John Sinclair – one of Lester’s two sons with Ellen (Maud) Sinclair (my dad’s sister). Cousin John – who knows everything about John Mystery - would be delighted to somehow touch base with you, and I’m hoping you might think likewise. Thought, please…??
I was amazed to read this! I recently purchased a stunning book ‘John Mystery’s Big Pantomime Book’, which is a beautifully illustrated book including a diorama and character cutouts for children to make their own pantomime theatre. Upon realising it was Australian, I commenced to research it. Now, my partner who preserves our nation’s military history wants to add it to HIS immortal collection! Most incredible.
Does anyone know which platoon James Basil Franks was in during his stint at Gallipoli? He was in "A" Company, 26th Battalion, 7th Brigade, 2nd Division, 1st AIF. My wife's grandfather also served in the same Company as James and also had enteric fever about a month before James. They both returned to Australia on 13th March 1916 on the HMHS Nestor and both lived in Sydney, one in Mortdale and the other across the Georges River at Ilawong. James was classed as a deserter since he did not return to the Army as requested, while my wife's grandfather did, but he could hardly walk or eat due to the disease. Hence, he was discharged as medically unfit on 18th August 1916. I'd love to find out if both men were in the same platoon. It seems more than a coincidence that the two men lived almost in the same area. Our family oral history does not indicate that the two men were in touch after the war, but someone out there might know something.
I purchased a 1938 John Mystery Big Parade story collection from an op shop years ago. It's not in the most amazing condition. This thread has been super interesting. It's been hard to find much about the book.
Hi Niki! They are rare birds these days; hard to find, and hard to find much information about. I'm so glad you found this blog post and conversation interesting! Happy reading :)
Thank you for all these snippets of information., I started collecting John Mystery's a very long time ago after I came to Australia,(I am French) because I discovered that they were Australian and because I really loved them. Many times over the years I have tried to learn more about them and this time I feel that trying again was worth it. Thank you.
How wonderful to have helped you find some more information about this iconic and magical series! Thank you for reading :)