Swallows and Amazons: a sailing adventure series for children -- and adults

Swallows and Amazons: a sailing adventure series for children — and adults

Barbecued Billygoats!

You mean you haven’t read Swallows and Amazons or any of the other books in the 12-volume series? Technically, we’re all supposed to read these books when we’re children, but if you haven’t don’t worry — you’ll still enjoy messing about in boats with the crews of the Swallow and the pirates of the Amazon.

Swallows and Amazons

by Arthur Ramsom


Sailing the Swallow are siblings John, Susan, Titty, and Roger Walker. The Walker children inherited their love of the sea and their sailing experience from their father, an officer in the British Navy. Their mother, who learned how to sail as a child growing up in Australia, allows the children freedom to explore, camp and sail during their holidays at the lake. The parents’ only request is that the children not drown or be “duffers.”


Captain John, the eldest, is generally in charge, however he often is persuaded to join Nancy in her misadventures. He also makes grievous mistakes, such as holing, dismasting and sinking his ship, and then there was that time he “accidentally” sailed the stormy North Sea winding up in Holland. This adventure is the focus of We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea (sure you didn’t), the seventh in the series.


Next in the Walker lineup is First Mate Susan, a highly organized and nurturing young woman. She is in charge of the ship’s stores, cooking, and making sure the crew remembers to brush their teeth and pause for afternoon tea. She also makes sure that the Ship’s Boy Roger (the youngest next to the ship’s baby who joins the crew later) doesn’t eat too much chocolate and goes to bed on time. Titty, the dreamy artist of the family, is the Able Seaman. She foils the pirates in the first book —Swallows and Amazons — and is also the crew’s cartographer. Bridget, the ship’s baby, eventually joins the crew and her first real adventure with the Swallows is the unplanned voyage across the North Sea. She earns her keep later in Secret Water, the eighth S&A volume, when she makes allies of a new enemy — the eels.


Sisters Nancy and Peggy Blackett are the pirate crew of the Amazon. Nancy refuses to use her given name of Ruth because Uncle Jim Turner (Captain Flint to the children) told her that pirates are supposed to be ruthless. Nancy is a tomboy. Her sister, Peggy (Margaret) is not as courageous but is a highly competent sailor and First Mate. Her greatest fear is thunder and it is at these moments that Nancy shows her soft side, comforting the sister she generally calls a “galoot.” I thought Harry Potter broke a lot of rules and generally misbehaved, but he is tame next to Pirate Nancy Blackett of the Amazon.


Sister and brother Dorothea and Dick Callum are introduced in the fourth book, Winter Holiday. Both are intellectuals who yearn to be friends with the Swallows and the Amazons, and learn how to sail in order to be part of the group. Dorothea is a writer and Dick is a scientist. They later acquire a dinghy of their own, the Scarab.


The author uses the Callums as a link to new locations and new characters: the Norfolk Broads and the members of the Coot Club. The Callums are the main characters in two subsequent books where they meet Tom Dudgeon, twins Port and Starboard, and the crew of Death and Glory: Pete, Bill and Joe, three working-class boys.


The emphasis of all the books is on the sailing-related (mis)adventures of the children, but often Captain Flint is involved in the tales. Other generally benevolent adult characters also appear, along with a motley assortment of ne’er do wells.


I did enjoy all of the books, and some more than others and, for a while, I adopted many of the salty sayings of Captain Nancy. Many a times I told my husband to “stir his stumps” if I was in a hurry, or “shiver my timbers” when my usual “crikey” would do. The best thing about the book is that each character is well drawn and throughout the series remains true, except for Roger who showed signs of becoming a belligerent prankster as he grew up. The small boy who “tacked” his way across the meadow to his mother in the first book became quite greedy and often sullen in later books. Despite their many flaws that often ring true, the children also exhibit bravery, fortitude, ingenuity and abiding friendship.


Novel Series

  • Swallows and Amazons (1930)
  • Swallowdale (1931)
  • Peter Duck (1932)
  • Winter Holiday (1933)
  • Coot Club (1934)
  • Pigeon Post (1936)
  • We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea (1937)
  • Secret Water (1939)
  • The Big Six (1940)
  • Missee Lee (1941)
  • The Picts And The Martyrs: or Not Welcome At All (1943)
  • Great Northern? (1947)


Jibbooms and Bobstays!

Get your own copy of Swallows and Amazons, and while you’re at it, get the rest. You’re never too old to enjoy a good story.

About the Author

Arthur Ransome is best known for his “Swallows and Amazons” series of books, first published between 1930 and 1947 and all of which remain in print to this day. The books have been translated into many languages, such as Chinese, Czech, Hebrew, Hungarian, French, German and Slovak.

Ransome was a journalist, literary critic, biographer, story-teller, keen fisherman, sailor and, some people believe, even a spy. The Arthur Ransome Society (TARS) was formed in 1990 in order to celebrate and promote his life and works. While based in the UK, TARS has members in thirty countries throughout the world, including Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the USA.