Swallows and Amazons

From Academic Kids

Swallows and Amazons is a series of children's books by English author Arthur Ransome, named after the title of the first book in the series. The 12 books involve adventures by groups of children during school vacations, mostly in England and Scotland, between the two World Wars. Most of the stories involve small sailing boats.

The series remains popular today for its idyllic, yet often realistic, depiction of childhood and the interplay between youthful imagination and reality. It is part of the basis for a large tourist industry in the Lake District and Norfolk Broads areas of England, where many of the books are set.

The series began with Swallows and Amazons, published in 1930. It told the story of the Walker children, who sail a dinghy named Swallow, and the Blackett children, who sail a dinghy named Amazon. The Walkers are staying at a farm near a lake during the school holidays; the Blacketts live in a house nearby. The children meet on an island on the lake, and have a series of adventures that weave imaginative tales of pirates and exploration into everyday life in rural England in the 1930s.


Major characters

The crew of the Swallow are siblings John, Susan, Titty, and Roger Walker. John, the oldest, is the captain and usually in charge. Susan is first mate, in charge of stores, cooking, and the general well-being of the crew. She often acts as the mother surrogate for the others. Titty, an able-seaman, is the imagination of the crew. She is usually the one who comes up with the stories of their adventures. Roger is the youngest; he was originally the ship's boy, but was promoted to able-seaman in later books. In later books, their youngest sister Bridget also appears.

The crew of the Amazon are the sisters Nancy and Peggy Blackett. Nancy — who dislikes her given name Ruth because pirates are supposed to be ruthless — is the captain, and a strong character who would probably be considered a tomboy. Peggy, real name Margaret, puts up a show of being as tough as Nancy, but often needs the encouragement of her sister to get through the more dangerous of their adventures.

A third major set of characters are brother and sister Dick and Dorothea Callum, who are introduced in the fourth book of the series, Winter Holiday. Dick and Dorothea are the intellectuals of the group, Dick in matters of science, Dorothea in the arts. The Swallows and Amazons are initially dubious of the qualities of the two, but their intelligence, inventiveness, and loyalty eventually win them the respect of the others. The Callums later acquire a dinghy of their own, the Scarab.

The Callums are the link to a different location and another set of characters. Following their appearance in Winter Holiday, they appear in two subsequent books set in the Norfolk Broads. Here they meet the members of the Coot Club: Tom Dudgeon; the twins, Port and Starboard; and three working class boys, the Death and Glories. Ransome has often been accused of creating characters who are too middle class but Joe, Bill and Pete are proof that he was capable of creating realistic working class characters.

With a couple of exceptions, the exact ages of the characters are never established, although in the beginning they run from 7 years old (Roger) to about 12 or 14 (John and Nancy). All characters age as the series goes on; the final book occurs approximately four years after the first.


The original Swallows and Amazons and four later books in the series are set in and around an unnamed lake in the English Lake District. Most of the unfinished Coots in the North would also have been set on the lake had Ransome completed it before his death. The lake and the surrounding fells are based on an amalgam of Windermere and Coniston Water, places where Ransome spent much of his childhood and later life. Many places in the books can be identified with real locations in the area, though Ransome has modified the real location in producing his fictional setting. Generally, the geography of the lake resembles Windermere (though Wild Cat Island has a number of important elements from Peel Island on Coniston Water) while the fells and hills surrounding it more resemble the area around Coniston.

Although considered an integral part of the Swallows and Amazons series and linked by the presence of the Callums, the books Coot Club and The Big Six do not feature either the Walkers (Swallows) or the Blacketts (Amazons). They are set in an accurate representation of the Norfolk Broads, particularly the small village of Horning and its surrounding rivers and broads. Coots in the North also begins in the Broads before moving to the lake in the north.

We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea and Secret Water are set in coastal Suffolk and Essex, with the former involving a voyage to Flushing, Netherlands and the latter the exploration of the islands of Hamford Water near Walton-on-the-Naze.

The books Peter Duck and Missee Lee involve voyages of the schooner Wildcat to the Caribbean and the South China Sea. The stories appear to be metafictional with respect to the rest of the series.

Two abandoned chapters of Peter Duck (called Their Own Story) were found in Ransome's papers held in the Brotherton Library at Leeds University. They describe the story of Peter Duck being made-up by the Walkers and Blacketts on a wherry in the Norfolk Broads during the winter following the events described in Swallows and Amazons. This composition was later referenced in Swallowdale, but not in Peter Duck itself. These chapters were published in a book Arthur Ransome and Capt. Flint's Trunk ISBN 0224025902 written by Christina Hardyment in 1984.

The final complete book, Great Northern? is set in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. Due to problems with the timing of the story and school holidays and the use of firearms, this book is sometimes included with Peter Duck and Missee Lee as metafictional.


Part of the charm of the Swallows and Amazons series are the illustrations which were drawn by Ransome himself. The first edition of Swallows and Amazons was published almost without illustrations. Ransome so disliked the pictures by Steven Spurrier that were commissioned by his publisher, Jonathan Cape, that the only pictures in the first edition were the end paper map of the lake and a map of Wild Cat Island. For the second edition, Clifford Webb was commissioned to produce the illustrations which met with grudging approval by Ransome. Webb also illustrated Swallowdale but Ransome decided that he would personally illustrate the third book Peter Duck. As this book was supposedly based on information supplied by the children themselves, Ransome drew the pictures as though done by the characters. These illustrations proved to be so popular that Ransome illustrated the remainder of his books himself. In 1938, he drew his own pictures for Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale to replace Webb's.

Ransome's pictures were done in pen and ink with no colour, although colours have been added by some publishers in later editions. Typically, figures in the pictures are shown from the back. Some believe that Ransome found it hard to draw faces, others that he didn't want to put faces to the characters so that readers could use their imagination.


  • Swallows and Amazons (published 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)
  • Coots in the North (unfinished at the time of Ransome's 1967 death, published in unfinished form posthumously with some other short works)


In 1974, EMI produced a version of the Swallows and Amazons. This is available on video and DVD in England, but may be hard to find in the US.

In the mid-1980s, the BBC produced Coot Club and The Big Six for television, under a "series" title of "Swallows and Amazons For Ever!". These are available on video and DVD in England, but hard to find in the US.

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