The Whitcombe & Tombs Rubaiyats

The New Zealand firm of Whitcombe and Tombs (hereafter W & T) published several editions of The Rubaiyat, all using FitzGerald’s first edition, in the 1940s. The major problem for librarians and bibliographers has always been that none of them were dated. This essay seeks to bring some clarity to this situation.

To begin with a brief history of the firm, it was founded in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1882 by George Hawkes Whitcombe and George Tombs. Whitcombe was born in France in 1854, emigrated to New Zealand in about 1870, and initially became a French teacher then a bookseller. George Tombs was born in England in 1837, emigrated to New Zealand before 1861 (he was married in New Zealand in that year) and was a printer by profession. Their firm was both a bookselling and publishing business. It was successful enough subsequently to set up bookstores and printing houses in Auckland, Wellington & Dunedin, for example, as well as branches in Melbourne & Sydney.

Tombs died in 1904, and Whitcombe in 1917, after which the business was run by Whitcombe’s son, Bertie Ernest Hawkes Whitcombe, certainly up to the early 1960s. All the Rubaiyats of the 1940s, then, were published under the auspices of Bertie Ernest Hawkes Whitcombe.

The ‘Ghost’ of 1936.

An advert for Christmas gifts inserted by W & T on the front page of the Christchurch newspaper The Press on 24 December 1936 included an edition of The Rubaiyat. The relevant portion of the advert is shown in Fig.1. But was this an edition published by W & T, as some have assumed ?

As indicated earlier, W & T were booksellers as well as publishers, and a check on the books on offer in Fig.1 reveals that all but two of the non–Rubaiyat titles were editions / reprints published in the United Kingdom in 1936, and so most likely had been imported for sale in New Zealand by W & T. (As we shall see shortly, they had a London base as early as 1892–4). Walsh’s Green Rushes had been published in London in 1935, and Orpen’s Outline of Art had been reprinted in London, probably in 1930 and 1933 (mostly the reprints seem to be undated.) Given all that, and with no record of a 1936 Rubaiyat published by W & T, it therefore seems most likely that the advertised Rubaiyat was another import for resale. There are at least three candidates for it: an edition illustrated by Gilbert James, published by A. & C. Black, London; an unillustrated edition published by Macmillan & Co., London; and an unillustrated edition published by Richards Press, London. The foregoing appeared in 1936, but also possible is a common edition illustrated by Willy Pogany published by George G. Harrap & Co., London, which was on the market in 1935.

But whatever, The Rubaiyat of Fig.1 was almost certainly not a W & T publication like the ones that follow.

The Courage and Friendship Booklets.

This was the umbrella title of a series of booklets published by W & T in the 1940s, a list being given in the Tables below. But the chronology of the series is problematical on account of the booklets being undated, the situation being further complicated by the existence of numerous undated reprints, with slight variations. The National Library of New Zealand (NLNZ) holds a complete set of titles, with duplicate / reprint copies of some, but though their online catalogue notes are useful in many respects, they are not much help in establishing the dates at which each title was first published. To try to establish those dates we must turn to contemporary adverts placed by W & T in various NZ newspapers, notably the above–mentioned Christchurch newspaper, The Press, and the Dunedin newspaper, The Otago Daily Times (1).

Thus, in the “Current Books” section of The Press on 22 November 1941 (p.5) appeared the advert shown in Fig.2a. This advert reveals that the first five of the W & T Courage & Friendship Booklets, of which The Rubaiyat was #2, were all advertised together as gift books for the Christmas market of that year – Christmas features a lot in what follows. (In fact, earlier adverts show that ##1, 2 & 4, were up and running a month or two before this, though seemingly not #3 for some reason (2a).)

By Christmas 1942 title #6 (Falling Leaves) had been added to the list (2b), and there were still only six titles advertised at Christmas 1943 (2c). By Christmas 1944, though, something odd had happened – there were now seven titles (Fig.2b), but it was title #8 (Merrie England) that had been added, out of order, not title #7 (Forget–Me–Nots), which seems to have been added in 1945, making eight titles on the list for that Christmas (Fig.2c). An advert just for title #10 (The Hound of Heaven), presumably newly published, appeared, seemingly out of order again, in December 1946 (2d), and it duly appeared in the list for Christmas 1947 alongside title #9 (Poets’ Garden) (Fig.2d). At Christmas 1948 there were still ten titles in the list (2e), but by Christmas 1949, title #11 had been added (Grantchester) (Fig.2e). Thus we arrive, rather uncertainly in the case of some of the later titles, at Table 1 below:

Table 1: Series Chronology, Initial Version.

No.  Title and Author, with year / possible year of first publication.
1.     Thomas Bracken, Not Understood (1941)
2.     Edward FitzGerald, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1941)
3.     Robert Burns, Sprigs o’ Heather: Songs and Poems (1941)
4.     Great Thoughts: Gleanings from Great Writers (1941)
5.     Golden Threads: Extracts from Trine’s “In Tune with the Infinite” (1941)
6.     Falling Leaves: Thoughts for Shadowed Days (1942)
7.     Forget–Me–Nots: an Anthology of Friendship (1945)
8.     Merrie England: Songs from Shakespeare (1944)
9.     Poets’ Garden: a Posy of Verse (1947)
10.   Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven (1946)
11.   Rupert Brooke, Grantchester, and, The Great Lover (1949)

The out–of–order dates of ##7 & 8, then ##9 & 10, and the similar curiosities of publication associated with ##1, 2 & 4 detailed in note (2a), are worrying. An out–of–order sequence could arise, of course, if the sequence of titles was planned in advance, but for production reasons #8 was ready for publication before #7, and #10 before #9. But there is a problem with this for, as we shall see, there exists a copy of #2 (S&B) which carries a list of the first 9 titles in the above table, but far from being a later reprint published in 1947, it bears a gift inscription dating it to Christmas 1944! A broad sweep of the whole NZ Newspaper archive in search of adverts for “Forget–Me–Nots” shows that that in Fig.2c is the earliest. Likewise a broad sweep for “Poets’ Garden” shows that the advert in Fig.2d is the earliest. Is, then, the out–of–order sequence a result of adverts not being placed for these items, for some reason, or a result of the careless omission of a title from an advertised unnumbered listing? (Though the booklets themselves are given a series number, most of the adverts do not use them, the one for Christmas 1942 (2b) being a rare exception.)

If we assume on the basis of the above–mentioned gift inscription that #9 and all its preceding titles were published, in the correct sequence, by 1944, then since #8 was certainly published by Christmas1944 (Fig.2b), we are faced with something like Table 2. This would ‘work’ but there are a lot of assumptions behind it.

Table 2: Series Chronology, Revised Version.

No.  Title and Author, with year / probable year of first publication.
1.     Thomas Bracken, Not Understood (1941)
2.     Edward FitzGerald, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1941)
3.     Robert Burns, Sprigs o’ Heather: Songs and Poems (1941)
4.     Great Thoughts: Gleanings from Great Writers (1941)
5.     Golden Threads: Extracts from Trine’s “In Tune with the Infinite” (1941)
6.     Falling Leaves: Thoughts for Shadowed Days (1942)
7.     Forget–Me–Nots: an Anthology of Friendship (1943 or 1944)
8.     Merrie England: Songs from Shakespeare (1944)
9.     Poets’ Garden: a Posy of Verse (1944)
10.   Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven (1946)
11.   Rupert Brooke, Grantchester, and, The Great Lover (1949)

Another useful, though rough, guide to dates, used by the NLNZ is provided by Penelope Griffith’s article, “Some Notes on dating Whitcombe & Tombs publications, 1882–1960”, published in The Bulletin of the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1982, pp.71–75. This article, which covers all W & T publications, not just the Courage and Friendship Booklets, uses the various towns and cities named in the imprints of the books, as a broad guide to dating. An extract covering the period with which we are concerned is shown in Fig.3. (Note that a London base was established as early as 1892–4.) As Griffith points out, it is a great pity that the pre–1950 company records seem to have disappeared.

So, does Griffith help with the table 2 ? The NLNZ has one copy of #7 whose imprint, via Fig.3, associates it with the period 1941–1944, thus confirming the assumption made in Table 2. Unfortunately, though, the Library’s only copy of #9 is one which lists all 11 titles of the series, and so is clearly a later reprint of date 1949 or later, and not a first edition. However, it is encouraging that the Library of Auckland Museum date their copy to “1944 ?"” (3)

At the time of writing, I do not know if there were any other Courage & Friendship booklets published later – certainly none appeared in 1950, the last year covered by the online NZ newspaper archive.

Let us now turn to the W & T “Courage and Friendship” Rubaiyats in particular.

Courage and Friendship Booklet #2: Version 1.

This is the one which definitely first appeared in 1941, as indicated by the advert in Fig.2a, a copy of which is in the British Library (shelf–mark 11657.e.66.) Its front (‘paperback’) cover is shown in Fig.4a; the series listing on the front inner flap (five titles) is shown in Fig.4b; its title page and frontispiece are shown in Fig.4c; the opening two quatrains and facing biographical note & imprint are shown in Fig.4d; and its final verse with facing imprint are shown in Fig.4e. Note the accession date stamps (13 DEC 41) in Figs.4c, 4d & 4e. This certainly tallies with the Christmas gift market of 1941. As regards the frontispiece in Fig.4c, there is no indication of who the artist was, and the frontispiece itself bears no signature or initials. The front cover of this version is 11.5cm wide and 15.0 cm high.

I know of two copies like this version but with 6 titles listed on the front inner flap (Internet Copy; Paas C), both of these with a blue cover like Fig.4a. By Table 2 these would be 1942 reprints of the first edition of 1941.

I also know of two other copies like this version, but with a front inner flap bearing 9 titles (Paas B; S&B Pocket 1st Copy.) One of these (S&B) has a very pale blue cover similar to Fig.4a, the other (Paas B) has a pale yellow cover. By Table 2, if this part of the table is indeed correct, these would be reprints of the first edition dating from between 1944 and 1946 – the former is the one mentioned earlier as having a gift inscription dated Xmas 1944.

What is clear then is that after its initial publication in 1941, version 1 was reprinted, possibly even year on year, with variations in the colour scheme. It would obviously be useful to have the details of more copies of this to draw some firmer conclusions.

Courage and Friendship Booklet #2: Version 2.

The first publication date for this is more problematic, though it seems clear that it appeared a few years after version 1. Again I use the copy in the British Library (shelf–mark 11657.e.46.) Its front (‘paperback’) cover is shown in Fig.5a, but unfortunately there is no front inner flap bearing a series listing. Its title page and frontispiece are shown in Fig.5b; its biographical note & facing imprint are shown in Fig.5c; its opening quatrain and facing illustration are shown in Fig.5d; this illustration is used again to initiate the Potter’s Shop, as shown in Fig.5e; the final two–page spread bearing the last three quatrains is shown in Fig.5f; and another imprint, with a W & T logo, over the page from the final quatrain, is shown in Fig.5g. The presence of Perth in the imprint of Fig.5c suggests a publication date in the broad range 1944–1949 via Fig.3. (The imprint of version 1 in Fig.4d does not feature Perth, note.) The front cover of version 2 is slightly smaller than that of version 1, being 11.0 cm wide and 14.0 cm high.

The front cover, frontispiece & title page, and Biographical Note of this version are virtually identical to those of version 1, but in version 2 the quatrains are numbered, and they have a decorative surround of domes and minarets on left–hand pages, with palm trees and a crescent moon on right–hand pages (Figs.5d, 5e & 5f; also Figs.5b & 5c.) The Pots illustration in Figs.5d & 5e is also new to this version. Note, too, that in version 1 the final quatrain is on a left–hand page, with an imprint facing it (Fig.4e) whereas in version 2, the final quatrain is on a right hand page (Fig.5f) with an imprint overleaf (Fig.5g). Note the W & T Art Production motif in this last, not present in version 1.

Note the accession date stamps (15 JAN 46) in Figs.5b, 5c, 5d & 5f. But how close is this the date of publication ? I have seen a very similar undated copy to that of Fig.5, though with a somewhat greener front cover (Fig.6a = Paas D) and which has its front inner flap series listing present (Fig.6b). This shows 9 titles, which, if this part of Table 2 is correct, is consistent with a publication date between 1944 and 1946. Since it seems unlikely that both version 1 and version 2 would have been on the market at the same time, and since, as we saw in the last section, reprints of version 1 date from this same time period, it would seem likely that reprints of version 1 continued up to about 1945, and that version 2 then took over in the same year, in time to enable the copy in the British Library to arrive by January 1946. Presumably version 2 would then have been reprinted in subsequent years, with colour variations like version 1, but at the time of writing I have not come across a copy which lists more than 9 titles in the series. Hopefully some will come to light in due course to give a more detailed picture.

Interlude: The Tamam Shud Case.

On 1 December 1948 a man was found dead on Somerton Beach, near Adelaide (hence the case is sometimes known as the Somerton Man Mystery.) He was in his forties, nearly six feet tall, carried no identification, and an autopsy revealed no apparent cause of death. No–one could identify him, even though his photograph was widely circulated. His fingerprints were not on record anywhere, and his teeth matched no known dental records. (At the time of writing I gather that plans are afoot to have the man’s body exhumed to take DNA samples. For those interested, there is much material on the case readily available on the internet.)

Deep inside one of the man’s pockets, though, was a slip of paper with the words Tamam Shud printed on it, from which it was to become known as the Tamam Shud Case. The inscription was soon recognised as being from the end of a copy of The Rubaiyat. Some time after a photo of this paper and its inscription had been published, a man came forward to say that at about the time the body was discovered, he had found a copy of The Rubaiyat on the back seat of his car, which he had left unlocked, and it looked like the Tamam Shud paper matched a hole at the back of it. How the book got there, he had no idea.

Contemporary press photos of the front cover of the book and the final page from which the “Tamam Shud” had been torn are shown in Figs.7a & 7b. From these it is clear that the book must have been a Courage and Friendship Booklet #2: Version 2, though with only these black and white photos to go off, with no hint as to the original colour scheme, and with no accompanying series listing to help us, it is now impossible to give a precise date of publication for it. It certainly looks dog–eared from the bottom right–hand corner of Fig.7a, though this may only tell us more about its past usage than about its actual age.

One intriguing detail is that the slip of paper found in the man’s pocket – here Fig.7c – didn’t actually match the rough hole in Fig.7b. It looks like it had been trimmed down after being torn out. But why ? Why not neatly cut it out in the first place ? Why tear it out, throw the book into somebody’s car, then trim it down later ?

But more mysterious still, in the back of the book someone had penciled in the five lines of capital letters shown in Fig.7d. The second line of letters seems to have been started, then crossed out, it is thought because it was a mistake for the fourth line. The inscription proper, then, whatever it was intended to signify, probably consisted of the first, third, fourth and fifth lines – a sort of coded quatrain – and it is curious that if one reads aloud the final letters of those lines (D, P, C and B), they all rhyme, so the coded quatrain has the a–a–a–a rhyming pattern of quatrains 10, 26, 32 & 49 of FitzGerald’s first edition (the remaining 71 quatrains having an a–a–b–a rhyming pattern)! And why is the quatrain divided in the middle by a pair of crudely drawn lines with an X at the left–hand side ? Or is the X something to do with the O below it? However, I doubt that this divided quatrain observation has any real significance, and on the basis of it I would certainly not join the happy band of would–be decoders who have attempted to fathom its meaning, but without success. I am simply ‘stirring the pot’, if you like.

Also penciled into the back of the book was the phone number of a woman who, as it turned out, lived close to where the body had been found. She said that during the war, in 1945, she had owned a copy of The Rubaiyat, but had given it to a man called Boxall. However, she said that she didn’t recognise the dead man, and in any case, Mr Boxall turned up alive and well, and still with his copy of The Rubaiyat, which wasn’t a W & T edition anyway! (4) How the woman’s phone number had got into the other copy of The Rubaiyat remained a complete mystery, though rumours circulated that actually she did know the man and had had an illicit affair with him which she did not want made public, on account of her recent marriage.

The cryptic inscription reproduced above, the lack of any identification of the body, and the fact that there was no apparent cause of death (which led to speculation that he had been poisoned with something like digitalis), led to theories that the man had been a secret agent. (There was even a rumour that the woman whose phone number had been found in the back of the book was a Russian spy.) But the truth of it was never established, and the case remains one of Australia’s great unsolved mysteries – so mysterious that it is not even known whether it is a murder or a suicide or a natural death mystery.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, the actual copy of the booklet shown in Fig.7 is now lost, it seems...

Courage and Friendship Booklet #2: Version 3 ?

This is effectively a ‘hardback’ copy of version 2, its cover being shown in Fig.8a and its imprint, facing biographical note and decorative surrounds, in Fig.8b (S&B Pocket 2nd Copy). As can be seen, these are identical to those of version 2 (Fig.5c), the imprint again relating it to the date–band 1944–1949. The cover of this copy is 10.5cm wide by 14.0cm high.

A second copy of this known to me has a gift inscription dated Xmas 1955 (Paas E), but given the date–band just indicated, the inscription must be much later than the book itself, presumably implying that it was a ‘used’ / second–hand / out–of–print copy.

There is no mention in either of these copies of the Courage and Friendship series, so unless this was once on a now vanished dust–jacket, it may not actually have been intended as part of that series, but merely used its inner text for an edition of The Rubaiyat independent of that series – a more up–market edition rather than a mere pocket book – hence the question mark in the title of this section. Hopefully more information will come to light in due course.

The RGT Edition: Version 1.

Almost certainly in 1944 there appeared the first edition of W & T’s most lush version of The Rubaiyat. Yet again, it uses FitzGerald’s first edition. Its front cover is shown in Fig.9a (cf. Fig.8a); its title–page and frontispiece in Fig.9b (the frontispiece relates to quatrain 7); its imprint in Fig.9c (note Perth, therefore 1944–1949); the page containing quatrain 10 in Fig.9d; and the illustration for quatrain 10, with its first line facing it, in Fig.9e. The front cover is 18.5cm wide and 25.0 cm high.

The foregoing illustrations (and the others which follow) are taken from my own copy, which bears a gift inscription dated Xmas 1944. As to the date of publication, the British Library copy (shelf–mark 11656.g.20), which is virtually identical to mine save that it has a dark green cover, bears an accession date stamp of 25 MAR 44. Finally, this appears to be the new illustrated edition announced in the advert from The Press (Christchurch, NZ) 22 April 1944, p.1 col.1, shown here as Fig.10. (Two other copies known to me (S&B RGT 2nd Copy; Paas A) also have dark green covers.)

It is a great pity that neither in the advert, nor anywhere in the book itself, is the illustrator named: he is known only by his initials, R.G.T., appended to most, but not all, of the nine illustrations. Clearly (the presumed) he (5) had an eye for the ladies, though not all of his illustrations are mildly erotic in nature: Fig.9f illustrates quatrain 24 and Fig.9g, quatrain 74. Curiously, the mildly erotic illustration to quatrain 1, here Fig.9h, seems not to be by R.G.T. – it doesn’t bear any initials and is in a rather different style to all the others.

Who was R.G.T. ? The last two initials are those of George Tombs, of course, who died in 1904. I wondered if perhaps he had a son or grandson bearing those initials (or even an unmarried daughter or granddaughter), preceded by an initial R, and who was a (possibly amateur) artist, but to date I haven’t found one, and despite a study of a long list of New Zealand artists and illustrators with surnames beginning with T, the identity of R.G.T. remains a mystery.

The RGT Edition: Version 2.

The front cover of version 2 is shown in Fig.11 and is characterised by two domes, as opposed to the three in version 1 (Fig.9a.) Its imprint is identical to that shown in Fig.9c, this dating it to the period 1944–1949, exactly as version 1. I know of only one copy of this (S&B RGT 1st Copy), and this bears a gift inscription dating it to Christmas 1948, consistent with the 1944–1949 date–band. Taken together then, it is seems clear that version 2 was a later publication than version 1. The cover of version 2 is 18.8cm wide by 24.0cm high.

Nothing more can be said about this version at the time of writing, this being the only copy known to me, but hopefully details of other copies ‘out there’ (particularly dated gift inscriptions) will surface in due course.

Some Concluding Remarks.

The foregoing attempt to establish a chronology for the Courage and Friendship booklets, and in particular for the various W & T Rubaiyats, is almost certainly not the last word on the matter. To get a clearer picture, if any Rubaiyat collector reading this has a copy of the Courage and Friendship booklet #2, version 1 or version 2, which throws any light on the chronology, I would be grateful to hear from them. Useful details are a) the colour scheme of the front cover; b) any series listing on the front inner flap (how many titles listed); and c) any dated gift inscription in the copy. Likewise, as regards Courage and Friendship booklet #2, version 3 (?), in addition to dated gift inscriptions, it would be useful to know if a dust–jacket has survived anywhere which does link it to Courage and Friendship series. Finally, as regards the R.G.T. Rubaiyats, versions 1 and 2, details of any gift inscriptions would again be useful. It would perhaps be too much to hope that someone, somewhere, might have an idea of who R.G.T. was, but “hope springs eternal”, as the saying goes, and clues can sometimes come from the most unexpected places.


Note 1. These and other titles can be found on the excellent NZ website “Papers Past” at

Note 2. For those wishing to follow the trail, see: a) ##1 & 4 in The Otago Daily Times 9 Oct 1941, p.1 col.2 and ###1, 2 & 4 in The Otago Daily Times 4 Nov 1941, p.1 col.2 – no sign of #3 !; b) The Otago Daily Times 19 Dec 1942, p.3 col.5; c) The Press 2 Nov 1943, p.1 col.1; d) The Otago Daily Times 12 Dec 1946, p.1 col.2; e) The Otago Daily Times 13 Dec 1948, p.1 col.2.

Note 3.

Note 4. Boxall’s edition was a copy of Sha’ir Omar Khayyam by A.W. Hamilton and The Rubaiyat by Edward FitzGerald, illustrated by W.G. Stirling, which had been published by the Australasian Publishing Co. Pty. Ltd. in Sydney in 1944 (not 1924, as is sometimes stated in the literature surrounding the Tamam Shus case.)

Note 5. I say “presumed he”, because erotic illustrations to The Rubaiyat are not the sole province of men. The Australian edition published by Gornall the Publisher, of Sydney, in about 1940, is perhaps the best example. Its mildly erotic illustrations were by an artist named only as “O’Brien” on the cover, but, contrary to expectations, the artist was a woman – the Australian illustrator Kathleen O’Brien, famous for the “Wanda” comic strip, which began during the Second World War.



I must thank Sandra Mason, Bill Martin and Roger Paas for supplying details of the copies of the W&T Rubaiyats in their respective collections, and for their various helpful comments regarding the text of this article.


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