The Writings of Punch

Punch published some of the finest comic writers in the English language, among them William Thackeray, P G Wodehouse, E M Delafield and Alan Coren who are profiled below. Some much-loved and enduring humour classics began life as series in Punch, like George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody (1888–1889), 1066 and All That by W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman (1920s) and Geoffrey Willans’ Molesworth (1940s). John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, arguably the best-known poem of World War 1, was first published in Punch on 8 December 1915.

Apart from work by its literary stars, Punch’s prose, poetry and regular features make it an important source for the study of events and life over the 19th and 20th centuries in Britain and abroad. Its parliamentary sketches, for example, look behind official accounts of the political manoeuvres of the times, beginning with Essence of Parliament introduced by Shirley Brooks in 1855 (and reprinted as far afield as Australia’s Melbourne Argus), and later subtitled Extracts from the Diary of Toby MP when Henry Lucy took over the column in 1881. During World War Two Impressions of Parliament give an almost daily record of proceedings in the House of Commons, unforgettably distilling the atmosphere as Churchill galvanized the nation and MPs debated minutiae of the price of beer and the War Budget. 

Just a few of the many writers who contributed to Punch were:

  • Douglas Jerrold
  • Somerset Maugham
  • A A Milne (who was Deputy Editor for a time)
  • A P Herbert
  • Basil Boothroyd
  • Penelope Fitzgerald (who contributed film reviews – her father was the editor E V Knox)
  • Joyce Grenfell
  • Virginia Graham
  • Anthony Powell (who was Literary Editor)
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Miles Kington
  • P J O’Rourke
  • Tina Brown
  • Keith Waterhouse
  • Joan Bakewell
  • Richard Mallett
  • Dilys Powell

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863)

Now recognised as one of the English language’s greatest writers, W M Thackeray moved in the same literary circles as the founders of Punch. He began contributing to the magazine in June 1842, not only as a jobbing writer, but on occasion as a cartoonist, and became a salaried member of Punch’s editorial staff. His series for the magazine like 'The Snobs of England' that appeared over 1846–1847 made a huge impression, bringing the word ‘snob’ with its modern meaning into general use. But with the publication of Vanity Fair (1847) and Pendennis (1848) Thackeray had become a literary heavyweight and had outgrown Punch. Finding the demands of writing for Punch and some of its attacks on public figures too much, in December 1851 he resigned, though he occasionally attended the weekly editorial dinners at the Punch Table.

P G Wodehouse (1881–1975)

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse is recognized as one of the finest comic writers of the twentieth century and his portrayals of life among the British upper-classes, especially his immortal creations, Jeeves and Wooster, continue to be transformed into other media. A journalist and author of over ninety books, Wodehouse also worked as a lyricist and playwright with such luminaries as Jerome Kern and George Gershwin, splitting his time between Britain and the USA after 1914. Wodehouse’s contributions to Punch came in two periods – between 1902 and 1914 and from 1953 to 1963, apart from a few pieces published before the outbreak of WW2. When the German Army arrived at Le Touquet in 1940 where the author was then living, Punch alerted its readers but noted in a Wodehousian vein that the writer ‘still retains, we understand, possession of his house, and is, as comfortable as the trying circumstances permit.’ Wodehouse was made a member of the Punch Table in 1960.

E M Delafield (1890–1943)

Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture Dashwood was better known by her pseudonym E M Delafield. By the time she began contributing to Punch in the early 1930s she was already a well-known writer with her work appearing not only in print, but on the radio and in the theatre. But her most enduringly popular work, in Britain and across the Atlantic, was the semi-autobiographical comic novel Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930). The Provincial Lady, which went on to spawn three sequels, was illustrated by the Punch artist Arthur Watts, a friend of Delafield’s. Delafield continued to contribute to Punch up to her untimely death in 1943. Her contributions during WW2 like ‘Little Fiddle-on-the-Green Still Smiling’ of 1939 recorded the impact of the war on the Home Front with characteristic wit.

Image credit:
Mary Evans Picture Library

Alan Coren (1938–2007)

Coren has been dubbed a national treasure and the funniest man in Britain. He joined Punch as assistant editor in 1963 and stayed for 24 years, becoming the magazine’s editor in 1978 via stints as literary editor and deputy. Former staff members and contributors remember his editorship as a time of laughter, particularly during the weekly lunches at the Punch Table, where celebrities of the day now came to dine. A prolific author, it was his collection of columns from Punch written in the guise of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (1974) that made him a household name. During his time at Punch he was also TV critic for The Times and a columnist at the Daily Mail and later the Mail on Sunday. A long-serving panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz, the programme originally began in 1977 as a contest to pit Punch against its rival Private Eye – as the era’s most famous satirical magazines – with Coren and Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye, captaining the competing teams.