John Bull and its famous Bullets prize competitions

'Dictionary of Bullets' published by John Bull to mark the 1000th competition in 1935

‘Dictionary of Bullets’ published by John Bull to mark the 1000th competition in 1935

Ian Cowmeadow has started a blog based on his dad’s entries to the Bullets competition that ran for half a century in John Bull magazine. The magazine itself is now remembered for its colour illustrations and covers after the Second World War – a thousand of which can be seen at the Advertising Archives – but the game was one of the magazine’s most popular features in the days before crosswords when John Bull was published by Odhams with the great swindler and MP Horatio Bottomley as editor.

Ian’s ‘Bill the Bullet’ blog explores the notes and memorabilia kept by his dad, who won many prizes and regarded himself as a ‘Bulleteer’. Ian sums up the competitions by quoting Alan Bennett:

The playwright Alan Bennett, whose father was a Bullets obsessive, described the successful attempts as ‘verbal cartoons’. Even so, he still ‘couldn’t see the point or the humour of the entries that won; they seemed like Tommy Handley’s jokes – everybody said they were funny, but they never made you laugh’.

The John Bull Bullets competitions may be largely forgotten now, but I reckon it’s the reason Britain developed cryptic crosswords – the Bullets are really cryptic crossword clues in reverse and must have been fantastic training for composing crosswords.

Another example of the influence of Bullets can be found in Liverpool, where the Mahatma Magic Circle has had cause to be thankful to John Bull for 80 years:

In 1933, Oscar Paulson won the popular Bullets word competition in the John Bull magazine and, with his prize money, he bought and presented to the society the ‘Oscar Paulson Cup’, to be awarded in annual competition for the most entertaining act. We still hold this competition to this day.

John Bull may have closed in 1960, but even so, Long Live John Bull!

>>A History of British Magazine Design by Anthony Quinn (May 2016)


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9 Responses to “John Bull and its famous Bullets prize competitions”

  1. Ronald Flanagan Says:

    My father once won the competition with :
    “He’s an American citizen so –
    Hark at the twang as he draws the longbow”

    No idea what year! Have lost original telegram of notification.

  2. Peter Withheld Says:

    Two that I remember:-
    1 Garden of peace – Preserved by international trust. (My Fathe’rs)
    2 Let bygones be – Rissoles (Uknown)

    • magforum Says:

      Your Dad’s Garden of peace is in the Dictionary of Bullets, alongside 4 other Bullets – so it was probably published in the years 1930-35. The composers are not credited but the book claims that £620,000 had been given out in prize money since it started in October 1912.

  3. 10 things to thank magazines for | Magforum Says:

    […] were popular as puzzles in British magazines from the Victorian era. My pet theory is that the ‘Bullets’ prize puzzles in the weekly John Bull – the best-selling magazine from about 1910 to 1930 – created a […]

  4. Horatio Bottomley – the swindling John Bull | Magforum Says:

    […] the printers Odhams.  The magazine, with its belligerent stance, championing of the common man and prize competitions – including Bullets, which was akin to coming up with cryptic crossword clues – became incredibly successful once […]

  5. Andy Says:

    Somewhere, I have a collection of notes made by my grandfather and some of his winning certificates.
    In 1932, he won £500 and bought a house with it!

  6. magforum Says:

    In pure inflation terms, £500 then equates to about £30,000 today. However, if he bought a house with it, I’ll bet the property is worth a sight more than that today. The dictionary lists all the Bullets that won 500 guineas or more (that was the big prize or £500 and £1 a week for life). The max paid out was £1,000 plus a family world tour and £5 a week for life! Do you know what the entry was?

  7. Andy Says:

    The house has since been extended but the original would be worth arounf £350,000 today. I’ll try and find the certificate and the entry that won.

  8. Andy Says:

    My grandfather’s winning entry was in competition 991:

    Good Book
    Life, Dedicated to Friendless

    I’ve never understood the “Bullets” competition. I obviously didn’t inherit his brains.
    Sadly, I didn’t inherit his house either!

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