- The Four Marys – Bunty: #01 (18 January 1958) – #2249 (17 February 2001)
- Writers: Maureen Hartley (2 Stories: “Creefy’s Rival” and “The Mystery Virus”)
- Artists: Bill Holroyd (#01-#15), James ‘Peem’ Walker, Manuel Cuyàs (#434 – #436), Selby Donnison, Jim Eldridge
Four girls all named Mary attend a reputable boarding school, St. Elmos. They become firm friends and usually go by their nicknames Raddy, Simpy, Fieldy and Cotty. Throughout their time they have many adventures and solve some mysteries.
This is one of the most well remembered stories, and that has to be partially due to its longevity. A 40 year run is quite impressive. The strip appeared in the majority of the issues but wasn’t a continuous run from first to last issue. There was a couple of breaks particularly in the 80s, though they never went away for too long. There were some reprints over the years particularly towards the end of Bunty.
The first 15 issues were drawn by Bill Holroyd, and each girl had their own distinctive look. The early years had an Enid Blyton tone to the stories, they had the usual boarding school routines, as well as chase up some mysterious going-ons.
While all the girls had their own personality and talents, Mary Simpson was probably one of the most inspirational to young girls. A smart working class girl, that had earned her place in a good school, yet had to contend with being looked down on by some snobs. Bunty in the late 50s was aimed at a more working class background and at the time it was quite a novelty to put a scholarship girl as a main character. Overall it seems the big appeal of the story was the relationships and friendship of the girls. (Mel Gibson discusses such things in her essay: What Bunty did next….)
While it’s true that the friendships were very important, probably most people had their favourite Mary. Personally I always had a soft spot for Mary Cotter, the talented but often shy and clumsy Mary. Mary Radleigh was the daughter of an Earl but also hated anyone putting on airs and graces, she was loyal and down to earth. Mary Field was the active sports mad girl, that could be a little too pushy at times. Of course 2 other regular characters were the snobs; Mabel and Veronica, who disliked Simpy for her lower class upbringing and the Marys in general for being popular and goody two shoes!
The boarding school itself was full of traditions. Dr. Gull was the head mistress, sometimes known as the Squawker (and the first years were called the Newts). While the girls were allowed to go to the local town, Elmbury, they were expected to behave appropriately, wear their full uniform and there were certain shops they weren’t allowed visit. Miss Creef was the third form mistress, who held up the various traditions but was also described as firm but fair.
Story arcs from this decade included; a mystery surrounding a hermit teacher Miss Johnson who turns out to be a former student; Lady Josephine Bramily. She has amnesia after a boating accident. Luckily, Mary Simpson and head girl, Ann Fairlie, help her recover her memories so she can go reclaim her inheritance. Another mysterious teacher Miss Mandy seems to have hidden past with a young cockney that involves thieving. The girls help a young girl Hilda secure a job as maid in the school, only to discover someone’s out to get her fired. Mary Cotter damages her eye in a lab accident and nearly does worse damage when she mixes up eye ointment with a bottle of bleach, luckily Simpy catches her in time, and eventually Cotty’s eyes recover (although by the end of the series, her eyesight declines and she ends up having to get glasses!). A group of girls dub themselves ‘the avengers’ and punish any girl that has done any wrong doing. Simpy discover that it is Raddy and Fieldy doing such things after they let her join them in dunking a cheating prefect Avril in a bath.
Early on the stories usually consisted of 2 pages, though later this got expanded to 3 pages. The girls interestingly didn’t refer to each other by nicknames, for the first few years they continued to just call each other Mary. I’m not sure when exactly the change happened but it made sense to start giving them each a distinctive name to be referred as.
There was a lot of reprinted stories in the 70s. It was quite common to reprint shorter serials in these comics and with a long running strip like the Four Marys it may have been hard to keep the weekly turnover of new stories. Presumably it was also thought that readers of the first printing would have outgrown the comic by then.
Some of the new stories included; the school being threatened by a flood. A cycle trip with the cycle club led by Miss Creef, Mabel and Veronica mess with Simpy’s old bike in the hopes of getting back to the school earlier. Simpy manages to borrow an old 3 wheeler bike and enter in a race. She doesn’t win but the winner gives her the prize of a new bike for being so entertaining. Cotty believes she is under a gypsy curse and those close to her are getting harmed, it turns out to be a combination of Mabel and Veronica playing some tricks and a scheme to take over the school. Raddy has trouble looking out for her cousin Sonia. A feud between Mr Crowe, a local farmer, and the school starts over the school using the right of way to walk through his land.
Like I mentioned before the 80s saw the Four Marys on some breaks. On one of these breaks the regular ongoing story had some similar themes, involved 3 friends in a ballet boarding school called The Three Imps. Perhaps they were testing out permanent replacements or maybe they just needed a break, but the Marys did return again and with a new artist. At the end of the 80s a new format seemed to settle with the Marys. With them being the first story in the issue, and the more modern School’s Out (which was replaced with The Comp by 1989) as the last story of the issue. Dr Gull had been replaced by the more forward thinking Miss Mitchell, and the girls even got to interact with boys from St. Bartophs boarding school. The end of 1989 was also when Bunty got a new colour update. While some stories were still in black and white, The Four Marys were now fully coloured.
Some stories in the 1980s include the girls rallying a strike to stop Miss Creef being dismissed after a fall out with Dr Gull. A group of unruly circus girls joining the school temporarily. A new American pupil Lana gets elected captain of the Bee’s House and wants to hold up all St. Elmos traditions including challenging the village boys to a football match, running barefoot down to the town and raising the house flag on the clock tower. A mystery involving the school’s founder Margaret Carews actual death. A temporary Home Economics teacher who has been secretly keeping her toddler daughter at the school. A competition sees the Marys all split up into different teams, this causes problems but in the end they all come together. St Elmo’s comes under threat of closure when they start to lose students, of course the school is saved with the help of the Marys.
So the 90s started with the Four Marys in colour and now expanded to 4 pages. The Four Marys was trying to change with the times, with the more up to date Miss Mitchell, continuing to modernise the school, and even Cotty stopped wearing her hair in 2 plaits. The girls were now frequently seen out of uniform as they were able to wear their regular clothes down town and like I mentioned before they were even mixing with boys. Still even with this more modern tone, the girls still has familiar adventures; dealing with new teachers with hidden agendas, threats to the school and tests of their friendships. By the end of the 90s earlier stories were reprinted a lot.
Stories in the 90s included; Mary Field having trouble when her cousin becomes her teacher, causing the other girls to think she’s a teacher’s pet. The girls go on a trip to America with Miss Creef and help foil a jewel thief. The girls try to help a girl they believe is being held captive. It turns out the wheelchair bound, Ailsa, who just has an overprotective aunt, but agrees to let her join St. Elmos. When a famous fashion designer comes to St. Elmos to unveil her new collection, it seems someone is out to sabotage her. A story set in the past shows the Marys first term in St. Elmos. Raddy gets held captive by robbers who coerce Miss Mitchell into letting them hide out the school. The other Marys soon get suspicious of the new “gardener” and Miss Mitchell’s story that Raddy was sent home sick.
In the final story for The Four Marys, it looks like they will be split up when Cotty fails her exams and will have to leave St. Elmos. Luckily she passes her resit test, Raddy gets elected as form captain and Simpy ends the strip on line “The Four Marys forever”
The Four Marys certainly had lasting power, although by the 80s/90s I think they were considered somewhat old fashioned, and so there was changes made to modernise them. At the same time the Marys were permanently stuck in the 3rd form, similar story-lines were repeated and in some ways they felt quite worn out. Still they appealed to a lot of readers. Personally growing up I did enjoy the Four Marys but I was definitely more interested with The Comp. Funnily reading back the older issues even though it was before my time I actually find the 60s stuff appealing to me more, the art was more simplistic and it had a nice charm with the setting and stories. I think sometimes the Marys could come off a little too good and helpful at times, but still they weren’t without their flaws and their solid friendship it seems is one of the things that interested people.
The art changed a lot over the years and while the artists all did well, my personal favourites are James Walker (60s) and Selby Donnison (80s). There was a lot of adventure, mystery, fun and characters that you could get invested in.