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In 1928 Wills Wonders of the Sea were coming out of cigarette packets around England. A series of 50 cards. I have seldom dwelt on the fate of many of these cards but suffice to say during the hey-day of cigarette cards a child could amass quite a collection just walking about picking the cards up from the street. Cinemas were also a happy hunting grounds and to be allowed in between shows to check for cigarette cards discarded during the show was heaven sent stuff.

Anyway this set.

The subjects covered have the feel of a brainstorming session from some sort of committee meeting. When writing these articles I often consider what my 50 cards would be on a subject. It is never the same and it is never as good as the original stuff. So in the great tradition of bitter and twisted cynics everywhere let me rubbish the efforts of others.

Card One shows Dolphins at play. It mentions they sometimes get caught in Cornish fishing nets and they even manage to have a pop at the French as well, 'In France their flesh was formerly esteemed as a luxury and under the impression that it was a fish was allowed on fast days!' How we superior English look down our long noses at these poor ignorant fools. Trouble is walking around with your nose in the air is a sure way of stepping in something you wished you hadn't. Wouldn't catch us scoffing the spinal cords of cattle all mashed up with the contents of a bulls skull which had been previously feed the ground up remains of cattle bits not fit for our consumption. 'He-he, look at those Frenchies thinking a dolphin is fish. BSE-burger please, no fries.'

something that makes your eyes bulge from your head with the sheer horror

By card three you are beginning to get a feel for just how clever those people were at Wills, it begins, 'The Elephant Seal or 'Sea Elephant' (Macrorhinus augustirostris).' Surely Wills you could add, Augustirostris macrorhinus to the list or is that me being foolish. Fantastically it is capable of throwing its head back and 'uttering its trumpet-call like the sound of a distant horn.' Blow me down I would have thought its trumpet call would sound a lot like a telephone ringing. Does it sound so distant if you stand next to it?

This is more like it, a Yellow-bellied Sea-Snake, the card illustrates a monster, surely capable of swallowing a man whole. The reverse reveals more horror, it is poisonous and dreaded by fisherman, this really is the stuff. Hang on, only available in American waters, somewhat eel-like in build, seldom exceeds a yard long.

Oh dear.

Anyone that has not been put off by my abuse towards Frenchmen, Wills, the meat industry and the English might be ready for card 5. The Sperm Whale, sometimes attaining 80 feet in length and occasional visitors to British waters is truly a wonder. Why is it a wonder WD & HO? Well, because its thick blubber can make loads of sperm oil and its teeth furnish ivory. And if this is not reason enough to go out and kill these majestic creatures then the card supplies what is surely the clinching argument, it also provides the perfume industry with ambergris. So hunting them to near extinction is just fine then.

The illustration of this card, like the others is top-class stuff and shows our hapless whale skimming the surface of the water in somewhat improbable pose. Close by (and I confess there is a very strange perspective thing going on here which makes the Sperm Whale about the size of a dolphin) are three men in a boat. The front fellow holds the harpoon with which he is going to transfix the whale, the middle fellow is rowing with all his might and the third bloke wishes he wasn't there. Now before the days of mechanisation and the like these was no easy industry, people often died, it was harsh unpleasant work and although it is easy to dismiss this as barbarous now you cannot easily disregard the bravery of those three men in the boat.

Card 9 shows the Fierasfer, a tiny, semi-translucent eel. Now there must be a thousand ways of illustrating a semi-translucent eel of tiny proportion which would make it amazingly uninteresting. So what does Wills' do, they take the story of the eel to the point where it lives inside the shell of a pearl-oyster. If the host cannot rid itself of the parasite it 'seals it up in a lustrous winding-sheet of mother-of-pearl.' That is what Wills choose to illustrate. Ten out of ten lads.

A number of the subjects on these cards are the highly coloured fish which live in tropical corals. I presume the illustrator of the cards was not too good on tropical coral scenes as for some reason there is no background to these fish whereas most of the other cards have interesting backgrounds which add something to the general feel of the card.

The Sack-throated Whip-tail is an example of something which does exactly what it says on the tin. At the time of the card being written only five examples had been seen, three of which were floating on the surface having choked in an effort to eat a fish much larger than itself.

Nowadays there is a tendency to find beauty in the most bizarre of looking things, in 1928 if something was ugly it knew about it. The Sun-fish 'one of the most grotesque of fishes'. Come on Wills, don't sit on the fence, say what you mean lads. Once again this hapless fish is depicted without background so there is no sense of size to the thing. A shame really as you have to read on the reverse of the card it can be up to 8 feet in length and weigh upwards of a ton. Big and ugly then. Although basically a disc-shape (and the reason I thought it was called a sun-fish) turns out it gets its name because it likes to come to the surface and lie in the sun. Isn't that always the way, it is not the beautiful fish that want to lie in the sun, its the big fat ugly ones. Wonder if they grab all the towels as well.

Wills cannot help themselves, The Octopus gets called repulsive the very next card. It tells who large Octopus can attack divers and that the 'encounter in Victor Hugo's famous Toilers of the Sea is based on fact.' Although he uses the popular name devil-fish (how we chuckle at his ignorance).

Wills, Wonders of the Sea

Just when you find something that makes your eyes bulge from your head with the sheer horror of it all Wills calmly describe it as an enormous spider. Come on chaps this must be the vilest most hideous life form to ever fall from the most fevered of imaginations. No, say Wills, it is just a crab with a near globular body of about a foot across with enormous claws sometimes with a span of 11 feet. The only good thing about them is they live in Japanese waters.

Move a few cards on and we have a little wonder which has been likened to the stick-insect of the shrimp family as it scampers nearly invisible among the branching stems of coral. This is the skeleton shrimp and Wills has no doubts about it, 'a grotesque creature which lives among sea-weed.' Come on lads pick on something at least a bit bigger than a shrimp to call names. Although the set does include all the usual suspects, a number of the cards deal with non-living aspects of sea wonders and this sets it apart from others. Card 46 details an iceberg 'magnificent but dangerous' the card intones. It mentions an international ice patrol has been set up since the loss of the Titanic.

The previous card had illustrated the earthquake wave, detailing these huge walls of water and their involvement in the 1908 Messina earthquake where the waves were nearly 12 yards high and the 1896 Japanese earthquake in which 29,000 people died. Card 39 depicts the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, one of the natural wonders of the world. 1,250 miles of coral-skeletons which reach the surface in many areas along its route.

Card 49 has St Elmos fire, formerly much dreaded by sailors, explains the card. Latterly much dreaded by movie-goers adds Franklyn. An interesting effect of luminous discharge which can affect a ship and it can also create a halo about a mans head and drip off his fingers. Wow.

Connected in some senses to this is card 48, Phosphorescence of the Sea. This can happen in the UK as well and is great fun when it does.

So there you have it a set on wonders of the sea with a twist.