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The Wooden Angel (1938)

Novel (97,300 words)

The wooden angel
New edition, 2009

The Book

The setting is "Wearemouth", according to Canning's sister a fictional Plymouth, but more like a blend of Plymouth and Dartmouth. We are introduced to five children, Peter Chadcombe, son of the chief constable, Francis Jago, son of the local barber, who unlike his father hankers for a seafaring life, Vera Anstey, daughter of the widow Anstey who runs a sweetshop, Jean Lucas, and John Warren. On a walk to the cinema the children pass a local landmark, the Wooden Angel, made from a ship's figurehead and stand holding hands, making a wish. The rest of the book follows their careers to see how far the wishes come true. They marry and separate, take up careers and get involved in smuggling. We also follow the animosity between a local tearaway called Bill Avery and Peter Chadcombe's father, which culminates in tragedy.

Publishing History

This was published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1938. I could find no information in their archive about the size of the edition or the sales figures. Copies of the first edition are extremely rare. There is a edition from 2009.

This book was the only one that Canning wrote as "Julian Forest". According to his sister Jean, he picked the name because his address at the time was Forest Farm, Benenden. Three of his books appeared in the year 1938, one for each of the names he wrote under.

This is one of the best of the early Canning novels, but for years it was almost completely unknown. Canning himself did not acknowledge it publicly. It may be that there were many autobiographical touches to it, and that Canning was afraid that old acquaintances might recognise themselves.

Plymouth does not have a wooden angel, but it does have a well-known monument derived from a ship's figurehead: the "King Billy" in the Devonport Dockyard, which once adorned a warship belonging to William of Orange.

Dartmouth does have a restaurant called The Carved Angel (now The New Angel), which suggests there might have been an angelic monument there once.


An article, "Eleven famous people you didn't know were born in Plymouth." in the Plymouth Herald of 15 August 2016, commented on places in this novel.