The genesis of the Giles Family, through to their final version and popularity
The Giles Family walk along a train track in a line, with luggae in hand. One of the kids rolls down the bank alongside.
©Express Syndication Ltd. All rights reserved.

GA5447, 'It's quicker by rail', Ronald Carl Giles, Sunday Express (05 Aug 1945)

Giles loses his cast of wartime characters and creates the "Giles Family" as a replacement

Giles’ wartime cartoons ridiculed the Axis leaders by presenting them as a peculiar disfunctional family, reacting to events beyond its control. His first cartoon for the Sunday Express in October 1943 had imagined Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and Mussolini as living a strange domestic life together in Berlin, and he enjoyed returning to that idea. When Mussolini was executed in April 1945, Giles immediately realised the impact it would have on his work. “I sure hated to see old Musso go”, he admitted afterwards: “He was half my bloody stock-in-trade.”  

The German surrender in May 1945 left Giles looking for a new set of characters. “All my work for the Express up until then had been in the wartime” he later explained: “All the characters were wartime characters - or people caught up in the war. Suddenly they were gone. I had lost them - Hitler, Mussolini - disreputable little Franco was still there, of course - Himmler, Goering, Goebbels. I remember writing to my wife, Joan, from Europe where I was a war correspondent. At the end of the letter there was a PS which said: ‘I’ve just lost my best character, Musso.’ I drew the Family as something which could taken their place.”

The focus of the new Giles Family was one of his wartime soldier characters, returned to civilian life. Its first recognisable appearance was in the Sunday Express of 5 August 1945, and it proved a useful medium for commenting on postwar life. The Giles Family, like the hapless Axis leaders before them, was shown reacting to the confusion of world politics. In August 1947, with Giles’ cartoons a regular feature, the Daily Express ran a series of cartoons introducing the different characters to its readers. After that, as Giles recalled, “the Family took on a life of its own almost immediately”.

The group of characters was referred to in April 1950 as “Giles and Family”, but by August 1951 this had become “The Giles Family”, and in November 1951 Giles responded to “constant public enquiries” by drawing “The Giles Family Tree” for the Daily Express, explaining who everyone was. It was not yet clear whether the name “The Giles Family” meant anything more than the family that Giles drew. But he came to speak of them as if they were close relations, and a reference to “Grandma Giles” in December 1953 confirmed that they had his surname, and were in some strange way members of his own family.  

GA0089, "So, I bring him to see the sea for the first time and he says he'd sooner see a good air raid any day", Ronald Carl Giles, Sunday Express (21 Feb 1946)

The beginnings of the Giles Family, and its move from working class to middle class.

In 1950 one critic described the Giles Family as a group of archetypally “working class characters”, and there was much evidence to support this. Headed by two working-class matriarchs, Mother and Grandma, four generations were packed into a single house, with the lack of privacy often associated with large working-class families. Yet in other respects, as the novelist Colin MacInnes observed in 1960, they seemed to be middle class. “The Giles family, even by the new-working-class standards of the 1950’s, is very well off indeed”, he wrote: “Not only do they have all the home comforts and luxuries one might anticipate...but a car with caravan, a yacht, and holidays (all twelve of them!) abroad as well.”

This pointed to one of the great paradoxes of the Giles Family, for although Giles continued to draw the Family with many working class characteristics, its material circumstances were increasingly middle class. Father soon swapped his belt and braces for a jumper and slacks, and moved into a suburban house which needed at least five bedrooms, even if, as Giles suggested, the children all slept in one bed. In 1953 Father was shown driving a Jaguar XJ120 sports car, and from 1955 the Family were regular visitors to the London Boat Show, sponsored by the Daily Express. MacInnes puzzled over this, arguing that, although Giles gave no hint of Father’s occupation, he had to be middle class, perhaps “the owner of a biggish business (garage? contracting? haulage?)”.

Critics tied themselves in knots over this paradox. It could be argued that it arose from the economics of Fleet Street newspapers. Father could not have a specific occupation because he and his family represented all classes of Daily Express readers; the Family lived together as a single social unit because that embodied the traditional family values of the Daily Express; and they aspired to a lifestyle beyond their means to please the paper’s consumer advertisers. Whatever Giles’ politics, this put his Family at the heart of the Thatcherite dream, and, as Nicholas Lezard wrote in 1994, “one wonders whether the aspirational, acquisitive working class was as much his creation as Mrs Thatcher’s.”

However, the art critic William Feaver offered a more appealing solution to the paradox. As he explained, Giles was himself Father, just as he was every other character in the Family, and the answer to the puzzle of his income was simply “that, in an inscrutable way, he lives off the proceeds of the cartoons.” When Giles was asked about the Family finances, he gave a similar answer. “That is something you don’t ask”, he explained: “But I suppose the fact is that I was lucky always to have enough money not to worry about it, and so it never occurred to me that the Family should have those kinds of problems either.”

A chaotic scene in the Giles family garden as Ma hangs out the washing
©Express Syndication Ltd. All rights reserved.

GA0208, "If they give us an 11-hour day and a 4-day week, I suppose that means we're going to have everybody at home for a 24-hour day 3 days a week", Ronald Carl Giles, Daily Express (02 Sep 1947)

The classic Giles Family characters, and their popularity

The Giles Family was fully formed by 1950, and in 1951 the Daily Express printed “The Giles Family Tree”, to explain its various members to curious readers. However, there were still some puzzling questions to be answered. For example, no one in the Giles Family seemed to have a job, except Father and possibly the middle daughter. But that did not matter because it seemed that no-one in the Giles Family ever handled money, except Grandma, who needed it to buy her drink and to place her bets.  

Another puzzle was that Giles never felt it necessary to fix his family in a single physical location. They seemed to live within easy reach of London, in the suburbs of some city or other, but Giles never explained which one it was. The style and layout of their house was also constantly changing, and although readers wrote in to point out that he had altered the details of their shed, or some other obvious feature, Giles never bothered to follow a consistent plan. He simply drew whatever suburban house fitted his joke.

But Giles and his readers were quite happy with this vagueness. The Giles Family was purely responsive, reacting to the social, political, and economic news reported in other parts of the Daily Express or Sunday Express. Readers saw in it a reflection of their own lives, and this was more important than any superficial consistency. “If the Giles cartoon is vintage,” wrote one commentator in 1952, “no 8.30 rush hour seems quite so black; if his comment is dark as the weather, our grumbles are confirmed, and we feel at liberty to beef a little more loudly with an easier mind.”

The Giles Family appeared in well over two thousand cartoons in the Sunday Express and Daily Express. The most popular characters, appearing in some 1,400 cartoons each, were Grandma and Ernie, who shared the same anarchic vitality and boundless self-confidence. Next came long-suffering Father, with around 1,100 appearances, followed by Mother, with more than 950. The youngest members of the Family - George Junior and the Twins - followed with over 900 appearances, the majority of them in the same cartoons.

Next in popularity was “Stinker”, not strictly a member of the Family but an eternally mischievous hanger-on. He appeared in well over 800 cartoons, the majority in conjunction with his friend Ernie. Next came auntie Vera, an ineffectual figure who nevertheless appeared in well over 750 cartoons, accompanied by Grandma in nine out of ten of them. Bringing up the rear came the youngest daughter, with just under 600 appearances, the eldest daughter Ann, with well over 450, and the eldest son George, whose purpose in the cartoons was never quite clear, but who appeared in 400 of them.

A garden scene - Grandma sits on a bench tearing up copies of the paper. The boys play cricket beside her.

GA4810, "Mrs Thatcher would certainly give Grandma's State Benefits a radical overhaul if she knew they all went on Lester Piggott yesterday", Ronald Carl Giles, Daily Express (06 Jun 1985)

Last updated