Part 4 – A Rare (South African) Fantasy

The Whimsical World Of William M. Timlin (1892-1943)

Tanya Barben, Rare Books Librarian, University of Cape Town

Ill-health prompted William Timlin to forego his art studies in England and to join his parents, Peter and Margaret Timlin, in Kimberley in 1910. That thriving northern Cape city of diamonds thus became the home of the creator of what is considered to be the most beautiful and valuable science fiction book (although it is as much fantasy as science fiction) ever published, his The Ship That Sailed To Mars (London: George Harrap, 1923).Because this was the only book he ever published - and it is something of a rarity (even the 1993 'facsimile' edition is out of print and difficult to obtain), Timlin is a shadowy figure, not now known to many collectors outside South Africa and to few in it.

Timlin was born on 11 April 1892, the same birth year of J.R.R. Tolkien, that other great fantasist with South African connections, in Ashington, Northumberland. Early in his life he showed a creative ability. Upon leaving school he studied art at the Armstrong College, Newcastle, and upon his move to Kimberley he completed his studies in art and architecture, joining the architectural firm of Greatbatch, where he later became a partner. He was responsible for the design of many distinguished buildings in a city known for its architectural elegance. Some of these include Kimberley House, initially built to house De Beers' diamond cutting factory, Kimberley Boys' High School, the Kimberley Girls' High School hostel, the Kimberley Hospital and the Standard Bank – some of which are national monuments. He was an accomplished art teacher and a prolific artist and creative writer with, quite clearly, a very rich inner life. Much of his work appeared in the form of postcards, although his illustrations can also be found in books about South Africa. He travelled widely, especially in South Africa, the Far East and the East Indies. His water colours, gouaches, pastels and oils won him a great following and raised many hundreds of pounds for the war effort at an exhibition of his work held in Kimberley in 1942, the year before his early death.

Book Cover


With thanks to Steven Honaker at:

All of his achievements, however, pale into significance when matched against his single great work, The ship that sailed to Mars. Sumptuously illustrated with a text using Timlin's distinctive calligraphy, it is a fantastical tale modelled on a fairy story. Its illustrations are magnificent and the text, although quite slight, is quaint and whimsical and is written with great humour and imagination. Its protagonist is an old man (inevitably shown wearing carpet slippers) who believed in fairies and for this reason was ostracised by the world around him. He dreams of building a ship that can take him to Mars, the domain of the fairies who had quit their own doomed world, the Moon, to settle on that planet. The fairies on Earth come to his assistance and after many years and much planning a magnificent ship is designed and built with materials supplied by the whole of Fairyland, the Elf King and Pan. Its sails are of swan's-down, and 'ornamented with colours strung from peacocks' tails'. The shipwrights are a diligent but rather cantankerous lot who jockey for a place amongst the crew and argue about with what the ship should be victualled: the only thing that was agreed upon was milk. To that end a milk-cow and its pasturage is magicked away from a farm and attached to the vessel in the same way as a small raft would be attached to a larger craft - much to the chagrin and astonishment of the farmer, his family and his farmhand.

After a long and exciting journey wheels through space, sailing past the Pleiades, worlds without number, the Star of the Classic Myths and brushing past awesome planets inhabited by monsters, and by pirates, and with some assistance from an Air Sprite the ship lands on the Red Planet. The Martian Fairies have created a spectacular home for themselves, in their Shining City of beauteous towers, halls, gardens, temples and palaces.It has a remarkable zoo filled with wondrous but harmless monsters and beasts which previously roamed the planet. The Old Man and his crew are welcomed warmly and showered with gifts and honours. The Old Man becomes the confident of the Princess who takes him round her unfinished Palace and tells him of the only thing that casts a shadow over her world - Thunder City. Around this forlorn spot lightning bolts rend the air and thunderclaps roll overhead. Her Prince, like many others, has fallen under the enchantment of its dolour and despair and has slipped into a fearful depression. The Old Man is asked to apply his talents to remedy this situation. He travels to Thunder City on the back of a winged dragon, and flies over dark forests and the shadow of the Iron Hills in whose shadow the sorrowful city lies. Delighted, as a human, to at last be able to help the Fairies, he devises a solution wrought out of gold and silver. A Tower is raised and the thunder and lightning that has cursed the City disappears. The Old Man and throngs of Fairies who had been drawn to Thunder City return to their proper home amidst great rejoicing. The unfinished Palace is completed and the Prince and Princess are wed in the presence of the Old Man who finds in Mars 'a Land where a man might live gladly and for ever'.


The tale ends rather abruptly, but with the promise of a sequel. This might well have been the new volume that Timlin was working on at the time of his death. The Building of a Fairy City was never completed; some of the illustrations exist in the form of postcards or in his unpublished sketchbook only.

With final thanks to Steven Honaker at:

Timlin's illustrations are said to equal those of Arthur Rackham and W. Heath Robinson. The book was considered the most beautiful children's book of the 1920s. Harrap published the huge and magnificent volume in the same mould as its other pre-war edition de luxe, Willie Pogany's version of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was finely bound in quarter vellum richly decorated in gilt, its 48 superb plates alternated with 48 pages of text written in Timlin's calligraphic script. Text and illustration were hand-mounted on gray matte paper. Only 2000 copies of the book were published, 250 of which were distributed by Stokes of New York in 1924. They were sold for two guineas or twelve dollars respectively. The film rights to the book were sold in the United States and a movie entitled Get Off The Earth was planned. The cast was chosen and the film went into production, but the task proved to be too challenging technically for the studio and was shelved. The plans of the book was donated by the publishers to the war effort in 1942, but any copies and original drawings in their possession were destroyed by enemy action in 1942.

The University of Cape Town Libraries' Rare Books & Special Collections (
is fortunate to have amongst its holdings both the original and the facsimile. Many of Timlin's works of art can be found in Kimberley's magnificent William Humphrey's Art Gallery.