Peter Usborne, co-founder of Private Eye and successful publisher of children’s books – obituary

Peter Usborne with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, at the London Book Fair at Earls Court in 2014 - Tim P Whitby/Getty Images
Peter Usborne with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, at the London Book Fair at Earls Court in 2014 - Tim P Whitby/Getty Images
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Peter Usborne, who has died aged 85, was the business brains behind the satirical magazine Private Eye; he later made a fortune by setting up the children’s book publisher Usborne Publishing, retaining for the rest of his life not only a boyish grin but also a heartfelt enthusiasm for children, books and parties.

Usborne was a student at Balliol College, Oxford, in the late 1950s when he started a humorous magazine called Mesopotamia, employing such fine wits as Richard Ingrams, John Wells and Willie Rushton. After graduating he spent a summer in the United States working for the publisher Time-Life, but kept returning to the thought “that we should do Mesopotamia in real life”.

For finance he approached Andrew Osmond, an Oxford contemporary whose father owned a Lincolnshire supermarket chain, while thrashing out ideas with friends in London watering holes. Osmond had been brushing up his French in Paris when he was summoned by Usborne in a telegram that read: “Mespot ride again Stop Come home Stop Uz.” He invested £450, then enough to buy a car, and became the original Lord Gnome.

Christopher Booker, the magazine’s first editor, described Usborne as the “key man”, telling Adam Macqueen’s history of Private Eye: “He knew that there was this loose chat, but he was determined to get on and do it … He was the man who said ‘An end to pub talk, let’s make it a proposition’.”

A Private Eye cover from 1963 with a Gerald Scarfe cartoon - Marc Tielemans / Alamy
A Private Eye cover from 1963 with a Gerald Scarfe cartoon - Marc Tielemans / Alamy

Richard Ingrams, Booker’s successor as editor, added: “We needed a boxwallah to get things going,” though Usborne resented being referred to by the “colonial word for Indian chaps who slaved away at figures and didn’t actually run anything”.

Usborne, meanwhile, had joined the advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather but, disillusioned with corporate life, spent his lunch hours calling potential printers of Private Eye from a phone box. The first issue appeared on October 25 1961. “I was managing director, bottle washer, chief worrier and the man who paid the salaries, but not the editor, so I take no credit for the brilliant editorial content,” he told The Sunday Times.

By the summer of 1962 the magazine’s circulation was 18,000, but Osmond’s cash was running low and the title’s future was in doubt. Osmond sold much of his stake in Pressdram, the holding company, to Peter Cook, who was then riding the crest of the satire wave, sharing some of his profits with Usborne, Rushton and Booker.

Mandy Rice-Davies on the cover of issue No 42 - Marc Tielemans / Alamy
Mandy Rice-Davies on the cover of issue No 42 - Marc Tielemans / Alamy

Usborne was one of the company’s directors named in court when Randolph Churchill almost bankrupted Pressdram in 1963 with a libel suit. Private Eye had published a cartoon strip suggesting that Churchill was not really writing a biography of his father, Winston, and had employed students to do the work under his name. The case was settled when Pressdram accepted an injunction not to republish the allegation.

The move into children’s books came a decade later, by which time Usborne was working at British Printing Corporation (BPC). His wife telephoned him at work one day to announce that they were expecting a baby. Full of excitement, he immediately asked his boss if he could do something in children’s publishing. “He sent me down the corridor to Macdonald Educational,” Usborne told The Bookseller. “I was given some paper and glue and told to ‘make something’.”

The result became the template for Macdonald Starters books, applying a magazine format to non-fiction subjects. These became a publishing success, with worldwide sales topping eight million copies by 1973. Asked by Monty Alfred, chairman of the publishing division, what he would like to do next, Usborne replied: “I want to start my own company.” Alfred, a shrewd businessman, agreed to bankroll the enterprise along with BPC and Usborne moved into a small office in Covent Garden with Angela Littler, a BPC colleague, as his editorial director.

The Usborne 'touchy-feely' books, among the company's most popular series - Carolyn Jenkins / Alamy
The Usborne 'touchy-feely' books, among the company's most popular series - Carolyn Jenkins / Alamy

Before long Usborne was publishing the KnowHow series, simple, clear and clean children’s books, the most famous being The KnowHow Book of Spycraft. Sticker books followed, as did dot-to-dot books and lift-the-flap books, all illustrated with humour and an eye for the details of everyday life. Among the company’s best-known titles are the “touchy-feely” series That’s Not My… for babies featuring kittens, turtles, penguins and more; All Better, with reusable sticking plasters; and All About Feelings, an age-appropriate introduction to understanding emotions.

Most of the books are conceived, written and designed in-house. “The only outsiders are the artist and occasional expert,” Usborne told the Financial Times. “It is a thoroughly enjoyable job to write a book.”

The secret, he added, was to see the books from a child’s point of view, a skill he honed to perfection. Although blunt when ripping apart unsuitable submissions, he was a warm and funny man, remembered for bursting into laughter suddenly and unexpectedly.

Usborne with Prince Charles on his appointment as CBE in February 2023 - PA/Alamy
Usborne with Prince Charles on his appointment as CBE in February 2023 - PA/Alamy

The company, which was named children’s publisher of the year in 2012 and 2020, moved into exports, sending books to China and opening foreign-language imprints across the world. The strategy was, he said, based on three words: Do It Better. “We look at the dusty corners of children’s book publishing that are neglected by people looking for the next JK Rowling,” he added.

Thomas Peter Usborne was born in Hampstead, north London, on August 18 1937, the son of Thomas Usborne, a senior civil servant, and his German-born wife Gerda (née Just).

He was brought up in a house in Weybridge, Surrey, that his parents bought as a bargain because it was often under the flight path of enemy bombers. “I remember at the end of the war saying to my dad, ‘What on earth is going to be in the newspapers?’, because they had been full of maps of pincer movements and advances,” he said.

He was educated at Summer Fields School, Oxford, and Eton College. During National Service he was commissioned into the Rifle Brigade and posted to Tanganyika (now Tanzania), where work stopped at midday in Dar es Salaam because the heat was so intense. “We got absolutely pissed and slept till 3, then went out on the sailing boats, came back and got absolutely pissed again,” he laughed.

Peter Usborne CBE - Martin Usborne
Peter Usborne CBE - Martin Usborne

Usborne left Private Eye in 1965 to study for an MBA at the French business school, Insead. He became assistant to the chairman of BPC, taking notes at board meetings and producing reports, including a lengthy one on why Asterix could not be translated into English. “I could not have been more wrong,” he later admitted.

His own company had a close shave when Robert Maxwell, the corrupt publishing tycoon, acquired BPC in 1981, and with it a stake in Usborne Publishing. “I bought him out for a rather small sum of money,” Usborne recalled in relief. In 1995 he sold 26 per cent to Scholastic, the American publisher, but retained the rest. Today the company has an annual turnover in excess of £100 million.

Usborne, who had a wry smile and a mischievous sense of humour, regarded children’s books as an extension of parenthood, adding that he wanted to continue for ever being a father. Retirement did not feature on his agenda and he travelled into the office by Tube on the day before he died. “I don’t like golf. I have tried sailing and it’s not for me,” he said. His chief indulgence was a four-seater aircraft.

Peter Usborne was appointed MBE in 2011, advanced to CBE in 2022. He married Cornelie Tücking in 1964. That was dissolved and he is survived by his second wife, Wendy (née Browning), and by a daughter and son from his first marriage.

Peter Usborne, born August 18 1937, died March 30 2023