On this day in history : 3rd February 1935 – The manufacturers of Ovaltine create a children’s secret society – ‘The League of Ovaltineys’ – to promote the sale of their malty milk drink….
Ovaltine had been developed in Bern, Switzerland in 1904 – and was originally called ‘Ovomaltine’, coming from ‘ovum’ – the Latin for ‘egg’ – as the recipe contained eggs…. However, when it was first exported to Britain in 1909 a mistake was made in the trademark registration with a misspelling of the name – and so it became known as ‘Ovaltine’…. The recipe changed for the British market – the egg was omitted, leaving the main ingredients as milk, malt and cocoa….
In 1935 the company came up with a clever idea of how to promote their product – by making it a favourite with children…. They launched a very unique club just for the youngsters – ‘The League of Ovaltineys’…. Each member would receive an Official Rule Book and a membership badge…. They were then encouraged to tell three friends about the club – who then in turn collected three of the paper discs found on the top of Ovaltine tins, giving them to the original member in order to become Ovaltineys themselves…. The original member then gained ‘silver star’ status within the League…. It could be argued that the company was promoting an early form of ‘pyramid selling’…. It was obviously a very successful marketing ploy – the club became very popular and sales of Ovaltine soared – by 1939 The League of Ovaltineys had five million members….
As well as containing a series of secret hand signals, which Ovaltiney members could use with each other, the Rule Book received by each member on joining also provided access to an all important secret code…. One of the main features of the League was its own radio programme which was broadcast on Radio Luxembourg every Sunday evening between 5.30pm and 6pm…. During the show secret messages were given out to the members which could be decoded using the handbook….
Back in the 1930s televisions were scarce and did not generally feature in a child’s day to day life (unlike now) – and so the radio was an important medium for most families….and many would gather together to listen to their favourite shows…. The Ovaltiney weekly broadcast was to become one such family favourite for so many households across the nation – with its familiar opening theme tune to signal the start….
“We are Ovaltineys,little girls and boys,
Make your requests; we’ll not refuse you,
We are here just to amuse you.
Would you like a song or story?
Will you share our joys?
At games and sports we’re more than keen,
No merrier children can be seen.
Because we all drink Ovaltine
We’re happy girls and boys”….
The song was written and composed by music hall and radio comedian Harry Hemsley – who also starred in the radio show…. The broadcast featured the Chief Ovaltiney – whose true identity was never revealed…. He was assisted by a team of young children – (who came from the Italia Conti School – an academy of performing Theatre Arts, founded in London in 1911 by successful and established actress Italia Conti who had a reputation for working with children)…. Each team member had just a letter for a name, spelling out ‘OVALTINEY’…. Harry Hemsley portrayed the Fortune family – playing all the parts himself – imitating the voices of ‘Father’, six year old ‘Johnny’, five year old ‘Elsie’, four year old ‘Winnie’ and the gurgles of six month old ‘Horace’…. It was ‘Winnie’ who acted as interpreter for baby ‘Horace’ – paving the way for what was to become a well-known catchphrase in British households of the time – “What did Horace say, Winnie?”….
Then at the close of the show the familiar good night song came….
“And now the happy Ovaltineys
Wish you all adieu,
But don’t forget your Ovaltine
It’s very good for you.
But we’ll be here again next Sunday
With songs and stories new,
And so until we meet again,
The Ovaltineys bid you all adieu”….
As well as the Rule Book and membership badge the club members would also receive sheet music to accompany the radio show – and from 1936 the ‘Ovaltiney’s Own Comic’ was published weekly, featuring the adventures of Johnny, Elsie and Winnie – being drawn by S.K.Perkins…. The club would also provide regular competitions and activities….
In 1952 a new version of the radio show was launched; once again on Radio Luxembourg but this time airing at 6.15pm on Sundays…. During the late 1960s the Ovaltiney Club was relaunched, with comedy duo Morecambe and Wise as its presidents…. Instead of sheet music League members received an LP of music – reflecting the more modern pop culture of the children of the day…. In 1975 ‘We Are The Ovaltineys’ was used by Ovaltine as a TV advertisement – and a single released, thus giving the song yet another lease of life to be embedded into the nostalgic memories of a further generation….