‘Drunkenness , Depravity and Violence’ .The Moral Tales (1880-1900).
Frontispiece & Illustrated cover from ‘Robin Dear’ 1903.
The Victorian era was characterized by increasing wealth for some and desperate poverty for many. Along with this disparity came an increase in the concern felt by public opinion for the social and religious wellbeing of those less fortunate than themselves. The moment for the social reformer had arrived, and concerning himself with the floating canal population, that man was George Smith.
Smith’s book ‘Our Canal Population’ was published in 1875 with the intention of publicising the overcrowded living conditions on canal boats and barges.These conditions along with poverty, lack of education and in Smith’s eyes a lack of religious observance led in his view to the moral degradation of the canal boating population. His lonely campaign of lectures, articles, leaflets and books was pursued throughout the 1870’s with an evangelical single-mindedness which eventually practically bankrupted him, left him jobless and with his family life in tatters.
Eventually however and as a result of his agitations, the Canal Boats act of 1877 was passed which registered the boats with local authorities and stipulated amongst other things the number of the boats occupants. The act met some but not all of Smith’s aims and so throughout the 1880’s and 90’s we find him continuing his solitary campaign of reform. Help was at hand however because as a direct result of the publicity surrounding the passing of the act and the publication of his books, a small but dedicated group of authors took up his ideas and presented them to the public in the form of fictional stories for children
Improving and moralizing tales were the staple fare of most Victorian children’s upbringings and this small group of books with waterway themes should be viewed in this context. Invariably published by evangelical Christian organizations with a messianic reforming agenda these small cheaply produced books found great favour for presentation as prize books in school and Sunday-school.
In almost every book in my collection, acquired over many years there is a prize presentation plate. Typical of these is a plate in one of the first books to be published which states “A reward given for Attendance, Diligence and Good Behaviour” which gives us a good idea of the qualities expected in the recipients of these prize books.
It’s difficult to say which was the first of these books to be published as the publishing date for all of these books is rarely given.But probably the first off the mark was ‘Water Gipsies, or The Adventures of Tag, Rag and Bobtail’ by L T.Meade which was actually first serialised in an 1878 magazine.
The editor of this magazine (Sunday Magazine) was said to be seven foot tall and to light his cigars from the gaslights in the street – an obviously flamboyant character in this otherwise pretty dour cast of performers. .
L.T.Meade was actually Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith (1854-1914) who, with her ultra prolific output of ten books a year and over two hundred and eighty books in her lifetime, is generally credited with establishing the ‘Girls School Story’ genre of books. An early feminist she also wrote in several other genres including crime. Water Gipsies was first published in book form in this country in 1883 and tells the story of three boat children and their drunken abusive father, a story which was to become familiar to the readers of these books.
Undated but also from around this time (British Library says 1879) ‘Between the Locks’ is the story of a pleasure boat trip on the Medway, the voyagers evangelizing amongst the Kentish workers as they travel along the river. The author was the Revd E Newenham Hoare and the publisher – ‘The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge’. Other notable publishers of this ilk were ‘The Religious Tract Society’ and the ‘ Sunday School Union’.
The year 1878 also probably saw the appearance of ‘Rob Rat – A story of Barge Life’ by Mark Guy Pearse. With a dedication to George Smith this book is probably the best known of them all, primarily I think, for its numerous illustrations
These are remarkable for their ‘relative’ accuracy i.e the artist had actually seen the narrow boat, back cabin or tunnel that he illustrates. For modern eyes they also possess a period charm not seen in some of the other books whose illustrations vary from the naive to the frankly ludicrous.
Above…...Title Cover & Illustrations from Rob Rat.
Pearse’s book was printed and reprinted over the next 10 years and its longevity nearly equals that of its author who was a Cornish Methodist preacher living from 1842 to 1930.
Continued………See – (Childrens Canal Books Part 2)