Saturday, 5 March 2011

Children’s Canal Books in England. (Part3). Moral Tales 1880-1900 cont’d.

Rob Rat Illus (5)Rob Rat Illus (3)
Illustrations from Rob Rat

The century of the ‘Moral Tale’ was drawing to a close and the Edwardian era was dawning; and with it came some new ideas. Victorian paternalism and class values lessened their hold on author’s imaginations and sickly sweet religious themes were definitely on the wain. A book of this kind in which religion plays a surprisingly low role is 'Us' by Mrs Molesworth which was first published in 1885.
Illustration by Walter Crane from 'Us' by Mrs Molesworth.         Mrs Molesworth was a prolific author of children's books, (especially for girls) typically emphasising moral instruction, duty and sacrifice.  'Us' is primarily noted and collected for its illustrations by the  pre  eminent Victorian Illustrator Walter Crane but in the history of children's canal books it has a very special place as it was probably the first book to portray canals and canal workers in a sympathetic and unpatronising way. Published as it was in the mid 1880's when the children's 'moral tales' with their stories of moral degradation, drunkenness and child cruelty were at their publishing height, Mrs Molesworths book contains a chapter where runaway children are befriended by friendly & sympathetic boat people whose boats are clean and tidy.It is only a chapter in the book in which the villains are that other  favourite Victorian bogey -Gipsies
But before we leave the C19th and its ‘moral tales’, four books that seem to me to be typical ‘moral tales’ but which I can find no mention of in any canal bibliography that I’ve seen. Acknowledgement should be made here to Mark Baldwin and his excellent ‘ A Bibliography of British Canals  1623 – 1950’  in the book ‘Canals , A New Look’  P’bd 1984. All canal book collectors should have a copy. Its quite indispensible and a mine of information on books you didn’t know existed. Even here though I can find no mention of these four books in my collection.Canals A New Look
Silent Highways – A story of Barge Life’  by F Palmer was published in 1881 and is thus quite an early entry in the genre. It’s a typical example of it’s kind as it  climbs the heights and plumbs the depths with chapter headings such as ‘Does it Hurt to be Dead’, ‘This is Heaven Ain’t It’, Forgotten Canal Books No2 Cover Silent HighwayHungry and Penniless’ and ‘Joy at Last’, the final outcome being that all the participants seem to have caught smallpox and died!! The story such as it is , is set on boats travelling between London and the Black Country.over there 1over there2
First editions of‘Over There -A Story of Canal Life’ (c 1889) have F.C.F as the author on the cover ,whilst later editions have the authors name in full - F.C.Fanshawe.  I can find no reference to this book nor to‘Waif and Gipsy’  (c1893)  The second book was written by  A D Phelps and is partly set on a London bound boat on the Bridgewater canal. 'Silent highways' & 'Over there' are both very rare the British Library even does not have the latter as it was destroyed in the Blitz and they have not been able to replace it.

Forgotten Canal Books No2 Cover Robin DearForgotten Canal Books No2 Illustration from Robin Dear
Finally Adela Mount’s ‘ Robin Dear – A Story of Canal Life’  was published in 1903, rather late for a moral tale. This book has probably the best cover illustration and design of all these books. It portrays a horse pulling a wide beam barge with a lock in the background and is a beautiful example of  book cover illustration done in an early art nouveau style. This is interesting in itself as the story is set on a boat travelling from King’s Langley on the Grand Junction Canal to Leicester. Keen canal buffs will spot the problem here !. Other places mentioned in the text are Heyford furnaces and Weedon.
Published as prizes and often going to juveniles who had little access to other books, these books must have instilled fear and horror in a whole generation of children and could have been responsible for the landsman's derogatory epithets of ‘dirty bargee’ etc. It is no wonder that the working population on the boats kept themselves to themselves and regarded people on the ‘bank’ with distrust. In the face of an almost universal hostility backed by an evangelical fervour, who could blame them.
Today these books can be seen as virtual diatribes. They were however a product of their time and of the religious and moral viewpoints of their authors. That conditions were bad on some of the boats cannot be disputed but then so were the conditions in the slums of the big cities. Many boatpeople led clean,honest and industrious lives, some did not. It had always been the same and indeed remained so right up to the final days of carrying in the last century.
That these books were produced in their thousands, seems almost impossible to believe as they are quite hard to find now! Many of them however are available as ‘print on demand’ books.
A final note – If you have come across any moral tales not noted here –then I would love to hear about them.

This blog continues into a new century……( See Children's Books Part4.)

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