With the arrival of a new century the old books were quietly forgotten and although prize books were still given, they were of a very different kind. Religious and moral preaching; if not entirely forgotten were definitely on a backburner and instead straightforward adventure stories were the norm.
This new trend manifested itself in children's canal books with the publication in 1903 of Richard Stead’s ‘Grit Will Tell’. This book with its stirringly British ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ title tells the story of a runaway barge boy (a not uncommon theme). However for the first time religion plays no part in the story. Moral values too are low key and instead the plot is presented as a straightforward boys adventure story which is unique in being set on a Leeds & Liverpool Canal shortboat before moving to scenes aboard a ‘market packet boat’ in the Goole area. The story later shifts to a steam dredger on the Meuse.
It’s no coincidence that the book was published by Blackies who were pioneers in the production of ‘Tales of Daring’ or ‘Spiffing Yarns’ as they were sometimes called. They had already published one of these – ‘Aboard The Atalanta’ by Henry Frith as far back as 1877 and with several chapters set on the Regents canal it can I think be recognized as the first Children's canal book with a non religious theme.
‘Aboard The Atalanta’ 1877 - The first canal adventure story.
‘Jim’s Children’ 1912 – Illustrated front cover & frontispiece.
The year 1903 is pivotal in children's canal based books as it saw not only the appearance of ‘Grit Will Tell’ as the first book in a new century with a completely new direction in children's canal based books but it was also the year in which the last ‘moral tales’ were published i.e ‘Robin Dear’ and 'Littlebourne Lock'. (which unusually for a moral tale is set on the Thames) and is another Blackies children's book from around 1900.
The author of ‘Jim’s Children-A tale of Town,Country and Canal’ published in 1912 was Theodora Wilson Wilson (1865 – 1941) who was a teacher and social worker at Kendal in the Lake District. With her Quaker beliefs it is not surprising that she was also a pacifist, humanitarian and an early contributor to feminist and suffragette literature.
It is, as far as I know the only children's story to be set on the Lancaster canal and concerns the mild adventures of a family of children in and around ‘Brentholme’ (Kendal) who amongst other things travel on a Sunday School Outing down the canal. The boat is a trading boat well scrubbed out for the occasion and the children become involved with the boatwoman and her lost babies.
Again this book was published by Blackie’s and was in fact republished in 1933 as was ‘Grit Will Tell’ It is also one of the first children's books I have with a dust wrapper. The following two images are of 2 titles from 'The Boys Friend Library' series of paperback adventure story books for boys published weekly between 1906 & 1940 when paper shortages forced closure of the series. They are written by the same author and are - 'Dave the Barge Boy - A Tale of England's Waterways' from 1910 and 'The Boy Barge Owners - A Story of Canal Life' from 1909 and are the earliest books of their type that I have found. Sydney Floyd Gowing wrote under the pen name of David Goodwin and was a fairly prolific boys short story writer.He wrote one more canal story for 'The Boys friend Library' - 'King of the Canals' in 1920.
I have recently discovered that both of the tiles shown below were originally published in the weekly comic 'Boys Friend' (Same publisher as library series) in 1903 but have never seen them.
'Our Holiday on a Barge’ by Alice Talwin Morris.1911.
The subtitle of this book is 'Nature Stories and Pictures for Little Folks’ ; its a familiar phrase and one which accompanied instructional books from Victorian times on, although it somewhat belies the age of some of the children in the illustrations.
This book is important because for the first time children's fiction seems to move into the real world. The story is a simple one. Father hires a barge for a holiday and the family set out to travel up the Thames. They witness the sights and sounds of the river and discover the plants, animals and birds on its banks.
Alice Talwin Morris the author was the wife of Talwin Morris the Art Director at Blackie’s, the children's book publishers of Glasgow. He is best remembered today as a designer of book covers in the Art Nouveau style and was a member of the renowned ‘Glasgow school’, whose leading light, Charles Rennie Macintosh is still revered today.
The circle in which the young couple moved had a libertarian, bohemian and artistic outlook and this approach is reflected throughout the book. The illustrations in colour and black and white are numerous (over40) and those of boats and barges are for a change reasonably accurate although one sometimes wonders whether it’s an English or a Dutch river that's being portrayed. However compared with what went before its quite revolutionary. It’s also the first time in a children's book where a barge is hired and converted for a holiday although the precedent had been set a couple of times before in adult fiction e.g ‘Two Girls On A Barge’ by V Cecil Coates in 1891 and ‘Strange Adventures of a House-Boat’ by William Black 1888.
So for the first time in a juvenile canal book, a simple non moralizing story is told in which the parents and children are shown as a family enjoying and exploring the world around them. Its like a breath of fresh air and coming as it did at the start of a new century and in the middle of the Edwardian period it was a portent of things to come.
Collectors looking for a copy of this book should realise that it was also issued in a deluxe edition with ,interestingly, a different cover design and also in exactly the same form and with the same illustrations but combined with a separate travelling caravan story in ‘Happy Days By Road and River’ issued in the same year 1911.
After the publication of these two books ,nearly two decades were to elapse before another children’s book with a waterways theme appeared in the UK.
Interestingly it seems to be probably the only early French waterway book to be translated into English. Likewise Richard Sargent's moral tale 'Ned The Barge Boy' is probably the only English waterways story to be translated into French.
To be continued. See Children’s Canal Books Part5.