With an increase in literacy rates and a growing emphasis on the importance of family, by the mid Victorian era the concept of the children’s corner in newspapers was born.
Often placed amongst the densely packed columns of the daily or weekly local and national newspapers, the children’s corner represented a new development for Victorian editors of the day, and a new market to which they could appeal.
And in this special blog, as we explore the history of childhood throughout the month of May, we will trace the development of the children’s corner in newspapers from the Victorian era, using the publications to be found in The Archive.
‘Healthy, Instructive, and Amusing’
By 1870, literacy rates in Great Britain were the highest they had ever been. In that year, the literacy rate sat at 76%, whilst some fifty years before it was at 53%. Also in 1870 the Elementary Education Act was introduced, paving the way for the compulsory education of children between the ages of five and twelve.
And so it is no surprise that in this climate the readership of newspapers grew, with titles competing for a share of this ever-growing audience. A new potential, and untapped, audience was that of children, and from 1870 onwards in our Archive we can trace the early development of the children’s corner, a space dedicated to younger readers.
On 7 September 1870 the Clerkenwell News describes a new feature in Cassell’s Magazine, a ‘Children’s Corner,’ which it anticipates will ‘prove an attractive feature of this magazine.’ Three years later, on 5 May 1873, the Sheffield Independent is advertising the Sheffield Times and Iris, which it describes as a ‘Weekly Newspaper for Family Reading.’
Aiming to supply ‘healthy, instructive, and amusing reading’ for all the family, the Sheffield Times and Iris was also featuring a ‘Children’s Column – For Smiling Faces.’
Meanwhile, another Yorkshire paper on 17 December 1878 is advertising its recently enlarged weekly supplement. The Leeds Mercury‘s new weekly supplement would also include a ‘Children’s Column,’ and ‘other features of special interest to families and the working classes.’
It is clear to see from the early iterations of the children’s column in our newspapers how its development was inextricably linked to notions of family and class. Not only were the newly literate working classes being targeted by editors; but they too could now aspire to the vision of a happy family and a happy home, like the middle and upper classes. And at the heart of that ideal – children.
But what did these early children’s columns contain? We find in August 1873 an edition of the Belfast News-Letter which carries ‘A Corner for Children,’ and in that, a story of a boy named George who longed to meet famous Swiss biologist Professor Louis Agassiz, and to find out how coral was made.
This story is both entertaining and educational, themes that would continue throughout the next decades as the idea of the children’s corner permeated the British press.
‘Band of Kindness’
So for families to have a happy home, and to live out the dream of Victorian domesticity, their children needed to be well-behaved, and instructed in the morals of the day. Enter the children’s corner.
By the 1880s, many local, regional and national newspapers had established their own children’s corners. And although entertaining, many of them advocated a strict moral code, and to facilitate this kind of moral instruction, they established their own societies for children to join, just as long as they obeyed the rules set out to them.
Attached to the Newcastle Daily Chronicle’s children’s corner was the ‘Dicky Bird Society.’ The children’s corner of 18 May 1880 tells of how, remarkably, membership of this society numbered ‘upwards of 43,000 members.’ The aim of the conductor of this children’s corner, ‘Uncle Toby,’ was to ‘inculcate in youthful minds habits and principles of kindness and humanity.’ To this end, new members of the Dicky Bird Society ‘were required to make a simple pledge that they will do their utmost to protect from ill-usage all living creatures.’
Meanwhile the Hyde & Glossop Weekly News, and North Cheshire Herald ran its own ‘Band of Kindness‘ from its children’s corner. Here is the pledge for this particular society, from the 18 November 1882:
I hereby promise to be kind to all living things: to protect them to the utmost of my power; to feed the birds in the winter time; and never to take or destroy a nest. I also promise to show all kindness to domestic animals, and not to take pleasure in hurting them; and I will give my word that I will get as many boys and girls as possible to join the ‘BAND OF KINDNESS.’
‘Uncle Dick,’ in charge of the children’s column for the Hyde & Glossop Weekly News, states how any:
…boy or girl wherever he or she resides, whether in England, Ireland, Scotland, America – and I am told this paper circulates largely in America – Australia, New Zealand, or anywhere on the civilised globe…can be admitted a member. Each member must write and sign the pledge, giving his or her name, age, and place of abode, and send the same to UNCLE DICK, with the signature of the teacher of the school at which the new member attends, or of his or her father or mother, to show that they really mean to keep this beautiful pledge of kindness.
I. Every member must be kind to birds and animals. II. No member must use a catapult or rob a bird’s nest. III. Every member must promise to protect everything weaker than herself or himself. IV. No member must use the words can’t, shan’t, or won’t. V. Bad language must never be indulged in. VI. Perfect respect and obedience is to be paid to parents and teachers.
I. To be kind to animals. II. To be always truthful and obedient. III. To be gentle and forbearing.
Children were encouraged to write into the newspapers, asserting their pledges to be kind, obedient, and the like, and their letters were often published as part of the children’s corner.
So not only did these societies have a hand in promoting the contemporary ideals of how a Victorian child should be – kind, gentle and obedient – they also had the dual purpose of selling more newspapers. For every child who joined the ‘Golden Circle’, or the ‘Band of Kindness,’ was encouraged to bring more children to the cause. And the more children who joined, the more newspapers were sold. And for newspaper editors of the time, this was probably of more import than the morality preached in their columns.
You might have noticed that the personas behind the children’s columns often called themselves ‘uncle,’ whether it be Uncle Toby or Uncle John, to establish that air of familiarity, coupled, perhaps, with a hint of authority.
In November 1882 the editor of the Hyde & Glossop Weekly News introduced ‘Uncle Dick’ to his young readers, a ‘genial gentleman…who takes great delight in children.’ Uncle Dicks states that he intends to use his new column to ‘chat…week by week’ with his readers, whilst also introducing the notion of the ‘Band of Kindness.’
Meanwhile, writing for the Worcestershire Chronicle’s ‘Children’s Corner‘ was ‘Uncle Sam.’ Uncle Sam took a slightly different tack, relating on 17 September 1887 the ‘very curious adventure that he happened to take part in a few weeks ago.’ The fictional tale sees the writer encounter Mother Hubbard, although Uncle Sam would have his young readers believe that the meeting actually took place.
And then there was ‘Uncle John,’ who wrote for the Leeds Times’s ‘Children’s Corner.’ He tells his readers how:
This part of the Leeds Times is all your own, ‘The Children’s Corner’ is your ‘playground.’ Write and tell Uncle John about anything that interests you, your games, your studies, anything that pleases you.
The children’s corner could be a conduit for children, enabling them to write in with their stories and express themselves in a way that they had never been able to before. The concept was indeed a revolutionary one.
Captain Trim, however, writing for the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph, might not have approved of such a revolution. His society, the Kind Hearts Brigade, was run on military lines, with his members known as soldiers. Here is a request to join from one Rose Jolliffe, of Bishop’s Waltham, Hampshire:
Dear Captain Trim – Kindly make me a soldier of your brigade. I will try to keep your rules. I have a kind heart towards animals, and I cannot bear to see them hurt. Please send me a recruiting sheet, and I will get some more to join.
And as the decades passed, new and different personas were writing for the children’s corners. There was the chatty and jovial ‘Old Boy,’ who began his column for the Dundee Evening Telegraph, 3 December 1904, with a rousing ‘Hullo! Hullo! Here We Are Again!’
Then there was ‘Nona,’ writing for the Stroud News and Gloucestershire Advertiser, 29 October 1909. Nona seemed to enjoy a good chat, her children’s column managing to be both informal and conversational, as she relates some recent trips to town:
I have actually been up to town twice, and to two theatres, which I enjoyed immensely. I really think that I laughed more than the audience…London seems to me to get more dangerous each time I go there. It is quite exciting crossing the roads: you want all eyes all round your head, and all your wits about you. Fortunately I am not in the least bit nervous.
An Honourable Mention
Having browsed through some of the children’s corners of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, honourable mention is due to the companion of Uncle John of the Leeds Times – Boonder, the dog, further highlighting that connection between children and animals that was perpetuated at this time.
Uncle John writes on 2 November 1889 how Boonder looks after the letter bag and the ‘Big Book,’ where the names of members of the ‘Golden Circle’ were recorded. Boonder seems like quite the character:
I said a fortnight ago that I was not quite sure whether Boonder could read writing or not. Now I almost believe he can, for whenever a letter is opened in which the funny old dog’s name is not mentioned, he lifts up his voice and makes the most mournful music you ever heard.
Indeed, Boonder provides that comic relief that may well have been needed with the strict promises of obedience required by the ‘Golden Circle:’
I do wish Boonder would be quiet and leave the letter-bag alone. But it is of no use to speak to that dog, when he breaks the second rule of our society about twenty times a day, and then laughs at me.
Boonder’s disobedience eventually led to him absconding when a photographer visited to take his picture. Eventually, he returned, Uncle John writing on 16 November 1889:
Boonder has returned! When Uncle John came down to the office on Wednesday morning he found the poor old dog sitting on the steps with a far-off, hungry look in his eyes. Boonder got up and shook all that remains of him – for he is very thin now and his coat is rough – he tried to tell Uncle John where he had been and all that befallen him since he upset the photographer and ran away. But Uncle John does not know enough of dog-language to understand everything that Boonder said.
Education, Education, Education
So whilst Boonder was amusing his young readers with his antics, elsewhere children’s columns set out with a clear purpose: education. This could come in the forms of poetry, stories or indeed non-fiction articles.
For example in the ‘Children’s Corner‘ published by the Monmouthshire Merlin, 11 August 1882, a long article entitled ‘How A Daily Newspaper is Produced’ was featured. This piece takes an in depth (and very interesting, especially for us today) look at how a paper like the Monmouthshire Merlin is produced, but its language and tone is surprisingly complex and formal for its intended audience.
Poetry was another popular part of the children’s corner. The Bradford Weekly Telegraph, 23 December 1882, describes in its ‘Children’s Corner‘ how ‘Poets write for children as well as grown up people, and every one knows that the young folks in our Corner are fond of reading poetry.’
The same newspaper on 11 November 1882 published a poem entitled ‘Helpful Nan,’ which depicts the young Nan as a shining paragon of childish duty. Nan goes about helping her mother, tending to her brother, ‘Never whining, pining…But loving, kind and useful.’
Included alongside Nan’s poem was a ‘Scholastic Alphabet,’ which tells of the school experience some 140 years ago:
A is the Arithmetic, tiresome and hard
B is the Birch-rod, with which we are scarred
C is the Cane that brings tears to our eyes,
D is the Dunce, who lamentably cries.
Meanwhile the Cotton Factory Times, aimed at the workers of Lancashire, had its own children’s corner which ran under the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lines: ‘What would the world be to us/If the children were no more?’ On 16 February 1894 it contained the story of Dick Whittington and his cat, as told by ‘Grandad Grey.’ In it, Simon and Dick face the violence of a cook working for a Mr. Fitzwarren, and again, the value of being kind to animals is exalted, in perhaps the most extreme of instances here:
‘It’s perhaps a magic cat,’ said Simon; ‘one o’ them fairy cats what works miracles. But we’ll have to look after it well, Dick. I saw the cook chuck a pan at it the other day, an’ she only just missed it.’
‘Did she?’ cried Dick in a rage. ‘She’d better not hurt my cat. I think I should kill her if she killed poor ‘Luck,’ and he picked the cat up and nursed it.
Not only did the conductors of the Victorian children’s corners tell stories, children were invited to send in their own. And a common theme of such stories was, unsurprisingly, animals. In May 1880 the Newcastle Daily Chronicle published a ‘very remarkable story’ entitled ‘The Newfoundland Dog and the Two Hats’ by reader R. Sinclair (you can read it here), whilst one Ella Jane Denton sent in ‘an interesting account of a fight between a crow and snake in Australia.’
Meanwhile a ‘correspondent’ related the story of ‘Wallace and his Good Friend the Cat’ to the Bradford Weekly Telegraph, 11 November 1882:
We have at present…a cat which has formed a very strong friendship with a large Newfoundland dog. She is continually caressing him…When he lies before the kitchen fire, she uses him as a bed, pulling up and settling his hair with her claws to make it comfortable…Poor ‘Wallace’ bears this rough combing of locks with the most patient placidity, turning his head towards her during the operation, and merely giving her a benevolent look, or gently licking her.
Such contributions illustrate how children’s voices were heard in the press in a way that they had never been before, and it was not just stories that they were submitting. ‘Little Edward Hunter, of Gateshead,’ sent some sketches to the London Daily News on 21 January 1904, which were subsequently printed.
Riddle Me This
Finally, other important ingredients of the Victorian children’s corner were the riddles, puzzles, and competitions that they contained. Children writing to the newspapers would often set their own riddles, which is evidenced in the Bradford Weekly Telegraph, 23 December 1882, where Lily Taylor asks:
What town is so light that it will float, so large that it is one of the most important mercantile centres of the empire, yet so small that it will go into a pint bottle of stout?
Edith Ackroyd, in the same piece, questions ‘Why is the letter L like Warwickshire?’ Meanwhile, readers’ puzzles in the same newspaper, 11 November 1882, featured such conundrums as ‘Which is the strongest day of the week?’ and ‘When was beef at its highest?’ Browse the pages of the Bradford Weekly Telegraph to find out the answers!
There were also picture puzzles included in the children’s corners.
The London Daily News, 21 January 1904, pictures ‘a curious thing in the Corner,’ namely a puzzle for its young readers to solve. In the Sheffield Independent, 13 October 1909, children were treated to the inclusion of the ‘Moving Spot,’ an optical illusion, and a couple of days later to the ‘Magic Pear,’ which showed how a pear could be transformed into an elephant.
Meanwhile, competitions were a popular feature of children’s corners, and promoted involvement and participation from young readers. Captain Trim of the Sheffield Daily Telegraph ran a drawing competition in August 1889, announcing the winner as Winifred May Bull, of South Norwood Park.
Clarion ran a ‘Prize Doll Competition‘ in 1898, with ten-year-old Fanny Wanless of Amble, Northumberland, victorious. The youngest of the top competitors, the prize was given to her, and her doll is described as follows:
Fanny’s doll is very pretty indeed, and beautifully dressed – all the clothing, of course, being cut out and made entirely by Fanny herself. Miss Dolly has a pale pink frock, with a dainty bonnet to match, and a pretty muslin pinafore to keep her dress clean.
A knitting competition was held in April 1900 in the Middlesex Gazette, this time with a good cause, to help ‘Our Soldiers’ engaged in the Second Boer War. In 1904 ‘Old Boy’ ran a Christmas card competition for the Dundee Evening Telegraph, the top prize being a Christmas turkey, with the children’s cards being sent to ‘poorhouses, infirmaries, and hospitals.’
And so, the children participating in these competitions were fully enacting the kindness that the children’s corners had sought to promote. So whilst the children’s corners were developed with an eye on selling more copies, and promoting Victorian ideals of morality, what is also of importance is how the children’s corners gave children a way to express themselves that they had never experienced before, to be part of something much bigger, taking their place amongst the grown-ups in the pages of the newspaper press.