Manners Shaping Morals: Conduct literature at Newcastle University

Conduct literature is a little-known genre nowadays; it has been absorbed mostly into magazine culture and advice you get from your grandma. But in the 18th and 19th centuries it was a genre of literature that shaped, and was shaped by, popular culture. Conduct literature is texts that give advice on how to behave in polite society and how to run a successful household; in other words, on a person’s conduct. This advice ranged from the practical; how much credit it was acceptable to run up with household vendors; to the philosophical; how best to educate children to make them into functional citizens. The vast majority of these texts were aimed at women: in their capacity as mothers, as wives and as daughters. These manuals formed an influential industry in the late 18th and early 19th century as the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars raged and the British propaganda machine cultivated the idea of the French as immoral and dissolute compared to Britain’s steadfast morality. This deep-seated aspiration for ethical superiority is seen in the conduct literature of the age, conduct literature found in the 18th century collection at Newcastle University. As part of this collection the University holds books by Hannah More and Mary Wollstonecraft (among others), authors who, despite their varied political viewpoints, used their writing as a way of giving women more power.

Title page from Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Title page from Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (18th Century Coll, 18th C. Coll 396 WOL)

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), widely regarded to be one of the first works of feminist philosophy and the precursor to the organised feminist movement. A first edition of this is held in the 18th Century Collection in the Phillip Robinson Library, previously owned by Joseph Cowen, revolutionary Member of Parliament for Newcastle Upon Tyne. This manifesto for female education was a well-known, radical example of the conduct literature genre. Wollstonecraft famously wrote in her introduction to the volume: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.” (6, emphasis original). This sentence is a decisive judgement on both women and the men who interact with them. Wollstonecraft invokes rationality to justify the language of her doctrine; a characteristic that was considered the defining trait of humanity in the 18th century. She also implies that women were treated as being in a ‘state of perpetual childhood’ by men in this era, something that can be seen in the conduct literature written by men in the 18th century. For instance, in Fordyce’s Sermons for Young Women he states, “The Almighty has thrown you upon the protection of our sex. To yours we are indebted on many accounts. He that abuses you dishonours his mother. Virtuous women are the sweeteners, the charm of human life.” (9). Not only does Fordyce imply women to be incapable of functioning without male protection in this statement, but he also designates them as ‘the charm of human life’ thus suggesting them not to be human at all. This is where the different political viewpoints of the female conduct literature writers held in Special Collections at Newcastle are united. Although they differ in how it should be expressed and used, each author acknowledges the female capacity for rationality.

Title page from More’s strictures
Title page from More’s strictures (18th Century Collection, 18th C. Coll 828.69 MOR)

Another deeply influential text that is held in the 18th Century Collection at Newcastle is conservative moralist Hannah More’s Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799). This is one of many texts by Hannah More that is held by the university, but Strictures is her best well-known work. The text discusses both the practicalities and the moralities of raising children, especially young women. More grounds her philosophy in the importance of the family in raising future citizens and in shaping society. On the title page of the fourth edition copy held in the Newcastle University archives (shown above) she places a quote from Lord Halifax which states, “May you so raise your character that you may help to make the next age a better thing, and leave posterity in your debt, for the advantage it shall receive by your example.” This statement embodies More’s attitude to female morality and education; in Strictures she passes judgement on aristocratic women and their perceived indolence. More, like Wollstonecraft, values the emerging middle-class and their work ethic, manifesting in women through their cultivation of useful employment such as mending, rather than the frivolous, impractical embroidery typically undertaken by the aristocracy. When quoting Lord Halifax, More also invokes the concept of debt to a nation; she perceives women as being as much the cause of Britain’s intellectual superiority as men and as owing their full potential to their country.

The idea that citizens owe their nation morality stems from the conflict with France mentioned earlier; the prevailing opinion in Britain was that the French were immoral and prone to excess, and therefore one way in which Britain was superior to them was through their morality. This created an anxiety around female morality that both informed and was informed by the conduct literature genre, including those held by Newcastle University. Hannah More and Mary Wollstonecraft are two of the most well-known conduct literature authors from the 18th century and occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum. Nevertheless, they are united in their anxiety about female morality during this period and how any degradation of that would affect the nation at large. This collective anxiety eventually led to a societal idolisation of the middle class, whose ideology and ethics would come to set the standard for British society. Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More, therefore, form part of a genre that shaped British culture and therefore its history.

Written by bequest student Charlotte Davison, Postgraduate student from the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics.

Paper Scraps in the Rare Book Collection

Written by Newcastle University Special Collections & Archives bequest student, Sam Bailey.

Books have a limited lifespan. The idea that one might deliberately take apart a book and use it for something other than the transmission of the written word might be cringe-inducing, but it was a practice that was widespread in the medieval and early-modern periods. When a book was no longer of use – because it was undesirable, out of date, or had been used to destruction, the expensive materials used could be recycled.  John Dryden wrote in Mac Flecknoe (1678-83) that even the works of modern authors were destined to be ‘Martyrs of pies, and reliques of the bum.’ Anna Reynolds has recently shown how early-modern England was brimming with reused and repurposed scraps of paper, which provided imaginative inspiration for a variety of literary works. To our knowledge, the Philip Robinson Library does not contain any books that were once used in pie crusts or as lavatory paper, but it does contain books that were repurposed as binding material. Two books held in Newcastle University Special Collections & Archives, from the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries respectively, offer a window into the way that people recycled old books into new ones.

Binding of Tacitus’ Opera (Venice: 1497) [Incunabula, Incunabula 11]

Incunabula 11 is an edition of the complete works of Tacitus, printed in Venice in 1497. Unfortunately for Tacitus, most of the attention that this copy receives is due to its remarkable binding. As you can see from the images below, this book is bound with a limp membrane cover, which was once a beautiful piece of sheet music. The music that is visible here is from a chant: De Sancti Martyribus, which was sung to commemorate Christian martyrs. This is a well-presented manuscript, in a regular hand with decorated capitals. Why is this high-quality music manuscript on the binding of a printed book? The historian of medieval music Margaret Bent can help to answer this; she argues that in the medieval period:

Musical styles changed almost as rapidly as in pop music today, and even new pieces were often adapted, with added or removed voices or changed text. Old music books were regarded as expendable, sometimes dismembered within half a century; parchment was recycled for miscellaneous purposes, paper usually discarded. (623)

Margaret Bent

This chant most likely fell out of fashion and ended up as waste material. It is likely, based on the observable structure of the book, and the dating of both the text and the binding, that this manuscript was used to bind the book shortly after it was printed. From the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, most printed books were sold as ‘quires’ – unbound stacks of printed sheets that needed to be folded, trimmed, and then covered by a bookbinder. Bindings could therefore be customised based on the budget and tastes of the buyer. Music manuscripts were widely used as binding materials, a well-made manuscript made for a visually appealing cover. As membrane or leather were expensive animal products, reusing material in this way could cut costs for the purchaser. We do not know who first purchased this book, but if they were in an institution such as a monastery, it is possible that they already owned this discarded music manuscript, and reused what was available to them.

Our second book rockets us forward two hundred years, to the midst of the English Civil War and Interregnum of the 1640s. This is a copy of Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia epidemica, also known as Vulgar Errors, a work of natural philosophy. It was printed in London in 1646, and it is bound in a typical mottled brown leather binding, with decorative blind rules on the top and bottom covers. Binding styles can be somewhat misleading when dating a book, particular as a style as generic as this endured for so long. Understanding precisely when a book was bound can offer a vital insight into provenance, and luckily, the wastepaper used in this book’s binding gives us a vital insight into its history.

Binding of Pseudodoxia epidemica or Vulgar Errors (London: 1646) [17th Century Collection, 17th C. Coll. 398.3 BRO]

Peeking out between the top cover and first leaf of the printed book, we can see the edge of a single leaf of another book. This is a leaf used as a binding scrap – a piece of paper used to maintain the structure of the binding, that is a feature of many hard-cover bindings. Binding scraps were made from wastepaper that was available to the bookbinder at the time. If we can date the binding scrap, then we can identify more precisely when the book was bound. At the top of this scrap, we can see part of the word ‘Apocrypha’, and we can see in a small blackletter typeface, a number of lines from scripture. A quick comparison between some of these lines and quotations from the Apocrypha sections of English Bibles reveals that this leaf contains lines 26-32 of the 2nd verse from the 2nd book of Maccabees, and lines 1-29 from the 3rd verse of the same book. From that, it is possible to compare printed editions of English Bibles that contain Maccabees and find out which edition this leaf originated from. At the bottom of the page, we see a ‘signature’ – an alphanumeric representation of the position of the leaf within its sheet, that would help bookbinders to keep the sheets in the correct order. In this case, the signature is ‘Yy’ which we can express as 2Y1 (i.e. the first signature of the second sheet labelled Y). To find the edition of the Bible from which this binding scrap was taken, all we must do is find Bibles where these verses are found on leaf 2Y1 and compare them. Only one edition of the appropriate period has these verses, in the same typeface, on sheet 2Y1: the 1641 Authorized King James Bible printed by Robert Barker and John Bill in London. If you compare our scrap to a full leaf from this edition they match perfectly.

Binding scrap found in Pseudodoxia epidemica or Vulgar Errors
Binding scrap found in Pseudodoxia epidemica or Vulgar Errors (London: 1646) [17th Century Collection, 17th C. Coll. 398.3 BRO]

1646 – the year that this edition of Vulgar Errors was printed – was a tumultuous year in England. The parliamentarians had won the civil war against Charles I. The new Puritan-controlled Church issued a new Catechism, a Confession of Faith and a Directory of Worship – documents that sought to transform the nature of the established Church of England. That Confession would reject the authority of the Biblical Apocrypha. Our scrap of Maccabees 2 – from a 1641 Bible, was an example of this newly rejected scripture. New Bibles would be issued without the apocrypha and some old Bibles had their apocrypha sections removed. This is most likely how these verses from Maccabees 2, taken from a fairly new 1641 Bible, ended up as scrap paper in the binding of a 1646 book. The removal of this leaf was intended as an act of textual destruction, but it lives on by serendipity in the spine of another book. This scrap of paper, tucked into the binding of an otherwise unrelated book, is a register of the ways in which political and religious turmoil shaped the lives of books.


I must give all credit to any meaningful identification of the sheet of De Sancti Martyribus to my colleagues in the department of music at Newcastle University: Michael Winter and James Tomlinson. What took them minutes would have taken me days!

References and Further Reading

17th C. Coll. 398.3 BRO. Browne, Thomas. Pseudoxica epidemica. London: 1646. Philip Robinson Library, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.

Authorized English Bible. London: 1641.

Bent, Margaret. ‘Polyphonic Sources’ in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Music. Cambridge: 2011.

Dryden, John. Mac Flecknoe, Or, A Satyr upon the True-Blew-Protestant Poet, T. S. by the Author of Absalom & Achitophel. London: 1682.

Inc.11. Tacitus, Cornelius. Opera. Venetis: 1497. Philip Robinson Library, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.

Korpman, Matthew J. ‘The Protestant Reception of the Apocrypha’ in The Oxford Handbook of the Apocrypha, ed.  Oxford: 2021.

Marianai, Angela., Giger, Andreas and Thomas J. Mathiesen (eds.). ‘Regino Prumiensis’ in Theseaurus Musicarum Latinarum. REGTONA_TEXT ( (Contains the text of Di Sancti Martyribus)

Morrill, John. ‘The Puritan Revolution’ in The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism, ed. John Coffey and Paul C.H. Lim. Cambridge: 2008.

Reynolds, Anna. Waste Paper in Early Modern England: Privy Tokens. Oxford: 2024.

The legacy of W.F. Kirby: inspiring two placement students

Written by Dalia Aizi, a MA Museum, Gallery and Heritage studies student, whilst on placement in Summer 2019.

Early on in our placements at Special Collections, whilst doing research for a new exhibition, we came across a beautifully illustrated book titled European Butterflies and Moths. Upon seeing the plates and reading the texts, we were inspired to create ‘The Beauty of Science: Seeing Art in the Entomological World’. We decided to create an exhibition which celebrates the artistic aspects of science books, which are often overlooked.  

The life of W.F. Kirby

Born in Leicester in 1844, Kirby found a deep interest for butterflies at a very young age, which continued into his adult life. After his father’s death and the family’s move to Brighton, he became more involved in the entomological world, joining the Brighton and Sussex Entomological Society before he moved to Dublin in 1867. While there, he became an established and famous entomologist after his book, A Synonymic Catalogue of diurnal Lepidoptera was published.

European Butterflies and Moths

In 1882, Kirby finished and published European Butterflies and Moths (19th Century Collection, 19th C. Coll. 595.78 KIR), which gives a comprehensive guide into the world of the Lepidoptera. 137 years later, the book is still easily read even for novice readers such as us, which he writes about in his preface, stating that the book is ’designed to provide entomologists and tourists with a comprehensive illustrated guide to the study of European Macro-Lepidoptera’.

The exhibition ‘The Beauty of Insects: Seeing Art in the Entomological World’ that was created as part of the placement in Newcastle University Special Collections and Archives can be viewed online.

In-Tract After all These Years

Cheque found in ‘Mr Mill’s Subjections of Women’, from Joseph Cowen to the London Society for Women’s Suffrage (Cowen Tracts, V.40 n.2)

As students of the Museum and Heritage Studies Masters course at Newcastle University, we recently undertook a 30-day work placement with the Special Collections team at Newcastle University Library. The main focus of this placement was to research and develop a temporary exhibition showcasing some of the archival material held in Special Collections.

This year marks the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which granted some women the right to vote in this country for the very first time, and we decided to take this as our inspiration for the exhibition. Entitled, ‘The North’s Forgotten Female Reformers’, the exhibition celebrates the involvement of Northern women in movements which fought for various causes, including female suffrage, education, homosexual equality and foreign policy.

Researching the exhibition has allowed us to explore a range of archives held in Special Collections but to begin our research, we read some of the printed pamphlets contained in the Cowen (Joseph) Tracts to provide some context and understanding of the attitudes the British public had regarding women’s suffrage and their place in society. Whilst looking for one particular pamphlet entitled, ‘Mr Mill’s Subjection of Women’, we made an interesting and unexpected discovery.  Nestled in the first page of this pamphlet – perhaps to mark the page – was a receipt for a cheque for one guinea made out to the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage (LNSWS) from Joseph Cowen himself.

‘Mr Mill’s Subjection of Women’ (Cowen Tracts, V.40 n.2)

The LNSWS was formed in 1867 and was one of the earliest Suffrage societies. Cowen is remembered as a well-known politician and MP for Newcastle upon Tyne who was interested in the social, educational, economic and political issues of his day. The discovery of his cheque is tangible evidence that he was an active supporter of women’s suffrage.  The discovery of this item in a volume of Tracts adds further significance, as this collection of  tracts was Cowen’s own collection of pamphlets and articles which reflected his personal interest in the social, educational, political and economic issues of the day, including foreign policy, women’s rights, religion, education and public health.

Cowen’s cheque can be seen in the exhibition, ‘The North’s Forgotten Female Reformers’, curated by the two Museum and Gallery Studies students, alongside many other treasures from Newcastle University’s Special Collections and Archives. The exhibition is on show on Level 2 of the Robinson Library from Monday 6th of August.

Written by two Art Gallery, Museum and Heritage Studies Masters students, Katie Cumming and Mariance Spence, whilst undertaking a 6 week placement to create ‘The Norths Forgotten Female Reformers’ exhibition.

The Sopwith Diaries

Newcastle University Library Special Collections and Archive hold the Thomas Sopwith Diaries covering the period 1828-1879.

Thomas Sopwith (1803-1879), as well as being a successful engineer who contributed extensively to the Victorian railway and mining industries, Thomas Sopwith was the author of a set of diaries that now live in the Special Collections archives.

Born in Newcastle in 1803, Sopwith discovered his love of writing as a teenager, and from the age of 18 kept a careful account of his every move in a series of pocket-sized hardback diaries. With only a few breaks, at times when he was really busy, he continued to write for the next 58 years, creating 168 volumes in total.

Sopwith was passionate about his work, and his dairies are a fastidious account of his meetings, projects and professional engagements. From 1845 to 1871 he was the chief agent of Allenheads lead mines in Durham and felt it would be imprudent to discuss the finer points of his role, reserving his diaries for more personal news.

Before his move to Allenheads, however, he worked as a kind of engineer-about-town, surveying railways, giving evidence in mining enquiries and touring the country with his renowned 3D models of the Forest of Dean coalfields. And documenting it all in often absurd levels of detail in his diaries.

One of the most striking things about the diaries is the sheer number of prominent Victorian figures who make an appearance. Sopwith was good friends with William Armstrong and George and Robert Stephenson and must have known nearly all the major names in science and engineering at the time. One week he might be staying with the Brunel family, the next he’d be dining with the King of Belgium, before travelling round the Norwegian fjords with Robert Stephenson. Sopwith was full of praise for almost everyone he knew and was a man who really valued his friendships.

Page from Sopwith’s diary dated April 1828 (Thomas Sopwith Diaries, TS/1/1)

When he wasn’t hobnobbing with the great and the good, Sopwith spent time at home with his large family. Married three times and widowed twice, Sopwith had eight children (two died in infancy) and doted on them all. His wayward eldest son Jacob caused him a great deal of worry and – spoiler alert – the diaries contain a fair few deaths, often prompting pages of reflection by Sopwith on religion and fate.

Many of his descendants went on to prominent careers themselves; one daughter married an MP, one grandson became the Archdeacon of Canterbury and another was an aircraft designer whose son was a racing car driver.

The diaries are littered with pencil and watercolour sketches and Sopwith often pasted in newspaper cuttings or even a menu from a banquet he attended in Belgium. The handwriting is immaculate and Sopwith’s use of symbols for days of the week, abbreviations and explanatory diagrams shows his love of efficiency.


Page from diary dated 24th April 1828, depicting a watercolour sketch of Abbotsford (Thomas Sopwith Diaries, TS/1/1)

Sopwith’s diaries also give a charming account of middle-class life in Victorian Newcastle. Sopwith was a frequent guest at Mr Donkin’s dinner parties in Jesmond and in the 1840s lived in a house he had had built on St Mary’s Place, nowadays part of Lloyds Bank. He maintained an interest in his family’s furniture-making business and was most indignant to discover that a railway viaduct was to be built right next to his workshop on Painter Heugh, blocking the natural light – a rare case of opposition to the railways.

Pedantic to the extreme, Sopwith’s exacting nature seeps through the pages of his diary in a surprisingly charming manner. From the intricate contents pages and indexes of the volumes themselves to his use of a telescope to make sure the children at Allenheads school turned up on time, Sopwith was nothing if not meticulous.

Index to the notebooks from no.1-no.33, 1829-1842 (Thomas Sopwith Diaries, TS/1/1)

Why did Sopwith keep such detailed diaries? He seems to have really enjoyed the process of recording and reflecting on his daily activities, and frequently mentions his joy in re-reading old passages and remembering old friends.

The diaries are so detailed that it’s hard not to get sucked in to the soap opera of Sopwith’s life. The sometimes dry accounts of his engineering work and academic interests – one diary includes a 13 page report from a lecture on fattening cattle – is always balanced with anecdotes from his family life or his fussy musings on the state of modern society.

Reading the whole set of diaries might be a tall order, but dipping into a volume or two opens up a window onto one of Victorian Newcastle’s most notable figures.

Written by special guest, Mark Sleightholm

Janet – March 2018

Stored in the Bloodaxe archive in the Robinson Library there is a note written in the margins of the manuscript of Ken Smith’s poetry collection, ‘The Poet Reclining’ from 1977, one of Bloodaxe Book’s first publications:

‘pity Janet, you’ve done it again!’

References to ‘Janet’ continue to appear frequently in the editorial marginalia, minutes and notes. As part of her practice-based PhD research, Kate Sweeney has decided to build a ‘Janet’ – from traces of administration ephemera found in the archive. An amalgamated, chimerical idea of a ‘Janet’ from paper. From the margins, notes and minutes, but mainly from the post-its – a part of the archive and Apart from the archive – much like Janet herself…

‘Treasure of the Month’

This month’s treasure is Janet. Janet seeps through on post-its pressed upon other people. A part and apart, her stickiness is temporary, her yellow glow fleets over faces. She is deeply disposable unless undetected – then, she slips off her sheet, off her box and into the archive…

Image: Post-it note attached to material in The Bloodaxe Archive, contained in BXB/4/5/1 and stored in Special Collections at The Robinson Library.

Special Guest Blog: History of the Courier


As the voice of Newcastle University students, The Courier has always been an expression of student news, views, and opinions relating to campus life and how the University operates.

The Courier archive has been digitised and you can now search and browse over 65 years of reporting from the first edition in 1948, when the University was still known as King’s College. View the Courier Archive online.

Courier alumni Mark Sleightholm has begun documenting the history of our student newspaper on a dedicated Courier History site. This gives a fascinating insight into reporting trends, recurrent stories and issues, and profiles of the different sections through the ages.

In this Courier guest blog series, we have added to this site’s content and illustrated it with images from the digitised Courier archive.

We are kicking off this Courier guest blog series with:

1948-55 The early years

In 1948 what is now Newcastle University was known as King’s College and formed part of the federal University of Durham. Early in the year several Durham students established the Palatinate newspaper, and in October one member of the editorial team, Allan Marsh, decided to set up a paper for the Newcastle campus. Anyone was invited to help produce the paper, “regularly or spasmodically”, while Stuart Shaw was appointed editor. The first issue of King’s Courier came out on 18 November.

First issue of the Courier, 18th November 1948

First issue of the Courier, 18th November 1948

The early papers were generally eight pages long and came out once a fortnight. They focussed on such riveting topics as meetings of student societies and the opening of new buildings on campus, but also reported on University sports matches and reviewed books, art, theatre and – on some daring occasions – films and music.

New Science Block drawing, 14th December 1948

New Science Block drawing, 14th December 1948


Film criticism, 19th May 1949

Film criticism, 19th May 1949

There were few photographs, although there was generally at least one on the front page, and several cartoons and illustrations, drawn by Courier staff, appeared, alongside an occasional crossword.

'HECTOR and NECTAR' cartoon, 3rd November 1949

‘HECTOR and NECTAR’ cartoon, 3rd November 1949

There was humour, too – for 1952’s Christmas issue the staff produced a four page supplement called King’s Scrouier, which parodied many of the Courier‘s contemporary news stories, reviews and even adverts.

The King's Scrouier, 16th December 1952

The King’s Scrouier, 16th December 1952

The letters page became a forum for discussion, with some debates continuing for months. Particular controversy came in 1953 with a series of articles by Stanley Brodwin, an American student at King’s, and an aspiring playwright. His candid style and criticisms of British customs prompted fierce replies in the letters page, with his plays attracting similar outrage.

'I'll dig you later in the U.S.A.' by Stanley Brodwin, Friday 16th October 1953

‘I’ll dig you later in the U.S.A.’ by Stanley Brodwin, Friday 16th October 1953

At this point the students’ union was split between two institutions: the Students’ Representative Council, which dealt with politics, representation and societies, and the Union itself, run by the Union Management Committee, which ran the union building and organised social events. The Courier was overseen, and eventually funded, by the SRC, but was always (at least in theory) editorially independent of both SRC and Union.

You can read the next instalment in this series ‘Courier 1955-62, Changing Directions’ here.

Special Guest Blog – The Great North Museum: Hancock Library

Interested in using archives and rare books? Newcastle University Library’s Special Collections isn’t the only local resource with rich unique and distinctive material to support original research.

In this guest blog, our heritage partners shine a light on their collections.

Great North Museum: Hancock Library

The Great North Museum: Hancock has a unique Library that is located on the second floor of the Museum.  It is open to everyone and free to use and the collections contain a wealth of fascinating information on the history, natural history and archaeology of the northern region and beyond.

It is a fantastic resource for Newcastle University students and anyone else who would like to pay us a visit.

The Great North Museum: Hancock Library has four unique collections that were brought together under one roof when it opened in 2009. Further information about these are as follows:

The Library of the Natural History Society of Northumbria

The Natural History Society of Northumbria was established in 1829 and the Library has been housed in the museum since it was opened in 1884. It contains one of the largest collections of specialist natural history material in northern England. The collection focuses on the wildlife of the northern region and contains over 10, 000 books and around 500 journal titles.

It has books on zoology, botany, ornithology, geology, biodiversity and ecology. It contains the entire Collins New Naturalist series.

A wide range of rare and important books form part of the collection, including first editions of books published in the 16th – 18th centuries. Some examples of these include William Turner’s “A New Herbal” published in 1551, and Pierre Belon’s early ornithological work “Histoire de la nature des oyseaux” published in 1555. The library is also proud to possess a first edition of Charles Darwin’s seminal work “On the origin of species”.   One of the strengths of the collection is the beautiful images contained in a number of books, including Edward Lear’s ”Illustrations of parrots” published in 1832.

Natural History Society of Northumbria Archive

The archives hold the Society’s own records dating from its foundation in 1829, including the history of the Hancock Museum.  Also available are manuscript letters, diaries, notebooks and other material relating to renowned northern naturalists such as Abel Chapman.  A nationally important and unique collection of original watercolours, drawings and proof engravings by the famous wood engraver and naturalist Thomas Bewick form a key part of the collection.

The collection contains many impressive images of the natural world, including beautiful watercolour drawings of British and foreign shells by the local artist George Gibsone.

The archive material is available to view by appointment only. Please contact the Library for details of how to do this.

Further information about the NHSN Library and Archives can be found by using the following link


Cowen Library

The library of Newcastle University’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology is named after John D Cowen, an eminent amateur archaeologist who donated his personal library to the University in 1976.  The collection was moved to the Great North Museum: Hancock Library in 2009 and consists of around 9000 books and a range of specialist journals. The main subject areas include archaeology, ancient history and classics. Areas of particular strength are Roman Britain, local archaeology,   archaeological history and methodology and the Byzantine Empire.

Also available are a wide range of archaeological excavation reports and books on all aspects of Hadrian’s Wall and other regional antiquities. The library contains material from the 18th century to the current day, including a first edition of John Warburton’s “Vallum Romanum” published in 1753.

This impressive collection is complemented by the Library of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne.


Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne Library

The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon TYNE is the oldest provincial society of its kind in the UK. Established in 1813 the Library of the Society is a wonderful resource for anyone with an interest in the history and antiquities of the northern region. The Library contains 10.000 books, 300 journal titles and 1700 tracts on local history, architecture and archaeology with a particularly strong collection of material on Hadrian’s Wall and Roman Britain.  The Library has many books dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries and includes treasures such as Henry Bourne’s “The History of Newcastle” published in 1736,

And the 19th century Newcastle artist Joseph Crawhall’s beautifully illustrated “Chap book Chaplets” published in 1883.

Primary source material including local directories and Poll Books dating back to the late 18th Century can also be viewed.

Further information about the Society’s Library can be found at the following link


A great place to study

The Great North Museum: Hancock Library is a terrific place to study, especially for Newcastle University students.   Full details of all the books and journals are available on the University’s online catalogue, Library Search

There is a dedicated online catalogue in the Library, as well as three computers that can be used by Newcastle University students to access their accounts. The University’s wifi service is available as well as a free public wifi service.

The Library is open during term time from 10 – 4, Monday to Friday and on the same days during vacations from 1 – 4.

We hope to see you at the Great North Museum: Hancock Library – please drop in when you get the chance.

Books We Forgot to Remember: the radical tradition in British children’s literature of the early twentieth century

A student-curated exhibition based on work for a module on Radical Children’s Literature of the Early Twentieth Century. Curated by Rebecca Goor and Sam Summers, June 2014.

Photograph of a member of the SA throws confiscated books into the bonfire during the public burning of "un-German" books on the Opernplatz in Berlin.
A member of the SA throws confiscated books into the bonfire during the public burning of “un-German” books on the Opernplatz in Berlin (image not from Newcastle University Library Special Collections and Archives)

The period between 1900 and 1949 is one curiously overlooked when it comes to the history of children’s literature. It has been viewed as ‘an age of brass between two of gold’, referring to the two so-called golden ages of Victorian children’s literature that began with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and post World War II writing by figures such as Alan Garner, William Mayne, Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Norton. Books from this period have drawn criticism for their apparent ignorance of the changes occurring in the world around them, and for refusing to widen their focus beyond carefree middle-class children at a time when the struggles of the working class were increasingly a concern.

The writers and illustrators featured in this exhibition, however, were responsible for texts which, while not as well-known as the more conservative works of the period, tackled controversial themes, endorsed radical political views and thrived on aesthetic innovation.

Reproduction of a tipped-in colour plate by Gwynedd M. Hudson, showing Alice with the Caterpillar sat on a toadstool.
Reproduction of a tipped-in colour plate by Gwynedd M. Hudson from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1922) [20th Century Collection, 20th C. Coll 823.8 CAR]

The early twentieth century was a time of landmark political, military and social events which changed both Britain and the world at large forever. Two world wars, the depression, and the end of empire dislodged the United Kingdom from its seat of global power, and confronted the public with an acute awareness of the horrors humankind was capable of inflicting upon itself. At the same time, left-wing political ideals were gaining momentum with both the advent of communism in Russia and the steady rise of socialism in Britain.

In the wake of these large-scale cultural shifts, radical authors created a body of literature which challenged earlier notions of what a children’s book could be. They depicted a more diverse range of characters than the typical white, middle-class children of their predecessors, while also engaging their readers politically. Their books were more socially aware than those that had come before, challenging authority and questioning the dominant views of the day rather than deferring to them. Meanwhile, writers and illustrators whose work was not as thematically radical as some of their contemporaries were nonetheless creating aesthetically innovative books, with some incorporating modernist techniques into their writing and others displaying the influence of avant-garde movements in their artwork. The goal of many of these creators was to provoke change, by encouraging young readers to act on the ideas raised in their books to secure the future of the next generation of leaders and artists.

This exhibition highlights work from across the spectrum of radical children’s literature. It is divided into four sections: ‘Reacting to War’, ‘The Soviet Effect’, ‘Real Lives’ and ‘Artistic Innovation’. The examples are a reminder that across this time of cultural upheaval some children’s writers and illustrators were helping to prepare young readers to help bring about what they believed would be a more just, equitable, healthy and rewarding world for all.

Reacting to war

During the fifty year time period that this exhibition covers, war played a huge part in changing the social and political landscape not only in Britain but worldwide. Whilst the First World War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939-1945) were undoubtedly the largest conflicts during this period, other crises such as the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) contributed to the atmosphere of political instability. The relationship between war and Western children’s literature is often remembered as one that saw books inspire young readers to support the war effort by presenting life in the military as heroic and adventurous. However, as this exhibition aims to show, there were alternative works of children’s fiction between 1900 and 1949 that treated child readers as agents of political change, rather than as cogs in the war machine.

Many of the radical texts of this period were influenced by Socialist ideas, but other pacifist publications included those circulated by the religious group the Quakers and by progressive schools that believed in empowering children by inspiring leadership skills and independent thought. Whilst the left-wing literature movement in Britain was not strictly organised and consisted of various strands, some publications had significant followings; The Left Book Club, created by Socialist publisher Victor Gollancz, had a readership of 20,000 in 1936, increasing to 57,000 in 1939. The Junior Left Book Club encouraged children to read Socialist literature, demonstrating the power that reading held in inspiring new ideas in the younger generation.

The four texts in this section include a non-fictional pamphlet, illustrated stories and even a rule-book for toy war games, demonstrating the range of opposition to militaristic children’s literature from this period, much of which has been forgotten in history. The earliest text of the collection, Little Wars (1913) by H.G. Wells, draws upon the child’s instinct to play to oppose militaristic values and expose the horrors of war. 20 Years After (1934) is a non-fictional pamphlet, providing a realistic depiction of the death and destruction caused by war, helping to counteract heroic, militaristic children’s stories that sentimentalise war.

The collection also features two American publications, which show that anti-war messages were being communicated in America as well as in Britain. Johnny Get Your Gun (1936), the title of which plays upon the call often used in battle to rally troops, exposes the human costs of war through the paralysation of its soldier protagonist. The Story of Ferdinand (1936) carries a similar pacifist message, and despite its specific relevance to the Spanish Civil War, it extols opposition to fascism, which led to the book being burned by the Nazis. The range of texts in this exhibition exemplify the work of radical writers during this period that opposed the use of children’s literature for wartime propaganda, informing child readers about the horrors of war and presenting pacifism as a heroic alternative to militarisation.

Putting a stop to war games

Little Wars (first published 1913) by H.G. Wells is a set of rules for a table-top war game for children. Often considered the first popular handbook for war gaming in the English language, it can be said to have prefigured the later rise in miniature gaming and role-play, and even more recent developments in digital military games such as Call of Duty. The game includes rules for deployment, combat, movement and objectives, each of which is described in detail. The book’s full title is Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books. Whilst this title reveals the book to be a product of its time in terms of gender stereotypes, Little Wars was radical during the time of its production due to its pacifist stance and universal message.

Front cover of Little Wars.
Front cover of Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundres and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girls who likes ‘boys’ games and books. [Butler (Joan) Collection, Butler 793 WEL]

The book discusses the ‘death’ and ‘blood’ involved in warfare, but it does so as a way of opposing large-scale war in the real world. Wells distinguishes between the make-believe of the game and the reality of warfare asking, ‘How much better is this amiable miniature than the Real Thing?’ He capitalises on children’s instinct to play and compete in order to deliver his pacifist message, though the wide age range established in the full title suggests that these lessons were addressed to an adult audience.

H.G. Wells was an outspoken socialist and sympathetic to pacifist views, and this is reflected in much of his work for both adults and children. Paradoxically, Wells eventually supported British involvement in the First World War on the grounds that it

would be “The War That Will End War”. In other words, he felt it was necessary to resolve a range of tensions and areas of competition in order to create long-lasting peace and unity.

Wells’ socialist outlook as well as his then opposition to war is apparent in Little Wars. The game instructs players to use inexpensive materials, meaning that the book is suitable for children from all social and economic backgrounds. Little Wars, along with its predecessor Floor Games (1911), which similarly provided cheap role-playing games for boys and girls, widened the audience for children’s literature and toys, the majority of which still had a strong middle-class focus during the early twentieth-century. The universal message of the text suggests that in order to overcome militaristic and imperialistic values, people of all social classes must work together to create a more just society.

Like other texts in this section, Little Wars does not construct war as heroic but rather highlights the gore and suffering caused by warfare. Wells combines playful storytelling, hands-on play and a serious message to provide young boys (and possibly girls) with an opportunity to satisfy their competitive streaks without being manipulated into sacrificing themselves to the true horrors of war. Considered in hindsight alongside the horrific trench warfare that was to begin a year after the publication of Little Wars, the text is poignant in its attempt to educate potential soldiers about the truth behind the fictionalisation of war.

Image of H.G. Wells playing with an indoor war game.
‘H.G. Wells playing with an indoor war game’ from Illustrated London News, January 1913 [19th Century Collection, 19th C. Coll 030 ILL]

This image (above) was taken from a news article about the book with the caption ‘H.G. Wells, the English novelist, playing an indoor war game’. It shows Wells, a famous and respected literary figure, reduced to the level of his juvenile readers, reflecting his desire to educate them on their own terms.

Exposing the truth behind World War I

20 Years After! (London: Marston Printing Co., 1934) is a left-wing propagandist pamphlet written twenty years after the start of World War I and in the shadow of what was to become World War II. It exposes the largely unreported aspects of the first global conflict and rails against the injustice of the capitalist system in which a few individuals profited from the war to the detriment of the suffering masses. Socialist in outlook, the pamphlet was produced by the Youth Council of the British Anti-War Movement and distributed amongst left-wing groups with the aim of encouraging adolescent readers to oppose future war and fight against fascism.        

The pamphlet attempts to engage young readers politically with its critiques of capitalism and fascism. It claims to expose ‘the real story’ of war and suggests the British Government is concealing the truth. Using facts and statistics to verify its claims, it tells a story of capitalists benefitting from industries facilitated by war whilst thousands lost their lives and suffered. These facts are simple to read, making the pamphlet accessible to the youth of all social classes, even those who were not experienced readers. Furthermore, 20 Years After! includes horrific photographic images that document the realities of war. One photograph features the mutilated face of a soldier and so underlines the shocking physical suffering and life-time disfigurement caused by the war. As a whole it suggests that readers would do better to band against war than to enlist.

The pamphlet gives the example of the USSR and its First Five-Year Plan as a way to counter war and fascism. Readers are told that the USSR has happier workers because of the increase in wages and investment in farming and therefore has no need for war. The implication is that following the USSR’s example would encourage peace. Furthermore, opposing fascism and war is portrayed as an international effort, through examples of other foreign congresses such as the Paris Youth conference in 1933. The pamphlet encourages British youths to become part of a worldwide pacifist movement, and urges them to understand that young people can influence the future of the world.

The pamphlet was published in 1934 and sold prior to the Sheffield Youth Congress with the aim of encouraging young people to join the anti-war movement. The realistic image of the tank reflects the aim of the pamphlet to expose the ‘real’ story and human costs of war.

The final page of the 20 Years After pamphlet invites child readers to become actively involved in pacifism by signing up to the anti-war movement. This approach is reflected in other radical children’s literature, in which the child is treated as an agent of change rather than a vessel for adult ideas.

Peace in the face of Fascism

Written in less than an hour by American author Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, The Story of Ferdinand (1936) remains one of the world’s best-loved children’s books. Before beginning his career as a children’s author – during which he wrote over 40 books – Leaf worked as a secondary school teacher in schools that were part of a progressive, student-centred form of education that encouraged leadership skills and independent thinking. Later, Leaf gave ‘Chalk Talks’ in schools across America, including lectures about world peace. Of all his activities it was this work of children’s fiction that provided the strongest and most enduring pacifist message. 

Front cover of The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf.
Front cover of Leaf, Munro. The Story of Ferdinand. (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1936)

At a time when much children’s literature served as war propaganda, The Story of Ferdinand features Ferdinand, a bull who refuses to fight in the bull ring. Although written during the escalating violence that lead to the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939), Leaf’s pacifist message has a more universal significance and was burned by the Nazis due to its anti-fascist sentiments. The story’s peaceful yet rebellious hero, Ferdinand, prefers to sit alone and smell flowers rather than fight with his fellow bulls. When he sits on a bee however, Ferdinand startled reaction is mistaken for aggression and his is taken to Madrid to be the star of the bull ring. The illustration of the bull-ring parade, with its flags and music, clearly references the collective passions associated with war rallies.  Ferdinand challenges militaristic and masculine values when he refuses to fight in the ring, angering the Matador, whose thirst for blood is caricatured. Ferdinand’s gentle nature prevails, and at the end of the book he is able to return to his mother, and the flowers that he loves. Munro Leaf’s use of a bull – typically a more violent animal than those usually featuring in less radical children’s fiction – creates a challenge to authority that encourages child readers to obey their own instincts rather than blindly follow wartime hysteria.

Robert Lawson’s illustrations are perhaps surprising for a children’s book, as the realistic black-and-white images lack the sentimentality associated with much children’s literature. In particular, the use of vultures creates a motif of death throughout the story that is not discussed in the textual content. The images provide greater depth to the narrative, whilst the discussion of such serious issues within children’s literature does not patronise children or shield them from reality. This radical text remains popular worldwide due to its universal celebration of peace and individuality.

The red front cover provides the only use of colour in this otherwise black and white text. In the later Disney adaptation of The Story of Ferdinand, the use of red survived, helping the cover to achieve international status as a pacifist symbol.

Pages from The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf.
Pages from Leaf, Munro. The Story of Ferdinand. (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1936)

This image (above) exemplifies the wider motif of vultures throughout the text: something that is not discussed in the actual words of the story. Placing Ferdinand next to a height chart, with a vulture closely watching, explores the theme of death in a franker way than more conservative children’s literature. It is perhaps significant that Ferdinand avoids the final stage of death by refusing to fight in a military-like way.

Pushing past the propaganda

Johnny Got His Gun is an anti-war novel written for children over the age of 12 in 1938 when the approach of World War II was giving rise to widespread propaganda designed to persuade young men to enlist to fight for their country. The novel contrasts dramatically with more traditional pro-war children’s literature that has for long been associated with youthful enlistment. Dalton Trumbo’s radical – and powerful – novel questions the convention that soldiers are fighting for freedom. It also questions related constructions of liberty and the tendency to characterise the First World War as a game of ‘follow the leader’.

Front cover of Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo.
Front cover of Trumbo, Dalton. Johnny Got His Gun. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Williams, 1938)

Johnny was radical as it challenged established ways of depicting war and military service and so undermined the conventions of traditional war stories for children. In such books men (and boys) who went to war were put on a pedestal and treated as heroic figures. Trumbo, however, opposes this image of a valiant figure fighting the enemy and instead confronts readers with the figure of Joe Bonham, who has had his arms and legs amputated and his face blown off on a WWI battlefield. His helplessness is reminiscent of a baby’s vulnerability, which contrasts with the strong and powerful image of men as depicted on propagandist posters. Trumbo wanted to represent the realities and horrors of war to prevent his young readers blindly following the previous generation to the front line. Like WWI, which saw many under age youths become soldiers, the novel blurs the division between childhood and adulthood by exposing young readers to the grim realities of war. As readers of this novel, they are treated as socially significant and rational beings, capable of deciding whether or not to join the war effort on their own.

Trumbo is far from subtle in his suggestion that fighting for freedom is a lost cause. Joe is anything but free in the novel, epitomising the ultimate enslaved man as he is trapped within his own body. He is unable to talk, walk, or even move; his injuries have made his body as helpless as a baby’s but he has the frustrated mind of a grown man. Joe’s injuries are extreme because Joe embodies the collective injuries of all of the soldiers. Surviving the war with injuries is presented as a fate worse than death. This highlights Trumbo’s views on the destructiveness of war. A soldier might never come home, or might come home injured, but neither situation conforms to the glamorised fantasy of war provided by propaganda.Throughout the text Trumbo contrasts the fantasy of war with the harsh reality of its horrors. Joe had a family and a lover waiting for him at home, as did so many other soldiers. There is no home or future for him on his return. This moving way of illustrating the consequences of war for many soldiers drives home the extent to which large numbers of people were devastated by the terrors and tragedy wreaked by World War I. In conveying his opposition to war in its every facet so unflinchingly, Trumbo breaks the conventions of war stories and encourages readers to think about the realities of war rather than accepting the myths generated around it.

The simplicity of the front cover reflects the book’s frank treatment of the injuries sustained by soldiers at war. Unlike government propaganda released around the time of the book’s publication in 1938, there are no images of heroic men to pressurise readers into sacrificing themselves to the war effort.

The Soviet effect

Between the two world wars, those involved in creating radical children’s literature were keen to engage young readers with the vast social experiment that was taking place in Soviet Russia. If it succeeded they believed the new social model being piloted there would offer a cure for the booms, busts and inequities of capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy that had disenfranchised and oppressed huge numbers of people around the world, and which many blamed for the series of wars that had punctuated the first decades of the twentieth century.  Radical children’s books treated events in the USSR as “The most exciting adventure in the history of the world” (An Outline for Boys and Girls and Their Parents, 1932) and depicted the emerging Soviet society as an ideal world in the making where children, childhood and youth were valued and given important roles.

There were two principal ways in which radical children’s books introduced young readers to images of the Soviet Union. The first was through novels and fictionalised travel-writing by Anglo-American writers; the second was by translating and publishing some of the highly innovative picturebooks that had been published in the USSR.  The six texts in this section represent both forms. Geoffrey Trease’s Red Comet: A tale of travel in the U.S.S.R. (1936) was written during a five-month residency in that country. Like Marjorie Fischer’s Palaces on Monday (1936), Trease’s novel features two children from the Depression-era West who have the opportunity to travel across the USSR. They visit parks of recreation and culture with their impressive facilities for children and admire the new ways of working and organising society. Both books are particularly concerned to tell their young readers about the egalitarian nature of Soviet society: divisions based on wealth, class, sex, race, ethnicity and even age are shown to be things of the past. Pearl Binder’s Russian Families (1942) also features many different aspects of the Soviet Union and gives an optimistic vision of how those who had previously been oppressed – peasants, women, and ethnic minorities – are thriving and contributing to their new nation.

Picturebooks from the Soviet Union were remarkable for their stylistic and artistic innovation. Most of those translated for British children were written by Samuil Marshak and illustrated by Vladimir Lebedev. Yesterday and Today (1925) develops one of the themes most popular with the Soviet authorities. It compares the old-fashioned way Soviet citizens were living just a short time ago with the modern lifestyles achieved under the First Five-Year Plan. The Circus (1925), presented as a series of posters featuring different acts and artists, emphasises the dynamic and internationalist ethos of Soviet society. The influence of these books in Britain is evident in the last book in the section, Peggy Hart’s The Magic of Coal (1945).

Although disillusion with the Soviet Union set in as information about the shortages, famines, show trials and purges of the Stalin years became known, these books recall a time when radical children’s books in Britain were invigorated by both the aspirations of Soviet society and the artistically exciting children’s books created during the first years of the Soviet regime.

Bringing Soviet styles to Britain

This 1945 Puffin picture book entitled The Magic of Coal is an example of a wave of non-fiction picture books which entered the UK market for children’s literature in the 1940s, thanks to the efforts of Noel Carrington and Penguin Books’s Allen Lane. Influenced by the new Soviet ‘production books’ (books that told young readers about how everyday items are made and celebrated workers), these texts concentrated on themes such as farming, mining and other industries. Production books were part of the offical Soviet strategy to educate children about the advantages of their new communist society and the valued place of workers in it; children were central to Soviet policy and there are many examples of children’s literature being used to establish a public base for policies and plans. The Magic of Coal is the British equivalent of a Soviet production book in its focus on how things are made, its heroic treatment of miners, and its representation of a modern society in which social divisions are being eradicated.

Front cover of The Magic of Coal, showing a coal miner holding a shovel with his tattoo of St. George defeating the dragon on his chest.
Front cover of Hart, Peggy M. The Magic of Coal

The Magic of Coal introduces readers to the admirably technical and industrious world of coal mining. It not only tells how coal is produced but makes miners emblems of Britain – note the tatoo depicting St. George and the Dragon on the chest of the miner who appears on the cover. In doing so, the text and its illustrations point towards the political goal of making Britain a less class-riven, more equal society. To this end the book focusses on the production process rather than around any one character. Each role within the mine is shown through illustrations and accompanying text, implying that there is something for everybody. Every individual has a skill set to offer in the production of coal and is a valuable cog in the machinery of the mine. A sense of a community at work is created, and when combined with impressionist illustrations of tiny black figures and miners whose faces are blurred or have their backs to the reader, this sense of community solidifies into the socialist theory of collectivism. There are no visible owners or bosses and so it seems that the miners are working not in the service of capitalism but independently, for the benefit of the nation.

Improvements to working conditions also feature in this book which represents mining as a clean, modern, technologically advanced industry. The text informs the reader that the miners can attend the ‘pitbaths’ after work and rather show miners not begrmed with coal but looking rather like an office worker. Mention is also made of miners’ lives outside of work which include membership of societies, theatre visits and higher education. The Story of Coal, then, shows miners as lynchpins in a coal-fueled modern society, but also as respectable citizens with good standards of living and a thirst for culture. Miners are as important as the ‘treasure’ they dig up.

Plain front cover of Red Comet: A tale of travel in the U.S.S.R.
Front cover of Trease, Geoffrey. Red Comet: A tale of travel in the U.S.S.R. (London: Martin Lawrence, 1937)

The battered state of the copy of Red Comet: A tale of travel in the U.S.S.R., which is missing its dust jacket, is typical. Few copies survive of either the 1936 edition published in the Soviet Union by the Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers or the UK and US editions that appeared the following year. The fact that it was first published in the Soviet Union no doubt contributed to the positive image of that country it paints.

Front cover of Palaces on Monday.
Front cover of Fischer, Marjorie. Palaces on Monday. (Harmondsworth: Puffin, 1944)

First published in the UK in 1937, the image here is of the Palaces on Monday, Puffin edition published towards the end of the Second World War. It shows the three children with their backs to readers as they stare at the approaching coast of the country which represents their future. While the book emphasises Soviet building programmes the skyline shows tradition onion-shaped domes and tall spires.

Pages from Russian Families, showing an illustration of a Russian family.
Pages from Binder, Pearl. Russian Families. (London: A & C Black, 1942)

Pearl Binder was closely tied to the Soviet Union and travelled there extensively. The illustrations in Russian Families, which she drew herself, give a sense of cheerful energy that matches her portrait of the country and its people.

Front cover of Yesterday and Today.
Front cover of Marshak, Samuil. Yesterday and Today. Illus, Vladimir Lebedev. Trans. Stephen Capus. (London: Tate, 2013)

The themes of this popular Yesterday and Today book capture the spirit of post-Revolutionary Russia. It celebrates ‘today’ in the form of the modern world while remembering the efforts of those who lived in the more difficult time represented as ‘yesterday’. The change is symbolised by the clothing and outdated objects of yesterday, drawn in black and white to contrast with the bright colours and modern equipment of today.

Front cover of The Circus and other Stories showing an illustration of a circus elephant.
Front cover of Marshak, Samuil. The Circus. Illus, Vladimir Lebedev. Trans. Stephen Capus. (London: Tate, 2013)

The images in The Circus book take the form of circus posters. Text and images both emphasise the international nature of the circus, with acts from many countries and people of different races and ethnicities all contributing to the performance.

Real lives

The first half of the twentieth-century is often considered to be a period of ‘retreatism’ in terms of children’s literature, and it is certainly the case that much mainstream children’s literature did maintain the status quo through its portrayal of white, middle-class families living comfortable lives unaffected by conflict or financial exigency. Radical texts, by contrast, acknowledged alternative ways of living and exposed child readers to poverty and the changing political landscape in Britain.

The period that this exhibition covers saw the emergence of the British welfare state, beginning with a basic National Health Service and Unemployment Insurance. The 1942 Beveridge Report, an enquiry into the best way to provide welfare in Britain, concluded that security should be provided for British people ‘from cradle to grave’. Legislation based on the report included The Butler Act of 1944, which referred to education, the 1945 Family Allowance Act and the 1948 National Health Act. Although social problems remained, these policies recognised the need to support working-class families and those living in poverty.

The earlier of the two texts in this section, The Children Who Lived in a Barn (1938), was written before the Beveridge Report and it demonstrates the need for increased governmental support through the analogy of incapable parents and adults who fail to provide for the children in the text. Child characters, on the other hand, are depicted as intelligent and self-sufficient. They show awareness of real-life issues such as money management, fear of eviction and loss of parents. By creating independent child characters, Eleanor Graham (the first editor of Puffin Books) foregrounds the role of the children’s writer as a figure that inspires children to engage with social problems and different ways of living, rather than one that aims to shield young readers from reality.

Whilst The Children Who Lived in a Barn exposes child readers to different characters than the middle-class protagonists often portrayed in children’s literature, Come In (1946) by Olive Dehn subtly raises questions about middle-class life and the consumer trend to build ‘ideal homes’. When asked to give an account of her day by her husband, who doesn’t understand why she complains about her life, Mrs Markham – a suburban housewife – tells a story of rigid routine, stress and dissatisfaction. Unlike in much children’s fiction, this picturebook does not present the middle-class home as a domestic ideal. By documenting the routine but demanding life of a middle-class housewife, Olive Dehn suggests that all is not well in suburbia. 

By exploring issues such as poverty, the role of the state and gender politics within children’s literature, these radical authors encouraged young readers to seek solutions to the problems facing modern Britons. They refused to protect child readers from reality, encouraging them to question the world around them and strive for progress. Within radical children’s texts, children become central to achieving social change, meaning that they must receive contemporary information about the society that they live in. As this exhibition shows, radical children’s books were a key source of such information.

An unconventional adventure

Eleanor Graham’s The Children Who Lived in a Barn was the first Puffin Story Book. Like most books from the increasingly respected Puffin imprint, Graham’s book rapidly reached a wide readership and was admired in its day.  Exciting and comic by turns, the story of the Dunnett children as they attempt to cope on their own after their parents’ disappearance is more than just a light-hearted adventure story. Graham fully describes the challenges her young characters face: being evicted, having to work and study and care for their new home (a barn) at the same time, and fending off social criticism and coming to terms with the increasingly distant possibility of their parents’ return. The story captures some of the tribulations of premature independence and heavy responsibility, themes that were shortly to come to prominence for many young evacuees in wartime Britain.

Colourful front cover of The Children Who Lived in a Barn.
Front cover of Graham, Eleanor. The Children Who Lived in a Barn. (London: Puffin, 1938)

The emphasis and insistence on the children’s independence is striking in the text. Adults, who in children’s books are generally portrayed as a force of stability and security, are here largely presented as destabilising factors and even threats. The village women and District Visitor who aim to send the children off to orphanages are depicted as nuisances, and the landlord who evicts them is the clear villain of the story. Even the parents are not spared from criticism; they missed their airplane because they were buying stamps, forcing them to take a non-commercial plane which crashes. Their actions initiate the children’s troubles.  It is in part due to such subversive thoughts that the book was published anew in 2001 by Persephone Books. In removing the original brightly illustrated cover and replacing it with a simple grey jacket, the new edition presents The Children Who Lived in a Barn as a modern text not just for children but for adults as well.

Whilst at first glance the cover of the text (see image above) is reminiscent of more conservative children’s fiction depicting tame countryside adventures, the children can be seen carrying their belongings as they begin to live unsupervised by parents. Even the youngest child, Alice, can be seen carrying pots and pans, emphasising the independence of the child.

A plain grey front cover of The Children Who Lived in a Barn.
Front cover of Graham, Eleanor. The Children Who Lived in a Barn. (London: Persephone, 2001)

The modern cover (published 2001) of the text is much simpler than the original and showcases the status of the text as an established classic that does not need flamboyant graphics. The seriousness of this cover also reflects the social message of the story and the potential for children’s writers to hold positions of authority in terms of child welfare.

The housewife speaks out

Olive Dehn’s superficially amiable book Come In (1946) in fact raises questions about the lives of suburban housewives and children in post-war Britain. The representation of a typical middle-class nuclear family in this picturebook emphasises some of the tribulations that came with being a mother at the time and the restraints on children’s ability to explore and experiment. Dehn was a life-long anarchist who lived a life very different from that of her characters.

Front cover of Come In
Front cover of Dehn, Olive. Come In. (Oxford: Shakespeare Head Press, 1946)

Come In follows Mrs Markham, the mother, who complains about her dull life and is asked by her husband (an actor) to write an account of her day, so that he ‘could read exactly how dull it was’ (p. 2). Throughout the day the reader bears witness to the unending list of chores and challenges that Mrs Markham undertakes. She is the cook, cleaner and nanny, and appropriately is illustrated wearing an apron, and a black and white outfit that resembles the traditional uniform worn by maids in earlier generations. The whole text is punctuated by illustrations of, and references to, clocks. These show how regulated Mrs Markham’s day is, implying a machine-like routine, though without the order expected of a mechanised environment.

Mrs Markham is permanently in demand, hardly gaining a minute’s peace, whether it’s because her children and husband are continuously asking ‘where’s Mummy?’ (p. 7), or, because the phone or door-bell is ringing, there is another chore to be done, or somebody has had a minor accident. Whilst perhaps suggesting to young readers that they should appreciate their mothers’ efforts, there is also a slightly satirical tone, which perhaps only the adult reader would detect. References such as: ‘it’s time somebody began to think about getting dinner ready’ (p. 13), seem to be a wink to the mothers reading, as if to say, ‘I wonder who that might be?’ The book’s penultimate image is of the artist, who Mr. Markham has invited to draw the events of the day. As she walks away from the sleeping household she lights a cigarette and the two actions give a sense of independence and escape that the mother cannot attain. There is also an implicit sense that just witnessing the day is stressful enough to make the artist require a cigarette at the end of it.

Dehn challenges the expectation that being a 1940s housewife was a happy and rewarding role, and encourages her readers, whether children or adults, to see that new ideologies around home-making and child-rearing were highly restrictive. Just as their mother’s life is controlled by routine so too the children are shown as governed by a schedule and confined within clearly delimited spaces. Come In is less of an invitation than a threat; such a critical view of domestic life was highly unusual in children’s books of the period and so Come In sows the seeds of change radical change at the domestic level.

Illustration of a mother's routine, showing an image of a clock, mother holding a baby, ironing, reading/writing and 2 x cups of tea.
Illustration from Dehn, Olive. Come In. (Oxford: Shakespeare Head Press, 1946)

The inclusion of clocks in many of the illustrations emphasises how regimented the mother’s routine is. She runs like clock-work in an automated fashion, enforcing the idea that her life is composed and dominated by the time and everyone else’s separate routines.

Artistic innovation

The beginning of the twentieth century saw an aesthetic shift in both literature and fine art, including works aimed at children. The widespread social and economic change brought on by the Industrial Revolution and the First World War led to a rejection of traditional artistic values, particularly the nineteenth-century penchant for realism, which modernists and others involved in avant-garde activities regarded as outdated, limited and false. The modernist movement in literature saw the rise to prominence of authors whose work experimented with literary form resulting in texts which questioned the conventions of what a book could and should be. In the art world, expressionism championed the subjective over the figurative while surrealism revelled in the fractured logic of dreams, each challenging the notion that art must represent the physical world naturalistically.

These attitudes and ideas were taken up by children’s writers and illustrators in the first half of the last century. While often fantastical in their plots and settings, the majority of children’s books of the first ‘golden age’ presented their material realistically, with earnest prose and representative artwork. There were significant exceptions (notably Lewis Carroll’s Alice books), but the radical books produced during the period covered in this exhibition saw children’s literature pushing aesthetic boundaries in ways not previously seen.

This section includes two picturebooks in which the illustrations reference modernist styles and movements. The Pirate Twins (1929) by William Nicholson and Blue Peter (1943) by the Polish émigré graphic artists who worked under the name Lewitt-Him incorporate elements of contemporary artistic movements including modernism, surrealism and expressionism. Both books play with the relationship between words and pictures in the manner of collage and sometimes giving rise to gaps and contradictions that open up new intellectual spaces in writing for children.

Also featured in this section is Stephen King-Hall’s collection Young Authors and Artists of 1935, a compilation of stories, poems, articles and artwork created by children themselves. In publishing the collection, King-Hall challenged the conventional relationship between the authors and readers of children’s literature, giving children free rein to write stories they would want to read rather than passively receiving work created by adults. Their work at times also displays modernist tendencies – which was in line with the modernists’ view that like primitive people children naturally saw the world in fresh and original ways. These three texts, then, together serve as an indication of the breadth of aesthetically innovative work being undertaken by those involved in producing radical children’s literature during the early twentieth century.

Silhouettes of Prince Achmed and a woman from The Adventures of Prince Adhmed.
Silhouettes from The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Dir. by Lotte Reiniger. (Comenius-Film, 1926)

Created by taking over 93,000 still photographs of her cardboard silhouette characters and tinting each frame with colour, Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest surviving animated feature film. Her experimental style and enormous ambition are typical of the innovative spirit of the era.

Illustration from Millions of Cats.
Illustration from Gág, Wanda. Millions of Cats. (New York: Coward-McCann, 1928)

One of the first modern picturebooks, Millions of Cats combined a simple, albeit surprising violent, narrative with fantastical images which blend the titular cats with the scenery to the point that they become difficult to distinguish.

Front cover of The Cat and the Devil.
Front cover of Joyce, James. The Cat and the Devil. (New York: Schocken, 1981)
Originally penned as a letter from Joyce to his grandson in 1936, The Cat and the Devil is a retelling of a French folk tale was posthumously published as a picture book first in 1964 and again in 1981. While the story is a straightforward fable, a far cry from the radical innovation of his adult-oriented work, this nonetheless shows a prominent modernist author interacting with the world of children’s literature.

Redrawing the picturebook

The Pirate Twins (1929) by English illustrator William Nicholson was among the first wave of children’s picture books to employ modernist artistic styles and experiment with the relationship between words and pictures.  Nicholson was a noted graphic artist, illustrator and engraver known for his visually innovative works; together his two picturebooks, The Pirate Twins and Clever Bill (1926), helped to change accepted ideas of what picturebooks could be. The Pirate Twins tells the story of Mary, who finds the titular twins on a beach, takes them home, and tries to teach them how  to behave, only to find that they have little interest in learning.

Front cover of The Pirate Twins, depicting the Pirate Twins on a yellow background.
Front cover of Nicholson, William. The Pirate Twins. (London: Faber & Faber, 1929)

Coming at a time when most picture books used illustrations decoratively rather than as part of the storytelling process, Nicholson’s books were innovative at the levels of both story and style. Neither its text nor its images can stand alone and thus turn what had been picture books into the interdependent picturebook in which words are incorporated into the pictures themselves, the colour of the text is changed to add emphasis to certain words, and the images sometimes depict important events unmentioned in the text. The Pirate Twins and Clever Bill demand a degree of interaction from their readers, asking them to read the words and the images in tandem and piece the story together themselves, rather than having it told to them in clear detail.

The portrayal of the anarchic, uncivilised twins hints at an anti-colonialist as well as a modernist agenda. Try as she might, Mary cannot ‘civilise’ the twins, and they eventually sail back to their home. This is seen as a happy ending, suggesting that people of other cultures cannot and should not be remoulded into the white British ‘ideal’. The twins’ spontaneity and original way of seeing the world also reflects modernist appreciation of ‘primitives’. 

Illustration from The Pirate Twins depicting the Pirate Twins alongside their friend Mary.
Illustration from Nicholson, William. The Pirate Twins. (London: Faber & Faber, 1929)

In this image, depicting the Pirate Twins alongside their friend Mary, highlights the stark difference in their depiction; the over-simplified, non-naturalistic aesthetic used to illustrate the twins marks them out as not only different but primitive when compared to the girl.

Illustrating inequality

Blue Peter uses a children’s picturebook to tell a tale of marginalised minorities at the time of its production during the World War II. Jan Lewitt and George Him were both Polish and Jewish, meaning that they had personal insights into the Nazi persecution of minority groups. The pair found themselves in London at the onset of war; there they discovered a network of artistic émigrés. Lewitt-Him as they styled themselves became known for their innovative use of strong colour, imaginative abstraction and symbolic surrealist graphics.

Front cover of Blue Peter.
Front cover of Lewitt-Him. Blue Peter. (London: Faber & Faber, 1943)

Their use of bold colour and minimalistic graphics can be seen in Blue Peter, as the titular dog is immediately recognisable as a minority through the visual contrast between the white fur of his mother and siblings and his own blue coat.  Since the colour of his fur also informs his name, there is a suggestion that his colour constructs his identity. His mother even tries to bleach him white through fear that he will not be accepted by their master. However, the characterisation of Peter as a loveable puppy allows the reader to sympathise with his plight, and as is true of several of the texts in this exhibition, individuality is celebrated rather than condemned. Sailor Jeff adopts the abandoned puppy, stating that he has ‘always wanted a blue dog’, and giving rise to a series of adventures that sees Blue Peter become a hero.

Lewitt-Him’s illustrations take an expressionist approach to conveying the emotions of their protagonist; that is, instead of presenting the reader with an objective reality, the images are distorted for sympathetic effect. For example, in addition to highlighting Peter’s otherness in relation to his fellow characters, his blue coat is shown to reflect his state of mind; he is sad, or indeed ‘blue’. For readers of the book it is significant that Peter is colourful while his surroundings and the other characters are rendered drained of colour and variety. Sailor Jeff stands out because his shirt is also coloured blue.

The book’s innovative use of modernist graphics and surrealist elements departs from both the didactic tendencies of some politically radical writing for children and conservative works which shied away from including experimental artwork. Nevertheless, a socialist ideology of acceptance and unity prevails in the text, whilst the use of a minority figure as a heroic protagonist encourages children to embrace their individuality and carries a deeper political message at a time when the fight against fascism was a daily reality.

Illustration of a mother dog with sleeping pups by her side and one pup which is coloured a pastel green colour from Blue Peter.
Illustration from Lewitt-Him. Blue Peter. (London: Faber & Faber, 1943)

The expressionist bent in Lewitt-Him’s illustrations can be seen in these images, with Peter’s blue colouring contrasting with his monochrome surroundings, reflecting both his emotional state and his position as an outsider.

Children write back

Stephen King-Hall’s Young Authors and Artists of 1935 is one of a very few examples of writing for children produced by children. The book is a collection of stories, poetry, articles, and illustrations written and created by children and collected by Stephen King-Hall, who at that time had been a presenter on the BBC’s current affairs program Children Hour for five years. At the beginning of the book, King-Hall writes a foreword explaining that in his capacity as Editor of MINE, a magazine for children, he was sent many stories, poems and other kinds of writing by his young readers. This volume comprises the works he saw as displaying the most talent.

Page from King-Hall, Stephen, ed. Young Authors and Artists of 1935, showing a clown holding a hoop with a pantomime horse.
Page from King-Hall, Stephen, ed. Young Authors and Artists of 1935. (London: C. Arthur Pearson, 1935)

King-Hall was a radical thinker who was involved in politics, standing as an independent MP between 1937 and 1945. His political interests may have affected his selection of material, but evidently at least some children too were interested in topical issues. This can be seen, for instance, in the piece entitled ‘The Ruin of the Countryside’ which laments the pollution of the English country and ends with a dystopian glimpse into what the future might look like if the lack of environmental concern continues. Such examples of socially engaged pieces in the collection encourage readers to be socially aware and forward-thinking, and also to write about these social concerns and to make a change in society themselves.

The child authors show themselves to be alert to the conventions associated with material usually classified as children’s literature. For instance, one contribution reworks the well-known story of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ so that instead of porridge the bears eat fruit salad and at the end of story the whole thing is dismissed as nonsense because, of course, ‘bears don’t talk’. This rejection of traditional stories as well as the privileging of children as makers of their own literature functions as a form of ‘writing-back’ on the part of the contributors.

The illustrations in Young Authors and Artists were also created by children and are expressive, diverse and engaging. They disregard romantic childhood images produced by adults — for example sweetly innocent children playing nicely in pastoral settings and often make use of unusual visual devices such as the white silhouette in ‘A Midnight Gallop’. Together the works in the volume show the young contributors to be actively engaged in thinking about the world around them and innovative in terms of how to represent it.

“A Midnight Gallop” (right) by an 11 year old girl contrasts the images of the foreground: the horse, bushes and the moon, with the dark background of the night. The polar opposite to a silhouette, these objects in the foreground are white instead of black.
‘A Midnight Gallop’ from King-Hall, Stephen, ed. Young Authors and Artists of 1935. (London: C. Arthur Pearson, 1935)

The piece “A Midnight Gallop” (right) by an 11 year old girl contrasts the images of the foreground: the horse, bushes and the moon, with the dark background of the night. The polar opposite to a silhouette, these objects in the foreground are white instead of black.


The following students on the module ‘Radical Children’s Literature of the Early Twentieth Century’ contributed research and content to this exhibition:

Isabel Ashton, Ruth Bader, Louise Bartlett, Olivia Bland, Roderick Briggs, Sarah Bryan, Charlotte Burt, Lucy Campbell-Woodward, Hannah Carty, Salome Choa, Phoebe Clark, Alice Commins, Sarah Cripps, Rachel Davidson, Louise Dubuisson, Georgina Forshaw, Amy Fox, Ruby Gullon, Emily Hattrick, Jack Hawkins, Clara Heathcock, Michael Holden, Hannah Hunter, Esther Knowles, Imogen Lepere, Charles Lynch, Caroline Mackrill, Kerry Marshall, Alice Medforth, Heather Nicol, Francesca Nuttall, Helen Overton, Lucy Pares, Catherine Parkinson, Rebecca Pratt, Constance Richardson, Emily Seymour, Jennifer Smethurst, Angela Stone, Sam Summers, Jennifer Thynne, Rebecca Goor