“A most exciting and perfectly wholesome tale”: children’s books from the National Society

In a collection that boasts a wide array of works owned by prelates, prime ministers, and monarchs, it is refreshing to come across items that bear witness to the lives of ordinary people. Nowhere is this quite as charming as the collection of National Society children’s books, recently added to the printed books catalogue.

The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church (known simply as the National Society) was founded in 1811 to provide popular religious instruction in line with the teachings of the Church of England. It originally aimed to teach children the Bible, Prayer Book, and Catechism, and the 3 ’R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic) by providing grants to rent schoolrooms in parishes.[1] The Archbishop of Canterbury was president of the Society, with numerous other bishops as vice-presidents.

The National Society would go on to become the largest single provider of popular education in England until the late 19th century.[2] Its earliest supporters were Anglican, and the Society was founded on the principle that national education should be founded on the national religion.

In 1845, the Society opened its own ‘Depository’, or publishing house to provide materials for students and trainee teachers in the Society’s new teacher training colleges.[3] This included a wide variety of children’s stories.

All of the storybooks in the collection at Lambeth were written by women, many of whom were intimately connected to the National Society’s aims to promote religious education in schools supported by the Church. One of them, Christabel Rose Coleridge, was even born in St Mark’s College in Chelsea, the first teacher training college, where her father, Derwent Coleridge, was principal. (Her grandfather was the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.)

C.R. Coleridge, Reuben Everett [1888] (NS/10/8/1/13)

She wrote numerous stories for both the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the National Society, and was also responsible for editing and publishing the correspondence of her friend, distant cousin, and fellow author of religious storybooks: Charlotte Mary Yonge.[4]

Charlotte M. Yonge, The Cook and the Captive (c. 1894) (NS/10/8/1/52)

Charlotte Yonge was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, with over 200 works to her name, and was an important lay voice in the Tractarian movement. She was a close friend of the priest and poet John Keble, who regularly edited her manuscripts and encouraged subtlety in her religious fiction, so as to avoid them becoming crude polemical texts. Even so, her stories frequently dwell on the Christian themes of self-sacrificial love, humility, and obedience. Yonge was also passionate about overseas mission, with the proceeds from her children’s stories going towards missionary efforts in Oceania and South Africa.[5]

A prominent female voice in Victorian religious life she may have been, but Yonge was naturally conservative in temperament and her promotion of girls’ education did not stem from modern notions of gender equality: ‘That there is this inequality there is no reasonable doubt,” she wrote in 1876. “A woman of the highest faculties is of course superior to a man of the lowest; but she never attains to anything like the powers of a man of the highest ability.”[6]

Each story is a fable that teaches children a particular Christian value. The moral of the story was made clear in the publisher’s catalogues, perhaps so that parents, Sunday School teachers, and other discerning adults could pick the book most suitable for the child. Other advertisements were wary of causing children unnecessary distress and promised that the stories had happy endings.

Many of these stories are works of historical fiction, reflecting the Society’s aim to provide not just religious education, but education more broadly. The two are taken hand in hand, such as in The Slaves of Sabinus, which is based on Tacitus’ account of Sabinus and Epponina’s rebellion against Vespasian. Their story is interweaved with the fictional story of two of their Jewish slaves, Edras and Edna, who eventually embrace the Christian faith.

Charlotte Yonge in particular was known for her historical works. In an address at Winchester High School for Girls in 1899 celebrating the foundation of the Charlotte Yonge Scholarship, the Bishop of Winchester (and later Archbishop of Canterbury), Randall Davidson, remarked that she succeeded in making readers “live again in the past”, and in so doing was “a unique blessing to the English people”.[7]

Charlotte M. Yonge’s The Slaves of Sabinus (c. 1890) is one of many National Society stories incorporating historical events. (NS/10/8/1/57)

The National Society also advertised special ‘Prize Books’ to be awarded to children for good behaviour. Not all of the books in the collection at Lambeth were from this special series, but many were still given as prizes. Decorative bookplates (many of which were specially printed by the National Society) show that many of these books were given as prizes by Sunday Schools, often for good attendance or knowledge of Scripture.

This highly decorative bookplate was printed by the National Society Depository, demonstrating their aim that their books should be given as prizes. This book was ‘awarded to Fred Messenger for Regularity and Punctuality, June 1900’. (NS/10/8/1/11)

Sunday Schools had developed alongside small, endowed charity schools to cater for the significant proportion of poor children who worked, teaching them to read and write, and the basic tenets of faith along denominational lines. After 1870, when the Education Act created a national framework for education, Sunday Schools focused more exclusively on religious instruction, and continued to attract high numbers of children.[8] A poll conducted in 1957 found that 90% of participants had attended Sunday School as a child, and 73% had attended regularly.[9] Purchasing prize books was no trivial expense: when Rev. A. Lawley took over at St. John’s Church, Hackney, he complained that prize books were little more than bribes, and the church was £3000 in debt from spending so much on treats and prizes for the Sunday School.[10]

In other cases, the books were given as Christmas presents. With handwritten inscriptions on their front endpapers, these two books offer small glimpses of their owners’ home lives.

Faith’s First Christmas, a short story anthology by Mary H. Debenham, was an ideal festive gift for a young child. Inscription reads: ‘Jane, from Father, Christmas 1906’. (NS/10/8/1/27)
Inscription reads: ‘Nellie Robinson. Xmas 1906. With love from Governess’. (NS/10/8/1/52)

These inscriptions also give clues about how long these books remained in circulation. This copy of Christabel Coleridge’s Reuben Everett was gifted to a boy named John by his uncle in 1938, a full fifty years after it was first published.

Inscription reads: ‘To my dear John, from Uncle Bill, 1938”. C.R. Coleridge’s Reuben Everett was gifted fifty years after it was first published in 1888. (NS/10/8/1/13)

As well as the entertainment and instruction offered by their contents, another important reason why these books made such good gifts/prizes was their highly decorative publisher’s bindings. Each volume has a unique cloth binding with colourful illustrations on the front cover and spine, often with added gilt text and decoration.

Mary Bramston, The Cat and the Cake (c. 1896) (NS/10/8/1/4)

The same illustrators were also responsible for producing full-page lithographic illustrations, usually between two and five per book. Two of the most regular illustrators in the collection were Charles Joseph Staniland – a prolific painter and illustrator who also illustrated works by Hans Christian Andersen and Walter Scott – and Walter S. Stacey, who among other things produced the illustrations for The Voice of Silence, Arthur Conan-Doyle’s first short story published in The Strand magazine.[11]

An engraved illustration by C.J. Staniland from Charlotte M. Yonge’s The Slaves of Sabinus (NS/10/8/1/57). ‘Really the book would be much better without the illustrations,’ wrote one unimpressed critic. ‘Such an effort as “Eponina appeals to Vespasian,” is really beyond all limits of tolerance.’[12]

So, did the children appreciate these gifts? The fact that this collection is in relatively good condition might suggest that these books rarely left the shelf. A few volumes do contain evidence that they were used by children, but not necessarily read. For example, NS/10/8/1/42, a copy of Frances M. Peard’s The Abbot’s Bridge (c. 1891), still has a flower pressed between its pages.

A flower – possibly a buttercup – pressed between the pages of The Abbot’s Bridge. (NS/10/8/1/42)

National Society books could also be used to store other keepsakes. This copy of Mary H. Debenham’s The Waterloo Lass contains a loose newspaper cutting from the Daily Mail from 1919 about the arrival of a baby King Penguin at Edinburgh Zoo.

Photo caption reads: “An unusual baby – The first baby King Penguin known to have been hatched in captivity taking a stroll with its mother at the Zoological Park, Edinburgh”. The facing plate is an illustration by Walter S. Stacey. (NS/10/8/1/19)

Whether these books were avidly read or not, they reveal a different side to the National Society’s operations away from its schools, and they offer colourful insights into late Victorian and Edwardian religious education.

[1] W.M. Jacob, Religious vitality in Victorian London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), p.263.

[2] Akira Iwashita, ‘Politics, state and Church: forming the National Society 1805-c.1818’, History of Education 47:1 (2018), p.1.

[3] Gordon Huelin, ‘Innovation: the National Society 1811-1934’ in Faith for the Future: essays on the Church in Education to mark 175 years of the National Society, ed. Graham Leonard and Joanna Yates (London: National Society; Church House Publishing, 1986), p.21.

[4] Cherry Durrant, ‘Coleridge, Derwent (1800-1883)’, ODNB (https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/5879, accessed 14/12/2022)

[5] Elisabeth Jay, ‘Yonge, Charlotte, Mary (1823-1901)’, ODNB (https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/37065, accessed 14/12/2022)

[6] Charlotte Mary Yonge, Womankind (New York: Macmillan, 1877), p.2.

[7] Lambeth Palace Library, Davidson 746, f.168.

[8] Jacob, Religious vitality in London, p.281.

[9] Clive Field, Secularization in the Long 1960s: numerating religion in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), p.86.

[10] Caitriona McCartney, ‘British Sunday Schools: an educational arm of the churches’ in Churches and education, ed. Morwenna Ludlow, Charlotte Methuen, and Andrew Spicer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), p.573.

[11] The Arthur Conan-Doyle Encyclopedia, ‘The Voice of Silence’ (https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/The_Voice_of_Science, accessed 20/12/2022)

[12] ‘Miss Yonge’s “Slaves of Sabinus”, The Spectator, 15 November 1890, p.42.