- Children’s Writing and the Popular Press in England 1876–1914
The relative powerlessness of the young is a sustained feature of European history. For the vast majority of children there was no reason to be attentive to, record, disseminate, make powerful or – importantly for historians – archive their words. Historians have noted since the late 1990s that it is analytically problematic to seek to understand the lives of the young solely through the representations of childhood penned by those who were distanced from their own youth.1 It is out of their critique that the present research grows. This article explores the meanings that children attached to the practice of writing and the literate selfhood that they articulated through a study of their contributions to ‘children’s columns’ published by English provincial popular newspapers between 1876 and 1914. By considering children’s interactions in these unique textual spaces, it is possible to rethink existing historiographical accounts of how writing became a mundane part of everyday life in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century England.
The benefits of integrating the experiences and beliefs of the young into our answers to quite different historiographical questions about modern Britain have been demonstrated by pioneering studies: of how siblings’ experiences of growing up together created a tightly-networked middle class; of how girls’ engagement with conversation in their childhood homes shaped middle-class women’s political identities; and of how the multiple inequalities of childhood disadvantage shaped men and women for life.2 Yet young actions and beliefs do not matter solely when later interpreted as having affected the adults that children grew up to be. The young were complex, diverse and changing; we need sources that allow us to begin to understand how boys and girls interpreted themselves when they thought they were children. This article extends Christopher Hilliard’s interwar ‘literary history from below’ to consider how much younger – but equally forgotten – writers composed their authorial selves in their writings.3
In examining how a popular culture of writing was created by the young through the medium of provincial newspaper columns, this article engages with three historiographies – of journalism, of education and of selfhood. First it introduces the culture of provincial publishing that pioneered the inclusion of non-elite children’s compositions, demonstrating the [End Page 75]
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significance of children’s interests to new regional patterns of familial consumption and journalistic innovation. The practices of writing that children learnt in order to participate in these columns are then analysed, so as to reveal a vibrant culture of juvenile writing that flourished outside of the schoolroom. In the final section, young writers’ uses, refusals and reinterpretations of the cultural ideals with which adults founded these columns are explored. From the choices that writers made and the constraints around what they wrote, insights may be gained into the shifting ways the young understood themselves and the society in which they were growing to adulthood.
Histories of the ‘new journalism’ that developed in the later nineteenth century have focused on the rise of publications that had become dominant by the mid twentieth century: ‘national’ daily newspapers with unprecedented circulations of more than a million copies, modelled on the Daily Mail; the more than 500 children’s periodicals founded between 1866 and 1914, the most renowned of which targeted age and gender-differentiated readerships; and technologies that enabled the rapid communication of news nationally and internationally.4 There is another story of the ‘new journalism’ to be told, however, one which does not solely prefigure the mid twentieth century. More typical of the modernity of the nineteenth-century popular press were newspapers that were highly commercial, but were provincial, familial, responsive, mundane and aimed at those who read slowly.
Until the First World War and outside of London, it was weekly provincial newspapers that were most successful in attracting the expanding regular readership of an increasingly literate, leisured and financially secure working-class population.5 In 1911 three-quarters of England’s newspapers were...