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Historical survey of children's literature in the British Library

A brief description of the British Library's holdings of books for children. Further details about all the works discussed and the wealth of our holdings of children's literature can be found in Explore the British Library.

17th-century works
18th-century works
19th-century works
20th-century works
Fairy tales
Gallery of images from historic children's books

 17th-century works

In the 17th century, books for children were educational or moral, aimed at driving out original sin. The only surviving copy of an early text book is John Owen's The Primer, or an easie way to teach children the true reading of English. With a necessary catechisme to instruct youth...1652 (British Library shelfmark: C.143.a.22). The only recorded copy of the earliest known English illustrated alphabet is The Childes first tutor: or, The master and mistris. Teaching children an easie and delightful way to learn the twenty four Festus Corin published in 1664 by F. Cossinet. (C.186.e.28). An enlightened and illustrated Latin vocabulary, with words in German, Latin, Italian and French, Orbis sensualium pictus was first published by J. A. Komensky, or Comenius, in Nuremberg in 1658 (an edition published in 1666 is at 828.b.8). An English translation by Charles Hoole, Orbis sensualium pictus ... Visible world; or A nomenclature and pictures of all the chief things that are in the world was published in 1659 (E.2116(1)).

John Bunyan uses verse to teach the Ten Commandments and other Christian lessons in A Book for boys and girls, or country rhimes for children. The British Library holds one of the only two known copies of the first edition of 1686 (C.37.d.56). Later, modified editions of this work, published under the title Divine emblems, or temporal things spiritualized are also held. The earliest editions of Bunyan's Pilgrim's progress in the British Library are two editions by Nath. Ponder from 1678 (C.37.d.61 and C.25.c.24). A book which contains "good counsel and instructions for young children, earnestly exhorting them to resist the temptations of the Devil" is by Robert Russell of Wadhurst: A Little book for children...2 parts, 1693-1696? (4408.b.4(10)).

 18th-century works

Children were probably as attracted as adults to the many chapbooks which were hawked around the country in this period. In such books fairy tales or legends were recounted in simple verse and illustrated with woodcuts. Undated examples are bound together in volumes at British Library shelfmarks 1078.h.36, 1078.i.29 and 1079 i.13 and 1079.i.14, and include stories of Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Tom Thumb, Sir Bevis of Southampton, and Guy, Earl of Warwick. A volume of chapbooks by Kendrew of York is at C.121.aa.5. One of the most famous early moralizing books for children, frequently reprinted on both sides of the Atlantic, was James Janeway's A Token for children: being an exact account of the conversion, holy and exemplary lives, and joyful deaths of several young children. Thirteen model children die in its pages. The earliest edition in the library is that published by T. Norris and A. Bettesworth in 1709 (Ch.700/2). In 1715 Isaac Watts wrote his Divine songs attempted in easy language, for the use of children, a work which was endlessly reprinted during the 18th and 19th centuries, and parodied in the verses of Lewis Carroll. The earliest edition in the British Library is the ninth, of 1728, (Ch. 720/5). The earliest illustrations to the Songs are in A Choice collection of hymns and moral songs: adapted to the capacities of young people...Newcastle: T. Saint..., 1781 (3436.aa.27).

Thomas Boreman, a bookseller who had a stall near the Guildhall, was the first publisher and bookseller to specialize in books for children. His first book was A Description of three hundred animals, 1730, which he wrote himself (976.c.14). A Description of a great variety of animals and vegetables followed in 1736 (957.f.3) and A Description of some curious and uncommon creatures in 1739 (1486.dd.25). He wrote a very small book in two volumes measuring only 2.25 x1.75 inches entitled The Gigantick history of the two famous giants and other curiosities in Guildhall, London, of which we have the second edition, published in 1741 at Cup.550.g.472.

The most famous and prolific publisher for children of the 18th century was John Newbery. He published books which were immediately attractive to children: in a small format, with illustrations, and bound in brightly-coloured flowered paper. No copy survives of the first edition of his A Little pretty pocket book, probably published in 1744. The earliest surviving edition, the tenth, dated 1760, A Little pretty pocket book, intended for the instruction and amusement of little master Tommy and pretty Miss Polly: with two letters from Jack the Giant-killer: as also a ball and pincushion; the use of which will infallibly make Tommy a good boy, and Polly a good girl, is incomplete and wants sig. D4, 5 and 8. There is no sign of the ball and pincushion either. In later editions they cost an extra twopence, on top of sixpence for the book. They were apparently black on one side, and red on the other, and good deeds were to be marked by a pin stuck on the red side, and bad ones by a pin in the black. The earliest known complete copy from 1767 is at Newbery made most of his money from the sale of Dr James' Fever Powders. The firm that he founded published nearly 400 titles by the end of the century, of which the British Library holds about 170 titles. The only known copy of the first edition (1765) of one of the most famous, The History of Little Goody Two-shoes (C.180.a.3), was acquired in 1965. The story is often ascribed to Oliver Goldsmith, or more probably to Newbery himself. In the British Library copy of the 1796 edition, John Winter Jones, Principal Librarian of the British Museum Library from 1866 to 1878, claims in a manuscript note that the author was his grandfather Giles Jones, a friend of Newbery. The rambling story tells of the adventures of Margery, whose father died "seized with a fever in a place where Dr James' powder was not to be had". Dressed in rags and having only one shoe, she is given two shoes by a charitable gentleman, and makes a career for herself as a teacher of children and a dispenser of good advice to all, her final reward being marriage to a rich widower.

Sarah Fielding, Henry Fielding's sister, presented stories for children in the framework of a week at a school. The Governess; or Little female academy. Being the history of Mrs Teachum, and her nine girls. A. Millar, 1749 (Ch.740/9) is the first full-length book of original stories for children in English.

The earliest children's stories to give life to and imagine written speech for objects or animals were by the Kilners. Mary Ann Kilner's Adventures of a pincushion. John Marshall, [1780?] (C.40.a.71) was reprinted in an American edition by Isaiah Thomas of Worcester, Mass., in 1788 (Ch.780/36). More entertaining, and less tiresomely moralising, is her sister-in-law Dorothy Kilner's Life and perambulation of a mouse, published by John Marshall, of which we have a number of undated editions, one possibly from 1790 at C.40.a.65. The best-known work of the moralist and organiser of Sunday Schools, Mrs Sarah Trimmer, was Fabulous histories designed for the instruction of children respecting their treatment of animals, T. Longman, 1786 (Ch. 780/31(2)). The numerous later editions took the title The History of the robins. Richard Lovell Edgeworth, a disciple of Rousseau, collaborated with his daughter Maria on Practical education, 1798 (715.h.11). Maria wrote didactic stories, the best known of which, The Purple jar, first appeared in The Parent's assistant of which we have part 1, J. Johnson, 1796 (Ch.790/62), described as the second edition, although the first edition has not survived.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries there were several Evangelical Christian women writers of improving books for children. Anna Laetitia Barbauld, the wife of a Dissenting minister, disapproved of poetry, but wrote Hymns in prose for children in 1781 (1018.d.28(3)), which was constantly reprinted for the next hundred years. She and her brother, John Aikin, wrote Evenings at home, 1792-6 (1031.d.15), another well-written classic which lasted well into the next century. Hannah More, who helped establish Sunday Schools, also started the Cheap Repository Tracts, pamphlets with moral stories. She wrote half of the 114 tracts which appeared between 1795 and 1798, (30 parts at 4418.e.70), the best known of which is The Shepherd of Salisbury Plains, 1795 which tells of misfortunes endured with Christian fortitude. The purpose was to deflect readers from righting their wrongs by more practical measures, as in Revolutionary France.

 19th-century works

Ann and Jane Taylor, sisters from Ongar, wrote verse whose popularity was to last for a century. My mother by Ann Taylor first appeared in Original poems for infant minds by several young persons (i.e. Ann and Jane and others) first issued in two volumes in 1804 and 1805. A 1805 re-issue of vol. 1 is at C.117.a.58, and vol. 2 of the 11th edition of 1814 ( The Taylors also wrote Rhymes for the nursery, Darton and Harvey, 1806 (Ch.800/129) with many subsequent editions and Hymns for infant minds, 1808 (2nd edition, 1810, at 11644.e.5). Ann Taylor wrote Signor Topsy-Turvy's wonderful magic lantern: or, The world turned upside down. Tabart, 1810 (Ch.810/10). Isaac Taylor, the father of Ann and Jane, wrote Bunyan explained to a child, being pictures and poems, founded upon the Pilgrim's progress, published by Francis Westley in 1824 (Cup.404.a.9).

John Harris at first managed the children's publishing business of Mrs Elizabeth Newbery, the widow of John Newbery's nephew Francis, but soon established his own firm which produced many entertaining small-format books for children, which cost a shilling uncoloured or one and sixpence when attractively hand-painted. The Comic adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and her dog, by Sarah Catherine Martin, first published in 1805, has lively engravings by an anonymous artist, and is sheer entertainment, without didactic purpose. Our copy is of the second edition, 1806 (Ch.800/101(4)). Harris achieved great success with his small-format Butterfly's ball and the Grasshopper's feast, (C.40.a.57(1)), written in 1807 by the banker William Roscoe, though published anonymously, and illustrated by William Mulready. A delightful work that puts fun into learning is Punctuation personified: or, pointing made easy, by Mr Stops, 1824 ( in which figures made of punctuation marks appear.

Mary Martha Butt, later Mrs Sherwood, was a clergyman's daughter who went with her army officer husband to India, where her first two children died. She was converted to Evangelical Christianity which she expressed in The History of little Henry and his bearer, in 1814 (our copy of the 2nd ed. Wellington: F. Houlston & Son, 1815 is at 1606/1538). A clergyman's daughter converts Henry, who in turn tries to convert his bearer (servant), but the conversion is not effected until Henry dies piously. The most famous work of this prolific author was The History of the Fairchild family, J. Hatchard, 1818, 1842 and 1847 (Ch.810/122) which contained constant exhortations to virtue and described visits to view a corpse and a gibbet to draw suitable morals. She painted a lively picture of European life in India in The History of George Desmond founded on facts which occurred in the East Indies, and now published as a useful caution to young men going out to that country. Wellington, Salop: F. H. Houlston, 1821 (2 copies: and OIOC T7958).

Sir Henry Cole, the inventor of the Christmas card and first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, produced a series of children's books which he called The Home treasury, with illustrations by well-known artists, designed and printed to the highest standards by Charles Whittingham the Younger at the Chiswick Press. The first edition had hand-coloured lithographs. Later editions used coloured wood-blocks for the illustrations, and were among the first children's books to have colour-printed illustrations. These included Traditional nursery songs of England: with pictures by eminent modern artists. Edited by Felix Summerly [i.e. Cole]. London: Joseph Cundall, 1843 (1210.e.23) and Little Red Riding Hood. London: Joseph Cundall, 1843 (1210.e.33).

Dr Heinrich Hoffmann, a physician in Frankfurt, wrote and illustrated mock cautionary verses about Struwwelpeter (Shock-headed Peter) in 1845. In 1848 an anonymous translation The English Struwwelpeter was published in Leipzig. The fourth edition, also published in 1848, is at 11645.f.42 (with hand-coloured illustrations).

The Revd. Charles Kingley's The Water babies: a fairy tale for a land-baby (his son Grenville), first appeared in Macmillan's magazine in August 1862 and March 1863 (P.P.6119.ce). In May 1863 Macmillan issued it as a book with two illustrations, and decorations at the head of each chapter (Cup. 400.a.33). An edition illustrated by Sir Noel Paton and P. Skelton appeared in 1869 ( Kingsley re-told Greek myths in The Heroes, 1856 [i.e. 1855] (4504.b.26). Children also enjoyed his three-volume novel Westward Ho! Cambridge, 1855 (12629.a.25).

Coloured printing became cheaper as the 19th century progressed, and the printer Edmund Evans pioneered printing with coloured woodblocks, which enabled him to produce long runs of relatively cheap children's books. His good taste enabled him to encourage and publish a trio of elegant artists for children who have set the standards for the illustration of children's books since then: Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway. In 1863, Evans commissioned three toy-books from Crane, and this was the start of a series of toy-books which included Routledge's coloured picture book, [1870] (12806.h.24) and The Marquis of Carabas: picture book, [1874] (12805.l.35). A more lavish production was Flora's feast. A masque of flowers, penned and pictured by Walter Crane. Cassell & Co., 1889 (11651.l.21) which personifies flowers as people. Five or six or even eight coloured blocks were used to produce these artistic toy books

Much briefer was the career of Randolph Caldecott, who died in 1886 at the age of 40. Evans commissioned a number pf picture books from him, including R. Caldecott's picture books, Routledge, 1878-1884 (12805.k.61) which reflect his country background. Evans so liked the notebook of work which Kate Greenaway showed him he risked an edition of 20,000 copies for her first book Under the window, in 1878. The creation of an idealised, pre-industrial, never-land of children wearing 18th-century clothes, and drawn in a simple, light style, with plenty of white space around the drawings, appealed to parents, and her success was immediate and sustained.

Perhaps the most famous manuscript of a book for children held by our Manuscript Collections is Alice's adventures underground. This was written and illustrated by Lewis Carroll between 1862 and 1864 and presented to Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church Oxford, for Christmas 1864 (Add. Ms. 46700), and is usually on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library. The following year Carroll published a revised version as Alice's adventures in Wonderland. He considered that the original printing by the Clarendon Press of John Tenniel's illustrations was so badly done that he withdrew the edition. The first edition to go on sale was by Macmillan, and had 1866 on the title page, although it appeared in November 1865 (C.59.g.32). Through the looking-glass was published in 1871, but dated 1872 (C.71.b.33). Carroll's nine surviving diaries are at Add. Mss 54340-54348.

In 1881, Robert Louis Stevenson, on holiday with his parents and his 12-year-old stepson, drew a map of an imaginary island to amuse the boy. This prompted him to write Treasure Island, which was serialised in Young folks, Oct. 1881- Jan. 1882, held at British Library Newspapers. In 1883 Cassell & Co. brought out the first edition with no illustrations except the map redrawn by Stevenson (C.71.c.18).

Rudyard Kipling was born in India, where he spent his first six years, and returned there to work as a journalist. Among the many books he wrote for children were the two Jungle books. The first was illustrated by his father, J. L. Kipling, W. H. Drake and P. Frenzeny, and was published by Macmillan in 1894 (C.117.d.4). The second came out in 1895 (C.117.d.5). Kipling's original manuscripts of both books are in Manuscript Collections at Add. Ms. 45540 and the manuscript of the Just so stories is at Add. Ms. 59840. As, by this time, legal deposit was much more effective, our holdings of Kipling's published works are also extensive.

English editions of American children's authors also became more widely available at this period. Louisa May Alcott began her literary career with romantic novels for magazines, followed by an account of her nursing experiences during the American Civil War. At the request of a Boston publisher, Roberts Bros, she wrote Little women in less than three months, and it was published in 1868 ( The second part of Little women issued shortly after was re-issued under the title of Good wives in 1872 ( Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) wrote a comic and nostalgic account of boyhood in his The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876 (English edition by Chatto & Windus at 12705.eee.24) and a sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884 (English edition by Chatto & Windus at 12705.eee.17). The much-derided children's classic Little Lord Fauntleroy, by Mrs Frances Hodgson Burnett, was published in 1886: New York: Charles Scribner's Sons (C.109.c.14) and London: Frederick Warne (C.109.c.15). It tells of a likeable American boy who turns out to be the heir to an English earldom, and set a fashion for velvet suits with lace collars following the illustrations of Reginald Birch. Burnett's The Secret garden, 1911 ( tells of two children, one awkward and unloved, the other spoilt and arrogant, whose lives are transformed by the beauty of a garden.

 20th-century works

The stricter enforcement of legal deposit in the 20th century has ensured that most of the works of modern children's authors are to be found in the British Library. Comics are to be found in Newspapers, but annuals can be consulted at St Pancras. It is impossible to list all twentieth century "classics", but it is interesting to note the first appearances of some well-loved figures.

Beatrix Potter was an accomplished painter of plants and animals who wrote illustrated letters to the children of her former governess making up adventures about her own pets. She offered The Tale of Peter Rabbit to several publishers before publishing it at her own expense on 16 December 1901, with line illustrations. On the same day Warne wrote to her accepting Peter Rabbit, on condition that she prepared illustrations in colour, reducing them in number, and deleting some of the text which was transferred to The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, 1904 (12800.a.36). The first commercial edition of Peter Rabbit appeared in October 1902 (Cup. 402.a.4) in an edition of 6,000 copies. It was Beatrix Potter's idea that the illustrations should be reproduced by the recently developed Hentschel three-colour process. The results look disappointing to the modern eye, in comparison to the detail and delicacy of her original paintings, and Warne made a welcome decision to re-photograph her work for modern editions. The first editions of her other works were also deposited with the Library.

The first book about Rupert Bear by Mary Tourtel was The Adventures of the little lost bear, (12801.a.53), reprinted from the Daily Express in 1921 and published by T. Nelson. Richmal Crompton began by writing stories for magazines. Her third story for Home magazine, February 1919, introduced William Brown. She continued to contribute stories about William for the magazine, and in 1922 12 stories were published as Just William (12316.r.14). Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne, illustrated by E. Shepard, was published by Methuen in 1926 (C.98.k.15). The Rev. W. V. Awdry's railway series began in 1945, with The Three engines. Thomas the Tank Engine was no. 2 in the series (WP.16867.) The first three Noddy books are at X.998/3742, beginning with Little Noddy goes to Toyland published in 1949. Michael Bond published A Bear called Paddington in 1958 (12840.l.4). The Library's collection of children's literature published in the British Isles continues to thrive as each year brings a wealth of new publications designed to delight, educate and entertain.

 Fairy tales

In the late 17th century fairy tales became fashionable in literary salons. Charles Perrault (1628-1703), a retired royal official, wrote down several for the newspaper Le mercure galant. In 1697 eight of Perrault's stories, based on traditional tales, were published by Claude Barbin as Histoires, ou contes du temps passé. They included La belle au bois dormant, Le maistre Chat, ou le chat botté, and Le petit chaperon rouge. The earliest edition in the British Library is from 1698 (C.57.a.20). The dedicatory letter to "Mademoiselle" Elisabeth-Charlotte d'Orléans, is signed by Perrault's son, who had added to his name, and called himself Pierre Perrault Darmancour, and it is not certain whether he or his father is really responsible for the book, though the former was only 17 when the manuscript was prepared. A panel in the frontispiece of the first edition calls them Contes de ma mère L'Oye, which has been translated as Mother Goose's tales. The first English translation by Robert Samber was published in 1729. The earliest English translation in the British Library is Tales of passed times by Mother Goose with morals Englished by R. S., a bilingual edition published with the original French by S. van den Berg in 1764 (Ch.760/7).

Madame d'Aulnoy first published her original, not traditional, tales in 1697. The earliest French edition in the British Library is Les contes des fées. 2 vols. Amsterdam: Etienne Roger, [1710?] (12430.aa.28). First translated into English in 1699, the British Library holds The Diverting works of the Countess D'Anois. London, 1707 ( Volume four of these collected works contains fairy tales. Her best-known stories were "The yellow dwarf", "The white cat", and "The blue bird", which were popular in the 19th century, though forgotten now.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected folk-lore from Hesse and published their Kinder- und Hausmärchen in 1812 and 1814. The second, revised edition (1819-22) is at Edgar Taylor, a London lawyer, translated them into English as German popular stories, published C. Baldwyn, 1823 (Cup.402.b.18), with illustrations by George Cruikshank which were much admired by the Grimms.

Hans Christian Andersen published his first Eventyr fortalte for B¢rn in 1835 in Copenhagen (our copy, recorded as having been published, 1837 [1835]-1844, is at C.143.a.23). His tales are imaginative and poetic and often religious in tone, and some are based on folk-tales. In 1846 three different English publishers brought out four translated selections: Danish fairy legends and tales: translated by Caroline Peachey. London: William Pickering. (1459.b.12). A Danish story-book..: translated by Charles Boner. With numerous illustrations by the Count Pocci. London: Joseph Cundall. (1459.c.24). The Nightingale, and other tales..: translated by C. Boner. With numerous illustrations by the count Pocci. London: Joseph Cundall. (1459.c.23). Wonderful stories for children...: translated by Mary Howitt. London: Chapman & Hall. (1210.e.22). This last includes four anonymous lithotinted engravings and Andersen's name is misspelled on the title-page. Andersen visited England in 1847, and was so pleased with his reception, and his meetings with Mary Howitt and Charles Dickens, that he sent five stories to be published in England ahead of their appearance in Denmark: A Christmas greeting to my English friends. London: Richard Bentley, 1847 (12580.b.26).

There are, of course, many modern editions of fairy tales in our collections which can be traced in Explore the British Library.