Tag Archives: Janet Powney Collection

Guest post: Behind the Night-light: A Forgotten Bestseller

This guest post comes from Dr Lauren O’Hagan, sociolinguistic researcher of Edwardian material culture and class conflict.


“He is not quite a cow, but a little green bull
He lives in a large field where there is no up and no down
He always wears beautiful trousers
You may like him at first, but you will soon get tired of him
He is very pretty, but oh, so good!
He collects nothing”

Read the above lines and you’d be forgiven for thinking that they came from one of Quentin Blake’s nonsense verses or a lost Dr Seuss book (minus the rhymes!). In fact, they are taken from Behind the Night-light, a 1912 book that captures the poetic musings of a three-year-old girl, Joan Maude. Back in December of last year, I shone a spotlight on another Edwardian child star: Daisy Ashford and her successful novel The Young Visiters. Like The Young Visiters, Behind the Night-light was also a bestseller in its day, only to have faded into obscurity over time. I’d like take the blog space this week to acquaint unfamiliar readers with this delightful and forgotten book.

Behind the Night-light was published by John Murray in June 1912 and went through four reprints in its first six months. It is its fourth reprint from January 1913 that graces the shelves of the Janet Powney Collection in Special Collections. Considering the way that most children’s books of the period were decorated, the book has decidedly bland black cloth covers. However, tucked within, page after page is filled with intriguing and humorous tales about an original world that little Joan Maude created from the comfort of her childhood playroom.

According to the title page, every story and poem in the book has been “described by Joan Maude and faithfully recorded by Nancy Price” (her mother). As Price explains in the preface:

“These quaint beasts who roam that delightful country ‘behind the night-light’ are the exclusive discovery of a child of three. Their names, their habits, etc., are entirely hers. My task has merely been to record them in language as near the original as possible.”

And this originality is certainly apparent in the contents page alone as we are introduced to such unique characters as the Kiddikee, Boo-Choo and Fat-Tack to the Mossip, Hitchy-Penny and Jonket. Through Joan Maude’s imagination, we learn about Bomblemass, an animal who “grows no teeth, carries a stick, wears a green plush coat and ties on his legs with black silk ribbon” or the Gott family “who all lost their ears because they wouldn’t listen.” We meet the Stickle-Jag “who has a coat made of hundreds and thousands, so that he can eat bits off of it when he can’t find the sugar basin” and the Lowdge who “collects dust and lives in the middle of it.” And so on and so forth across its fifty pages of creativity.

A key factor that influenced book sales was the fact that Joan Maude wasn’t just any little girl; she was the daughter of Nancy Price (1880-1970), a huge star of the Edwardian stage. Price had been part of F.R. Benson’s theatre company for many years, touring extensively in the provinces performing Shakespeare plays. In 1902, she caught the attention of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree who cast her as Calypso in Stephen Phillips’ production Ulysses at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. She later went on to play Hilda Gunning in Letty (1904), Mrs D’Aquila in The Whip (1909), one of the Pioneer Players in The First Actress (1911) and India in The Crown of India (1912). This meant that at the time of the book’s publication, she was perhaps as famous and recognisable as any of the big Hollywood stars today. Price would go on to establish the People’s National Theatre in 1930, as well as the English School Theatre Movement, which toured productions of Shakespeare plays to working-class children. She was awarded a CBE for services to the stage in 1950.

Upon release, Behind the Night-light was met with tremendous praise by the newspapers. The Era (8 March 1913) described it as “a collection of quaint and original animal fancies” and the Norwood News (12 December 1913) called it “a revelation of wonderful things, while The Pall Mall Gazette (8 June 1912) claimed that the monsters would have found a friend in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

One year after the book’s publication, Nancy Price enlisted the services of Joan Maude’s godmother, Liza Lehmann, also an English operatic soprano and composer, to turn the book into a stage show. By summer 1913, Behind the Night-light was playing all across England from the Manchester Theatre Royal and Bedford Town Hall to Torquay Pavilion and Ilkley King’s Hall. Reciting the rhymes were such big stage names as Jeannette Sherwin and Guide M. Chambers, and even Nancy Price herself at one special performance in London.

Up until the late 1920s, Behind the Night-light was also a favourite musical for schools to perform. Local newspapers raved about how pupils in Sevenoaks performed the songs at the Royal Crown Hotel (Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, 30 November 1917), as well as how children at Steyne School in Worthing put on a show for an enthusiastic audience at Connaught Hall (Worthing Gazette, 7 November 1923). It is also claimed by Nancy Price that many of the expressions from the book went into common use and could be heard amongst such varied people as a professor of history and a pavement artist. “Don’t be a gott” was used to describe someone with a bad temper who wouldn’t listen and “a lowdge” became a term for somebody who ran very quickly.

Being the daughter of a famous actress and finding fame herself at such an early age meant that Joan Maude was always destined for stardom. In 1921, at the age of 13, she made her stage debut in Cairo at His Majesty’s Theatre in London. By the time she hit adulthood, Joan Maude had already starred in more than twenty stage productions all across the West End. As the ‘talkies’ became popular in the 1930s and 1940s, Joan Maude made her move from the stage to the screen, starring in a wide range of comedies, dramas and romances. Perhaps her most famous role was in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

After some fifteen years of popularity, Behind the Night-light stopped touring, schools ended their performances of the musical and sales of the book decreased. Whether the novelty of the book had simply wore off now that Joan Maude was all grown up or whether she herself wanted to distance herself from the book that had first made her famous remains unclear. Nowadays, Behind the Night-light is practically unknown; a cursory Google search brings up just 33 results.

Looking at Behind the Night-light today, perhaps the most surprising observation is the book’s complete absence of images. With such rich descriptions of a world conjured up by Joan Maude, it is a real oversight not to have accompanied the text with vivid illustrations. This may have also secured the book’s longevity as children grew attached to such characters, remembered them more distinctly and then passed them onto their own children. 2020 will mark fifty years since the death of Nancy Price. To me, this seems like a glaring opportunity for a publisher to pick this book back up, update it, populate it with colourful imagery and introduce these charming characters to the children of today.

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Guest post: Deciphering the indecipherable in the Janet Powney Collection

This guest post comes from Dr Lauren O’Hagan, sociolinguistic researcher of Edwardian material culture and class conflict.


As a scholar of book inscriptions, what really frustrates me is when a mark of ownership has been thoughtlessly removed from a book. Often, all that is left is a jagged tear line acting as evidence of the bookplate or prize sticker that once was affixed to the endpapers. This careless act of erasure silences voices of past generations and with them, a wide range of social networks, thoughts and feelings that offer new perspectives on life in a particular time period and sociocultural context.

Yet what angers me even more is when an inscription is left in the book but has been scribbled through, almost taunting the reader with its partially obscured information. This is often the work of a later owner who deliberately seeks to stake their own claim to the book, giving no thought for people like me who spend their days researching them! Nonetheless, with a little time and patience, the indecipherable can become decipherable, as I found out last week when working on the Janet Powney Collection.

Towards the end of the day, I picked up a beautiful 1873 edition of Aesop’s Fables. It was custom-bound in dark green full calf leather boards with raised bands on its spine and embossed with a gilt armorial typical of non-state school prize books in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The armorial on the book’s cover was framed by the abbreviation ‘SCHOL: DIG: SOC: BRAS’ and ‘JACOBO HICKSON FUND’ with the date ‘A.D. MDCLXXXVII’ underneath.

Unlike the working-class prize books of board schools, which were bound and decorated in-house by publishers, prize books for middle- and upper-class children typically arrived at a local bindery unbound and were subsequently custom-bound according to each school’s requirements. In contrast to working-class prize books, far greater attention was also paid to their internal properties. As can be seen in this copy of Aesop’s Fables, the paper is of a higher quality and endpapers are marbled. As grammar and boarding schools considered it important to uphold tradition, it was no coincidence that books such as this one were made to resemble the fine bindings of the eighteenth century.

 

 

Turning to the front endpapers to consult the prize sticker and discover which school awarded the book, I was horrified to find that it had been completely defaced. An attempt had been made to remove the sticker and when the resistant glue had put up a fight, the previous owner had resorted to scribbling through all the information in black ink, totally obscuring the writing below. I had a challenge on my hands that I was determined to overcome!

Using my rudimentary Latin knowledge, I was able to make an educated guess that the abbreviated ‘SCHOL’ was school (schola), while the ‘SOC’ was society or association (societatus). The other two abbreviations posed more of a problem. Although the full name of the awarding institution was printed on the prize sticker, the act of vandalism had made the words almost indistinguishable. Using a magnifying glass, I was able to identify ‘DIG’ as ‘dignif[?]’, which was enough information to help me roughly translate the word as ‘dignified’ or ‘worshipful’. The last word was more difficult. It looked like it read ‘Brasiatorium’. However, the only translation of this word that could be found in Latin dictionaries was ‘brewery’ or ‘malthouse’.  Curioser and curioser…

After feeding various combinations of words into Google, I came across the Worshipful Company of Brewers (WCB). The WCB is one of the oldest Livery Companies of the City of London and received its first charter from King Henry VI in 1438. Could this be our ‘societatus’ and if so, what did the school part mean?

The next clue I decided to chase was the ‘Jacobo Hickson’ behind the fund that was presumably used to purchase the book and award it to its recipient. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was not uncommon for rich entrepreneurs to leave money in their will to fund books for children. Could Jacobo Hickson be one of them?

After a number of unsuccessful searches for Jacob Hickson, rare books cataloguer Christine Megowan had the clever idea of translating ‘Jacobo’ into its English equivalent: ‘James’. Immediately, this brought up a wide range of results, all of which confirmed that James Hickson was indeed a brewer. Born in 1607 in Melton Mowbray, Hickson moved to London as a young man, became a brewer and was later elected an alderman of the City of London. He was one of the three main benefactors of the WCB, along with Richard Platt and Dame Alice Owen.

Hickson used his fortune to carry out philanthropic work. He built and endowed almhouses in South Mymms and bequeathed money in his will to Dame Alice Owen’s School in Potters Bar and Aldenham School in Elstree. Both schools still exist and to this day, they receive Beer Money, in the form of a commemorative coin, from the Master of the WCB. Was it possible then that the ‘schola’ mentioned in the prize sticker was either Dame Alice Owen’s or Aldenham?

Before investigating this thread further, I wanted to get to the bottom of the coat of arms. It clearly did not match that of the WCB (three kilderkins between three pairs of barley garbs). Could it belong to Hickson? Avidly flicking through an online version of an old heraldic dictionary for the surname Hickson, I was thrilled to find that the Hickson coat of arms was described as “two eagles’ legs, erased à la quize, sa., in saltire sable, the dexter surmounted of the sinister, or and sable” or in plain English, two eagles’ legs, upper-part shown only, crossed over, right on top of left, gold and black. Bingo!

As if all of this information was not enough to prove that the book was given by the WCB using money allocated in the bequest of James Hickson, a name at the bottom of the prize sticker confirmed this. Underneath the scribble, the name E.N. Buxton could be roughly made out with the title ‘Soc Bras [?]’ next to it. Consulting the records of the WCB, I found that an Edward North Buxton was the Master at the time that this book was awarded. Edward North Buxton (1840-1924) was a conservationist and Liberal Party politician. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge and became a partner in the London brewing firm of Truman, Hanbury, & Co. It was through his work with this brewery that he obtained the position of Master of the WCB in 1875.

To determine once and for all the school with which the WCB was linked, I turned to the other name underneath the scribble at the bottom of the prize sticker: Herbert Williams, schola magister (school master). Scanning through census records, I found that Herbert Williams (1826-1903) was a Church of England clergyman who went on to become the “headmaster of a brewer’s company school” in 1871. Aldenham School being for boys and Dame Alice Owen’s School being for girls, I was able to state with confidence that Aesop’s Fables was awarded to a pupil of Aldenham School by its headteacher, Herbert Williams. Aldenham School was founded in 1597 by Richard Platt, Master of the WBC. The WBC were its appointed governors and remain its trustees today.

The final piece in the puzzle was the pupil himself: R.W. Russell. This inscription was the perfect example of yet another pet peeve of mine – inscribers who only use initials for first names! This can make it incredibly challenging to track down the person. After several hours of trawling through census forms and consulting school records, I found a Robert William Russell who was born in St Alban’s, Hertfordshire and attended Aldenham School from 1871-1877. He then went on to study at Oxford University. Unfortunately, no census records have been found for Russell after this date, which may suggest that he moved abroad.

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Despite the numerous challenges posed by inscriptions such as these, with a bit of perseverance, it is possible to decipher them. Thanks to a combination of digital and traditional methods, I have been able to unlock the history of the WCB, one of its benefactors (Jacob Hickson), masters (E.N. Buxton), brewer’s school (Aldenham School) and pupils (Robert William Russell).

How, after Russell’s death in 1934, the book passed to a female grocer’s assistant in Penarth, Wales – Dorothy Davies of 16 Hastings Avenue (according to the defaced inscription at the top of the prize sticker) – is perhaps a mystery worth unravelling some other day…

Guest Post: The Inscriptions of Herbert Scylla Mallalieu

Today’s guest post comes from Lauren O’Hagan, who has been diligently cataloguing the Janet Powney Collection of Children’s Literature.

When asked why I have dedicated the last ten years of my life to investigating book inscriptions, I always answer with the same response. No, it is not because I am an admirer of old handwriting (although I am!) or even that I am nosy (well, maybe there is an element of that!); rather, it is I am fascinated by the fact that they act as thousands of threads which, together, weave the tapestries of life. Book inscriptions have an ability to stop time, to bring an emotional immediacy to the people who once walked this earth, to transform the book from a commercial object into a personalised item that forms the life soul of families…

Those of you who have been following my guest blog posts will know that for the past four years, I have been researching and helping to catalogue the Janet Powney Collection – a wonderful assortment of Victorian and Edwardian children’s books in Cardiff University’s Special Collections. While each book stands out for its beautiful covers and stunning illustrations, it is the inscriptions inside that most intrigue me. And last Thursday, I came across a real gem.

Cover

Publisher’s binding of The Poetical Works of Mrs Felicia Hemans.

After a long session of cataloguing, I picked up the final book of the day: an 1894 edition of The Poetical Works of Mrs Felicia Hemans. As I turned to the front endpapers, I came across a lovely inscription in black ink stating, “Herbert Mallalieu A birthday gift from his loving sister Pollie.” “September 1896” had been added in pencil below. The unusual surname immediately struck me. That would surely be easy to track down in census records! And indeed, it was! But what I didn’t expect was the sheer amount of ‘hidden history’ that it would unlock about Herbert and his family.

Herbert Scylla Mallalieu was born in 1879 in Coventry, England. He was the son of William Mallalieu (1845-1927) and Margaret Smith (1846-1919). Herbert had two older brothers, George (1873-1948) and William (1884-1937), and a younger sister Pollie (née Mary, 1880-1944). Herbert came from a family of professional actors and comedians. His parents were famous stars of the Victorian music hall. They also brought up their younger children to perform with them. For a reason that is sadly now lost to time, Herbert was the only member of his family not to join them on the stage. Census records show that he was not “deaf, dumb, blind, lunatic, imbecile or idiot,” so we can only assume that it was a personal choice on his part.

Inscription1

Mallalieu’s ownership inscription on the front fly-leaf.

This meant that Herbert spent most of his childhood on his own lodging throughout the UK with a wide range of strangers, while the rest of his family constantly moved around and performed. The 1891 census records him as living with the Wall family in Wells, Somerset and attending the local cathedral school. It was during his time in Wells on the occasion of his 17th birthday that he received The Poetical Works of Mrs Felicia Hemans from his sister Pollie. Meanwhile, his family were based in Bath where they regularly took the stage at the Theatre Royal. Reviews in the Western Daily Press praise the Mallalieus’ talent, particularly young Pollie who stood out as a child star.

Pollie caught the eye of Lewis Carroll after seeing her perform in The Silver King in Brighton in October 1891. From this date on, he struck up a regular correspondence with Pollie’s parents. A surviving letter dated June 22nd 1892 that recently sold at auction asks Pollie’s mother whether he can take Pollie to the New Gallery, luncheon at a friend’s house and German Reed’s entertainment. We know from Carroll’s diary records that he did indeed take Pollie out and that he thought she was “a lovable child, ladylike and speaking good English.” Pollie also stayed at Carroll’s house in Eastbourne on several occasions and he even paid for a custom-made pair of boots for her.

By the time of the 1901 census, William Mallalieu had set up his own acting company in Leicester. The company was incredibly successful and brought much fame and fortune to the family. The company’s location may explain why Herbert is also based in Leicester on the 1901 census, although he is living alone in a boarding house run by Elizabeth Fox and working as a “land agent clerk.” Herbert’s brother George, on the other hand, known by the stage name Aubrey Mallalieu, had now found success on the stage in Australia and New Zealand. He would later go on to appear in hundreds of films throughout the 1930s usually as a respectable elderly gentleman of the establishment. He was described as having a “Dickensian appearance” with combed-over white hair and spectacles. Herbert’s other brother, William, left acting in 1901 and joined the Cheshire Regiment. He saw active service in the Anglo-Boer War and the First World War.

While Herbert’s parents and sister are recorded as living in Heston, London on the 1911 census, Herbert cannot be found with them. An inspection of emigration records shows that he moved to New York in the early 1900s for business purposes before returning to the UK where he married Elsie Blythe, a dairy maid, in 1913. The newly-weds then moved back to the USA, this time to Orange, New Jersey, where she gave birth to a son, Herbert Blythe Mallalieu (1914-1988). Herbert Blythe Mallalieu went on to serve in the Second World War and gained renown as a war poet. Julian Symons described him as “one of the best known of the younger British poets before the Second World War.” He published several poetry collections in his lifetime, including Letter in Wartime (1940) and On the Berlin Lakes (1988).

Inscription2

A second enigmatic inscription, dated 33 years after the first.

Unfortunately, Herbert and Edith’s marriage did not work out. Just a few years later, Herbert returned to the UK with his son and filed for a divorce. In 1923, he got remarried to Edith F. Curteis, a grocer’s cashier. On July 5th 1929, Edith gave birth to a little girl, Paula. Sadly, Paula was stillborn. In a remarkable yet sad twist of fate, the event is recorded in Herbert’s poetry volume. As I flicked through the pages, I was astounded to come across an inscription tucked away on the flyleaf clearly added by Herbert 33 years on from his sister’s original message: “He never smiled again pg. 128 July v/29.” Turning avidly to page 128, I discovered that it was a direct quote from a poem in the collection about King Henry I’s grief over his son William’s death. Clearly, Herbert had remembered the quote and drew parallels with his own tragic situation. Feeling so upset about the premature death of his only daughter, he recorded the date in his poetry book alongside this quote. The book he had kept since he was given it as a young boy by his estranged younger sister had now become embedded with a new inscription that marked this important event in Herbert’s life.

Herbert and Edith never had any further children. They lived a quiet life together in Croydon, Surrey until his death in 1957. Herbert outlived all of his other family members.

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Behind the two seemingly insignificant inscriptions in The Poetical Works of Mrs Felicia Hemans lies the untold story of Herbert Mallalieu and his family. In just a few written words, we can learn so much about his life, his loves, his losses. It is stories like this that make me so thankful for the work I do and the opportunity I have to keep these memories alive for future generations.