How The Victorians Depicted The City In Children's Books

By Hawk Norton Last edited 27 months ago
How The Victorians Depicted The City In Children's Books

"Wonderful trains!
From morn till night,
Clattering through tunnels without daylight,
Hither and thither they run up and down,
Beneath the streets of London Town."

The above shows an extract from London Town by Ellen Houghton and Thomas Crane, published by Marcus Ward in 1883.

It's a beautiful book. Crane's eye-catching illustrations of Victorian London are accompanied by Houghton's whimsical verse. London Town also offers a glimpse into a rarely considered sub-genre of publishing, the children's guide book.

Cries of London, and 'gigantick' histories

Though the most colourful children's guide from Victorian times, London Town was by no means the only one. From the mid-18th century, with the rise of the middle classes, an increasing number of titles were aimed at the family. Childhood was now seen as distinct from adulthood, and a time, if circumstances allowed, to be enjoyed. This led to a rapid rise in the number, quality and diversity of books published for children. The most popular genres were fairy tales and moral tales, but most of the early children’s publishers including John Newbery, 'the father of children’s literature', produced books about London.

Title page from London Town.

The first was The Gigantick History of the Two Famous Giants and other Curiosities in Guildhall, London in two tiny (59 x 45mm) volumes, published by Thomas Boreman in 1740. This was followed by three more miniature books on the Tower, St Paul's and Westminster Abbey. They are very cute and very rare.

The Cries of London were the most popular subject and dozens of versions were published in a variety of formats. For example, 1760's The Cries of London, whose wordy subtitle spelled out its aims: 'a Child's Moral Instructor; for the use of schools, private families, governesses, tutors &c. Decorated with 32 copper plates, elegantly engraved; with a moral and emblematical description of each particular story; intended at once to make instruction pleasing; and unite humour with decency'.

Cleopatra's Needle, from London Town.

Many early children's books were very moralistic. A personal favourite is City Scenes or a Peep into London for Good Children, written, illustrated and published by William Darton in 1801. Both a joy to look at, and to read, the book consists of dozens of moralistic snippets, often in rhyme, depicting various aspects of London life accompanied by delightful illustrations. The book was deservedly popular and the Darton family would go on to publish more than a thousand children's books.

Another favourite is A Visit to Uncle William in Town, published by John Harris in 1818. William Beresford, 'one of the most eccentric and benevolent men in the world' visits the country to collect five orphaned children and bring them to stay with him in London where he takes them on daily expeditions to see the sights. Many early children's books about London follow this format of a guided tour of the sights by an older relative. Generally, the earlier the book, the more dull and moralistic the text.

Lowther Arcade (on Strand), from London Town.

Toys, chap books and toy books

As well as books, early children's publishers also produced a diverse range of other printed wares including prints, cards, jigsaws, toys and games. William Hamley opened his first London toy shop, called Noah's Ark in High Holborn in 1760. In the first half of the 19th century, the use of pictures in education increased dramatically. Working in tandem, printers and teachers revolutionised the education of the poor.

Early children's books were mostly aimed at the middle classes. The poor were supplied by chap book sellers of which there were a huge number in London. Chap books were short and poorly printed, but cheap, and were sold door to door or at markets and fairs. They were often abridged pirate copies of successful works with primitive woodcut illustrations. The era of chap books came to an end by the mid-19th century, giving way to the popularity of cheap periodical literature and, for children, toy books.

Covent Garden, from London Town.

Toy books were short works of generally six to 12 pages, with pictures dominating the text. Originally hand-coloured by children, from the late 1850s advances in technology enabled printing in colour. An indication of the huge numbers produced is given by publisher George Routledge's claim that he couldn't make a profit on a toy book unless it sold at least 50,000 copies! Many toy books had London related themes such as Scenes and Cries of London, Aunt Busy-Bee's The Fine Crystal Palace the Prince Built, The Lord Mayor's Show, Aunt Busy-Bee's New London Cries, Puck & Peasblossom in London and Aunt Louisa's London Alphabet.

A collection of children's books about London.

Mostly due to developments in printing technology, the later years of the 19th century saw a 'golden age' of illustrated children's books, London Town being one of them. For those interested in pursuing the subject further, I've compiled a brief timeline of the earliest children's books about London. To my knowledge, no one has attempted such a bibliography before, so if you’re aware of anything that I've missed, please let me know.

[An illustrated timeline of early children's books about London, PDF download]

Hawk Norton has a stock of thousands of antiquarian and second hand books about London for sale at reasonable prices, plus maps, prints, photos, original artwork and artefacts. Email for more details

Last Updated 06 November 2020