The British Empire Library

The World of the Edwardian Child
by Michael Tracy

The World of the Edwardian Child: As seen in Arthur Mee's 'Children's Encyclopedia'
'The World of the Edwardian Child' provides a guide, context and commentary to a Children's Encyclopedia that was written initially in 50 fortnightly installments between 1908 and 1910. I think it is fair to see that this was indeed the apogee of the Edwardian period although the Encyclopedia would be reprinted many times further and was still apparently in print as late as 1964. The Encyclopedia's editor and sometimes author, Arthur Mee, seems to have conjured up a considerable body of language and turned it into child friendly language with lasting appeal. If you think of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan or of Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden in their style of representing childhood then you may get a flavour of what Arthur Mee was trying to achieve. What makes it especially interesting though is that this childhood innocence and curiosity was applied to such a wide range of topics from the fantastical to the downright ordinary. It is the breadth and depth of the enterprise for what was a target audience of young children that makes you marvel at the ambition of Arthur Mee. I can certainly see why Michael Tracy was drawn to this Encyclopedia and agree that it does have the potential for shedding light on an interesting section of society at an interesting point in time. Although of course it should be noted that it is a book that tells us more about what adults thought that children should know rather than what children may have actually wanted to know! Directing children's knowledge and energies was very much in style during the Edwardian period as Baden-Powell would demonstrate with his Boy Scouts movement.

Right from the very start, Michael Tracy is keen to draw to our attention to the issues of class and the supposed target audience of Arthur Mee's Encyclopedia. It certainly was a publication for the comfortable elite and aspiring middle classes. Time and again the language and attitudes exhibited clearly identify that various social classes should be content with their station but should certainly strive to better themselves. In fact, the non-conformist ethics of thrift, sacrifice and hard work run throughout the book. Time and again they surface even in some unlikely guises such as the version of Adam and Eve where God's punishment of expulsion from paradise is portrayed as a blessing in disguise: 'though work is hard, it is yet far better than idleness; and in setting man to till the earth, God has provided him with the opportunity of making himself better and kinder and purer.' Of course, it is the subtle instilling of values that permeates Arthur Mee's Encyclopedia that makes it so useful and interesting to the historian. This is the period of time just before the cataclysmic Great War where the elites and aspiring middle classes will join their working class colleagues on the battlefields of Northern France and the wider Empire and where the values instilled will be played out with bittersweet consequences.

The readers of this book were certainly being prepared for a life of dutiful sacrifice for the benefit of the less privileged peoples around the world and in particular around the Empire. The writers were certainly confident of the pre-eminent position of Britain: economically, socially and most importantly of all morally. One example illustrates its world view: 'It is not for nothing that the sun never sets on this banner of our ancient land. Out of the historic past it flies, the assurance to mankind that Freedom lives. In its sheltering folds lives one quarter of this trouble world, calm amid storms, free from all terrors, walking unafraid.' Some 5 million copies were sold throughout the Empire and another 3.5 million for a US audience, so its influence in shaping the character and morals of the kind of children who were likely to be leaders throughout the Anglo-centric world would have been considerable.

Arthur Mee
Familiar Things
The range of material provided by the Encyclopedia is certainly vast - these days, people are brought up with the internet and limitless knowledge seems to be at our (and our children's) fingertips. And yet, this information can be overwhelming in its scope, reliability and depth. The value of Arthur Mee's Encyclopedia would have been curating the material to make it relevant and accessible to his target audience - all be it to the children of the wealthier and aspiring classes. The real beauty of the structure is the narrative that it provides. Internet articles and modern day text books or encyclopedias are too often lacking in context. They describe something perfectly validly but without linking the knowledge to the wider culture or society at large. Arthur Mee and his contributors cannot be accused of lack of social context - and of course it is that context that is the focus of Michael Tracy's book. He quite rightly focusses on the cultural range of topics chosen to represent the sum of knowledge to an educated child: Artists, philosophers, authors, science and geography were just some of the topics covered - but to an impressively sophisticated but coherent whole. That coherent whole may well have been an Anglo-centric, pseudo-Protestant Christian idealism infused with an improving philosophy, but it was coherent and sustained. The section on Golden Deeds is full of examples of self-sacrifice from the origin of the 'Women and Children First' call on the Birkenhead to Crimean War example of Captain Peel who carried off a live shell before it could kill his comrades. These were all examples that were designed to instill a higher moral purpose to 'ordinary people'.

It should be noted that controversial topics are certainly in short supply in the publication. This may be more surprising than it sounds in that the Edwardian period was in fact a period of profound changes despite romantic ideals we may have about it being the 'calm before the storm'. In fact, Liberals and Conservatives were battling for the constitutional future of the country, Ireland was being torn apart by Home Rule, the role of women in society was being questioned as never before and of course the arms race that would ultimately lead to the Great War was already truly underway. The concept of the innocence of the child, a la Peter Pan, was very much pre-eminent and harsh, unsavoury or unpalatable topics were thought best hidden from curious little minds. There is certainly no mention of reproduction in any form for instance. There are interesting asides which Michael Tracy illustrates which can reveal cracks in this edifice such as the contributor who wrote of New Zealand as being 'ahead of the Mother Country' due to its having an old age pension scheme, women's suffrage and even allowed Maoris to vote. It would be another decade before British women could vote although the old age pension would soon be set up by Lloyd George in 1911. However, these dips into Liberal sensibilities were all too often drowned out by comments of racial superiority. I was particularly fascinated with this quote: 'For Self-government is only possible where there is a large enough population to make sure that the natives would not get the upper hand in the Parliaments and use their power to destroy the British rule.' You can see why the settler colonies (or the white populations in the these colonies) were in the process of being given Dominion powers and yet India and other colonies were kept in check. South Rhodesia and South Africa would provide a racially based model that very much played to the prejudices of this book. Having said that, the young readers were also frequently reminded of the obligations of Empire - even if in racial terms: 'Our race... has not only made itself rich and powerful - which is a small thing after all - but it has made itself the guardian of the welfare of millions and millions of people who had less knowledge, or skill, or courage; it has taken upon its own shoulders what a poet has called the White Man's burden.'

Arthur Mee
Your Little Friends in Other Lands
In fact, the role and social acceptability of Social Darwinism is probably the most revealing (and ugliest) trait revealed in the Encyclopedia. It resurfaces time and again. Often it is overt as in its description of aborigines as 'stunted and stupid... the ugliest and most uncivilised of all the native races...' It was thought that Christianity and Civilisation could tame and better certain savage tendencies as in when the book claims that Maoris were taught 'to be more gentle by missionaries and to give up their old wild ways and their cruel religion.' The racism could also be more subtle as in the picture of children from all over the world who start with European children and seem to steadily darken in skin tone the further back into the picture they go. It is almost a Social Darwinian poster of evolutionary progress. The pre-eminent position of Europeans in general but the British in particular seemed self-evident to these authors. At least one of the authors, Michael Tracy informs us, was active in the eugenics movement at the time of his contributions to the Encyclopedia. The ideas of degeneracy, the role of civilisation and the organisation of societies were all hotly debated in the aftermath of Darwin's writings. In fact, the originator of the term 'Survival of the Fittest' is mentioned time and again in the Encyclopedia. This phrase is often mis-attributed to Charles Darwin when in fact the honour goes to Henry Spencer who was a contemporary of Darwin's but who tried to apply Darwin's writings to the social organisation of humans. It should be noted that Darwin himself investigated this in his 'Descent of Man'. But the real father of Social Darwinism was Henry Spencer who gets prominent billing repeatedly through the Encyclopedia. Of course, it is easy to be ultra critical of these thoughts with the hindsight of the racial policies of the Nazis but it is still interesting to see how pervasive and socially acceptable these ideas were in polite society and would go some way in explaining the lure towards eugenic policies in Britain, America and Europe in the next third of a century at least.

Arthur Mee
When Man Has Conquered Air
And yet the faith in scientific progress was not all misplaced. The technology and wonder revealed by the book provides some of the most startling images. I particularly enjoyed seeing the gyroscopic trains or the airports on 'Eiffel Tower' style stilts to allow for landing skyships in cities. It conjures up images of H. G. Wells or Jules Verne. Again, the horror that some of this technology would be applied towards in the First World War is naively ignored. This was the period of the Futurists who revelled in the destructive power of technology and speed - Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto was published in 1908! Being Social Darwinists themselves (technology sped the process up as far the Futurists were concerned - less worthy individuals could be dispensed with more rapidly). It is not hard to see why Mussolini would later write the forward to the Italian edition of the book in the 1920s. It also provides a warning for the dangerous route that Britain could have taken - and indeed some would have wished to have taken. Arthur Mee's combination of Romanticism, embracing of technology and Social Darwinian ideas may have appeared naive, charming and unassuming to parents keen to improve the lives of their children. However, it could also have provided the tinder for the fascistic tendencies of the 1920s and 1930s that ultimately would lead to the Black Shirts, Hitler and the persecution of the Jews. At the very least, it may have innoculated the next generation of colonial masters into expecting to be treated as a superior by the people he (and it would have been a 'he') was ruling over.

Michael Tracy does us a service in bringing to our attention the curious mind-set that brought out this book in innocence, hope and enlightenment and yet subtly disturbing too. It was very much a product of the social mores of the times. The book certainly provided an impressive cultural breadth to what parents might wish their children to know. But, this cultural breadth hid some serious issues in a blanket of childish innocence. It regarded Britain as 'the happiest little country in the world' and Britons were regarded as a privileged, indeed a 'superior' class of person. It was their duty to guard the empire and better the plight of 'lesser peoples'. Of course, many of the following generation would indeed play these roles that had been so diligently laid out for them in such a coherent and innocently packaged way. It is fascinating to be reminded how pervasive and in-grained cultural norms and ideas can be. As an educator myself, it also makes me question the sub-conscious morals and direction that we are providing for the current generation. Are we naive in our own estimation of the influence of our own culture? Indeed, are we adequately preparing them for a future as yet unseen? Is our culture too diffuse or is it too shallow? Micheal Tracy reminds us of the value and importance of education. The generation reared on Arthur Mee's Encyclopedia would find that the world view provided to them could be shaken to the core. Will our world view undergo similar tests in the future?

British Empire Book
Michael Tracy
YPD Books
Original Children's Encyclopedia