Sunday, April 14, 2013

Routledge’s rhymes

This Sixpenny Toy Book, published by George Routledge & Sons circa 1870, has been in the Knowles-Ireland family since late Victorian times, and has been avidly read by so many generations that it has disintegrated. Only the back cover and about half the pages remain, to give us a glimpse of the kind of literature — often of a cruel, racist or cautionary nature — that children delighted in before psychologists and earnest educators ruled that it was offensive and harmful. At the time of writing, the creator of the bizarre pictures remains a mystery. He identifies himself only as "CHR", and does not appear in the results of internet searches. Likewise, I do not know who wrote the rhymes. One of the latter, now lost, went as follows, if I remember correctly after the passage of more than 50 years:
    His name was Jack,
    He was off in a crack
    And he never came back.
The illustration was of a young man with a wicked grin on his face, stealing the clothes of some swimmers in a lake or river. Again, it would be judged "improper" or "inappropriate" by today's standards. If I had to choose the cleverest of the surviving verses, I would nominate the following:
    Two knights did once resolve to fight
    Upon an open plain,
    And 'twas agreed no peace should be
    Till one of them was slain,
    'Twas hard to say which of the two
    The best man should be reckoned,
    For both their heads, most strange to view,
    Flew off at the selfsame second.
    Now, some maintain this one was best,
    And some assert 'twas t'other;
    It lay between them, and I think,
    If not one, 'twas the other.

Some light on the subject is shed by Historical survey of children's literature in the British Library, where we read: "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]..."

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