Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

170 : Amusing the children?

As more Britons became literate following 1870s legislation that required everyone to have some years at school, there were publications aimed at the youth market. Magazines were passed on, on loan, as reduced-price tatty copies, and within families. Both Christian and commercially-minded publishers met the demand, as did numerous authors (some with several pseudonyms). They used ancient stories, adapting them to modern times, settling on war, cowboys-and-Indians, crime, and school life. Harry Potter stories are very much in this tradition.

What needs investigation is the presence of what might be called ‘ethnic’ characters. The Greyfriars School tales in the Magnet include the Nawob of Bhanipur, Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, a member of the Famous Five. Singh was not the first ‘ethnic’ character to be treated as an equal. Ching-Ching appeared in the Boys’ Standard in the 1880s, so popular was this Chinese detective that Ching-Ching’s Own appeared in 1888.

The Religious Tract Society started the Boy’s Own Paper in 1879. By 1893 publisher Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe from 1903) was claiming his Comic Cuts was read by 2,500,000 people every week. The Marvel had the adventures of Jack, Sam and Pete (a Negro ventriloquist), which started a movement for stories of boy trios ‘in which a comic and faithful negro, Chinese or Eskimo was considered indispensable’. In the 1910s the Boys’ Friend had Dan, Bob and Darkey.

The adventures took the lads all over the world, and in wars and rebellions. The French and Germans were seen as treacherous. New inventions threatened Britain – balloons, death-rays, toxic fog, artillery that destroyed cathedrals and parliament – and invasion (which also appeared in adult fiction).

The school-boy adventures were, as George Orwell was to suggest, encouraging snobbishness and cheap patriotism. He noted the absence of sex and the habitual poking of fun at foreigners. Charles Hamilton (who used pen names including Frank Richards) had written for Magnet and Gem for thirty years, responded by telling Orwell that foreigners were funny – they lacked the British sense of humour.

What impact did these ‘ethnic’ characters have on the youth of Britain, decade after decade?

See page 044 of this site.


E. S. Turner, Boys will be Boys (London: Michael Joseph, 1948) was republished by Penguin in 1976 and used copies are available for less than £4 including postage.


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