The survival of children’s books is sometimes one of the great strengths of country house libraries. How many of us still have the books we read as kids? How many books survive the rather unpractised handling skills of young children (my favourite book certainly didn’t make it unscathed…) or the pens, pencils, paint, food, bath water to which these books might be subjected?
Chances are that if a historic children’s book hasn’t become part of a museum or library collection, the odds are much against it. In the past, I’ve catalogued small numbers of nineteenth-century children’s books at Calke Abbey and I was really pleased to find some at Erddig.
Both the V&A and the Bodleian have large collections of children’s books; the numbers found in country houses pale into insignificance by comparison. But the fact that they are kept in the environment in which they were read and (ab)used adds substantially to their interest. What were these aristocratic families buying for their children? Which books show greater signs of reading? Are there any indications that a book was more, or less, appreciated by its readers? What were children doing to their books?
At Erddig, we find the whole spectrum. Some books are evidently read and much appreciated, with Yorke children proudly scrawling their names on the pastedowns and colouring in any illustrations. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge is one of the oldest publishing houses in the UK. Not only did the Society print theological tracts, devotional texts, bibles and prayer-books, it also issued a large number of educational works for children as well as books on botany, zoology, history and travel. These Stories for the nursery appear to have been issued separately as well as collectively. The book is undated, but to judge from the inscriptions it seems likely to be the first half of the 1850s. Each story has its own title page and a sequential number at the head. Each is accompanied by a plate, which one of the Yorke children has coloured in. In an as yet inexperienced child’s hand, Philip (i.e. Philip Yorke II [1849-1922]) has written his name and Lily’s (i.e. Etheldred Yorke [1847-1919]) on the upper pastedown, repeating the more practised handwriting of Lily’s on the flyleaf. The little book has clearly been read and cherished (perhaps a bit roughly).
The same can be said for this rarer book, Kitty the cat and other stories. Although the illustrations are as issued (that is, no colouring), the volume itself is rather worn out. Once again, the publication date doesn’t appear on the book and this time, there are no inscriptions to help date it. The copy held in the Osborne collection (Toronto Public Library) is attributed to Grace Greenwood (1823-1904) and dated 1855, which would place it in the same era as the SPCK collection of nursery stories.
At the other end of the scale, there are the morally instructive tales also issued under the auspices of the SPCK, which appear to sit on the shelves unread. These were often presented as Sunday school rewards and very much represent Victorian paternalism and notions of self-improvement. Interestingly, both All about a five-pound note and Dorothy’s debts were published in the early 1890s when there weren’t any young Yorke children at Erddig. Simon Yorke III and his wife died in 1894 and 1895, leaving the estate to their eldest son Philip Yorke II, who at this point was still legally married to Annette Fountayne – a lady who’d left him shortly after their wedding. Philip’s two sisters, Etheldred (Lily) and Agneta (Nena), both in their forties and unmarried, were living in the house. Were these and other, similar, SPCK publications perhaps bought by the sisters for their charitable work and never distributed?