In the 1880s and 1890s a number of major London publishers produced cheap novels by ‘popular authors’ which, with their typically moral tone, they judged to be suitable for presentation to school children for academic achievement, good behaviour, or regular and punctual attendance. These were not chosen by the children but by teachers who had in mind not the literary quality of the books, which were rarely by ‘classic’ children’s’ authors, or the pleasure of the children, but their spiritual and moral welfare.
As the levels of working-class literacy developed in the early nineteenth century there was a growing anxiety, shared by the teaching profession and the Christian establishment, that in their choices of reading children were increasingly vulnerable to the corrupting effects of cheap sensational and politically subversive literature. School prizes presented an opportunity for introducing children to more wholesome alternatives. They were seen as one means of shaping the reading choices of working’class children.
Silas K. Hocking, published by Frederic Warne and Company, was among the most popular of the chosen authors. Other major secular publishers catering to the same market were Thomas Nelson and Company, Cassell and Company, the Epworth Press and S.W. Partridge of London, and John Heywood of Manchester. There were also a number of nominally Christian publishers, including the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the National Sunday School Union.
At least one was explicit about its purpose. Wells Gardner, Darton and Company of London advertised an extensive ‘list of attractive Reward Books in Splendid Bindings’ at 3/6 each.
A prize would typically be presented at a little ceremony, sometimes by a local celebrity: the mayor, a councilor or a magistrate, an event commemorated by a more or less ornate book plate signed by a teachers, a headmaster or a member of the local clergy.
The dedication of the book given to Annie Hartley in unusual in that it quotes both the marks she received (208) and their monetary value (1s/4d), with a sum calculating the amount Annie herself had to pay (10d). Such a style suggests that donations were material tokens rather than the books receivers were expected to read. Notwithstanding the righteous stance of the givers, relationships between teachers and their pupils had adsorbed the modes of exchange characteristic of capitalist society.
Annie was a member of an ambitious local family of limited means. Both her parents began their working lives as fustian weavers in the Yorkshire village of Heptonstall. At the time of the dedication of her prize, when Annie was ten years old, her father had become an independent hotel keeper. In 1901, at the age of 20, Annie was working as a tailoring machinist sewing cheap ready-made fustian clothing, a job at which she remained for at least another decade.