Of Chimney Sweeps and Other Urchins

Derrick Knight’s recent post on child labour and chimney sweeps prompted me to re-read my copy of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies.

I must have been around eleven when I last read this book. We didn’t have television, and I didn’t have a sibling near my age, so I was a voracious reader. Books were precious to me. Presents were few and far between, so anyone who did give me one didn’t have to think too hard about what I would like!

the-water-babies-charles-kingsley-549x800I developed a habit of covering the new ones in plastic, and the second-hand ones with brown paper if they had lost their dust-jacket. I can tell I was still in primary school when I got this one because I have printed the title and author on a ruler using a ball-point pen. For the benefit of my American followers, that means I was twelve or under.


When I was ten I found an inkstand. I rushed off a letter to my auntie, using fountain pen and ink. She kept me in notepaper as you can interpret.

3rd-may-1965-inkstandI still have that inkstand. The lid came off its support somewhere over the years, but my kind neighbour repaired it, and re-polished the timber too (thank you Robin).

the-water-babies-charles-kingsley-1-522x800Somewhere along the line I decided I should add my name and address to all my books. I’d say this was just after I started high school (turning thirteen). I met a new friend there who was left-handed and I greatly admired her back-sloping handwriting so I tried to imitate it. Plus I have shortened my first name. I am using a fountain pen dipped in the blue and red ink stored in my inkwell. The pencil lines that I measured from the top of the page and drew in lightly are still visible. This was to ensure my words went straight across the page, and that there was a double space between my name and the address. When I first started work this kind of approach was termed “meticulous“. By the time I finished work several decades later, it was termed “anal retentive“.

I was sent down this burrow because I was trying to work out which edition I owned, and exactly when I would have read it. There is nothing on the frontispiece that dates my copy.


the-water-babies-charles-kingsley-3-554x800Except, it does mention the names of the illustrators. The book is filled with delightful pen and ink drawings, as well as the colour plates. Here is one example to the left. According to Wikipedia, the Johnstones were twin sisters. One of the sisters died in 1979 and the other in 1998 – much later than this book would have been printed. Their popularity began in the 1950s . . .

Finally, I found a copy for sale on Abe Books that shows Heirloom published my version in 1950. It doesn’t have a jacket cover either, like mine, the hardcover is embossed with water-babies and seaweed fronds.

Of course, none of that is particularly relevant to when Kingsley wrote the book (1862-1863), except that there is a statement at the front that “people, event and topics . . . that would have neither meaning nor interest for children today have been omitted from this edition . . .

It makes one wonder what would be left of Kingsley’s writing if a current publisher made such an edit for today’s children!

It is still a good read. The language is sublime, although elements are hard to understand. Thanks to Wikipedia I now know that a Cocqcigrues was a French mythical creature. And certain references to Greek mythology I probably understood better when I was eleven than I do now, as I read a lot of that at the time too. I had to recheck the significance of Prometheus (forethought) and Epimetheus (hindsight) for example.

I delighted in many of his asides and comments on human character. I could imagine Kingsley taking note of the character flaws of his parishioners, and remarking on them in this novel, with them never being the wiser from whom he drew his inspiration. And there are several places where he takes a swipe at certain school education. I have just had another flick through and can’t find the examples. I should have marked passages as I went, but I was too busy reading. Whatever he said did make me chuckle, although I was not sure of the context, as he was in favour of education for the masses as far as I understand. I have just found the part where he chastises cruel schoolmasters, and after punishing them unjustly in the same way they punish their students, sets them to learn three hundred thousand lines of Hebrew within a week 🙂

Professor Ptthmllnsprts (Put-them-all-in-spirits) must have been a casualty of the modern edit as his role as a scientific collector is dealt with pretty quickly, but we do get Kingsley’s open-mindedness to Darwinian theories in the passages about “just because you cannot see something does not mean it doesn’t exist“.

I’ve read several current reviews from people who think it was too moralistic and that they are being preached to. Whereas I think, of course it was! That was the point of it. For children, it is a guiding moral tale of good behaviour presented through fantasy, with Mrs Be_done_by_as_you_did and Mrs Do_as_you_would_be_done_by having a leading role in conveying the message. At the same time he had an eye on the adults, with a sub-text that asked them to take a good hard look at the world around them and see it with all its flaws. Various historians credit the The Water-Babies in improving the plight of child chimney sweepers.

Poor Tom had to drown before he found a better life. This I’m guessing is Kingsley’s allegory for re-birth through baptism; purifying oneself through water; or at least, “cleanliness is next to Godliness”. Whether I understood that as a child I am not sure, but I’d have had to pretty dense not to get that he was urging us to aspire to be better people!

alice-in-wonderland-3-814x1024And while I am reminiscing about my auntie and books, here is the copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and its sequel, that she gave me for Christmas in 1962 when I was seven years old. Covering it in plastic has not completely prevented the jacket cover showing signs of wear and tear. It has had a lot of use over the years.

alice-in-wonderland-2-816x1024I know when I received it, as my older brother illustrated the fly-leaf for me. The fly-leaf is a rich deep red. He inscribed it in pencil, using wattle and a waratah for decoration.

My auntie died in 2011, aged 96. That is when I discovered she kept many of the notes and letters I mailed her. I am happy to say I thanked her for this beautiful book, and also the dress (muu-muu) she had sewn for me. It’s interesting to note that even in 1962 we had rain on Christmas Day. We so often blame it on climate change now. My auntie was on tank water at the time so she would have been pleased to get rain no matter which day it was.


8 thoughts on “Of Chimney Sweeps and Other Urchins

    • It’s my pleasure. I often have you in mind as I write. Perhaps you should start writing your reminiscences. And if you blog them, you should print those off and put in a scrapbook for the grandkids. You have certainly lived a full and interesting life, and you are not done yet!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Love the post! Love the nostalgia! Love the love of books! Mom would catch me reading a book she would tell me to go outside and get the stink out of my bones. The joy of reading a book was just not in her. I’d stick the book in my shirt when she wasn’t looking and run out to the barn, climb up in the hay loft and read my book. We had a small library in the one-room schoolhouse. I finished reading every book in before I finished the 5th grade. Mom’s attitude towards books was not repeated in my house. My sons grew up with books in their hands as did our grandkids. Keep being nostalgic, Gwen, and reread and visit those old friends of childhood.

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    • Perhaps you have inspired me to go through them one by one. I am about to give my nine-year-old grandson a 12 volume set of children’s classics I found in an antiques store, and no longer have room for here. I also have the complete works of Charles Dickens, inherited from Auntie Myra. She didn’t start reading until she got her first pair of glasses, aged around twenty, and then you couldn’t stop her. But she married a man who was effectively illiterate. When he enlisted for WWII he recorded his occupation as “woodsman” – he was a WARDSMAN in a hospital 🙂 Anyway she was able to pass on her love of books to her three sons, as well as me. There was one long summer holiday when we cleaned the local library of its Agatha Christie collection 🙂 As a young adult, after returning from four years overseas, I discovered my mother had given away all my childhood books, even my school prizes. I had to seek them out and explain to the recipient there had been a mistake. Luckily, they saw it my way and gave them back. Those I still have and won’t part with.


    • Yes, I note that BBC had a recent radio play based on The Water Babies. Here’s the synopsis – “Young Tomi is part of the UK’s illegal labour market, having been trafficked into the country from Nigeria as a child labourer, but his life is changed forever when he meets a girl from the other side of the tracks, runs away and falls into a river.” Too funny.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a sweet post Gwen and thanks for sharing Derrick’s blog link – appalling the life of chimney sweeps. I’m struggling to keep up my writing – especially in between travels. Taking a Webinar trying to figure out my message!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sue. I’m glad you liked it. It was a bit indulgent. I was feeling nostalgic. Not for the life of a chimney sweep though. How horrendous! I will pull back to blogging weekly now as I really need to concentrate on the next manuscript. I just wanted to clear my mind of the last trip. Good luck with the webinar!


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