The Old Woman who Found – what? A new sixpence? A silver penny? Or a Stuk Geld, or even Une Brillante Pièce D’Argent?
Round about 1800
the publishing of children’s books underwent a sea-change, which may broadly be described as the invention of picture books. Among the first were a pair of thirty-page booklets, jointly titled The Picture Gallery for all Good Boys and Girls. ‘Exhibition the First’, published on April 28,
1801, was no more than a set of prettily engraved and coloured pictures (‘A Bee Hive’. ‘A Rose Bush’…) faced by its name; ‘Exhibition the Second’ came out on June 23, 1802 and colourfully depicted ‘The Cries of London’.
It was the engraving
of both the words and the pictures as a unit that gave the clue to how these charming little entertainments were manufactured and before another year or two had passed other London booksellers caught on to the dodge and, as has occurred from time immemorial, copyists and imitators of such jeux d’esprit filled the market to abandon. (John Harris, one of the leading exponents, claimed to have sold 5000 copies of his Old Mother Hubbard in a few months – a hitherto unheard of figure for a children’s book.)
There is a likelihood
that Mother Hubbard was to some extent pirating an aged predecessor by the name of Old Dame Trot whose very similar adventures with her cat had appeared a couple of years earlier. But that version belonged to a long-lived genre of popular stories that were sold in the streets for a ha’penny or a penny a time rather than the new picture books that were done for the carriage-trade and were at least eighteen times more expensive. Nevertheless, as with Dame Trot and her cat, the penny chapbooks provided the smart publishers with a host of editorial material drawn from tradition to be converted into picture books, and among such texts may well have been the story, still popular today, of ‘The Old Woman and her Pig’. (In my storytelling days it was a leading success and not long ago I had fun acting it out with some Japanese schoolchilden in Osaka.)
I am sorry to say though
that the recent new edition of the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature follows the error of the first edition by dating the rhyme to 1842, and, by so doing, it has obliterated the story of its true arrival in print. That occurred (pending any earlier discovery) in 1808 in a version which is of historic interest in itself. It is given as The True History of a Little Old Woman who Found a Silver Penny and is told in home-made verses:
Some six years ago (or perhaps it was more)
As a little old woman was sweeping her floor
She saw something glisten; and there on the ground
Adzookers! a penny of silver she found.
And from here we go through the familiar rigmarole of her going to market and buying a pig which will not get over the style on its homeward journey. A succession of objects and creatures are entreated to help, all refusing until eventually a ‘liquorish cat’ starts the sequence unwinding so that the old woman does gets home that night.
But the unwinding here
is not just verbal (‘The cat began to kill the rat; the rat began to gnaw the rope…’); it is also visual. Throughout the tale as it is told, hand-coloured pictures have shown the old woman addressing her recalcitrant helpers, but at the climax the whole lot of them are shown undertaking their tasks in a single fold-out panorama of four panels with the old woman hopping with joy as it’s taking place. Not exactly an early pop-up, but at least an early novelty book.
was not the creator of this joyous book, but a more original publisher called Benjamin Tabart. Harris though was not long in following and in 1814 produced the tale of Old Mother Muggins who finds ‘a new sixpence’ which carries her through a story of so complex a make-up that it defies explanation in the short space of this back-page. (It is a little-known book, perhaps on account of only two or three copies having survived.) The text changes from verse to prose, and eventually to a dramatic dialogue, but is interrupted in the middle by seventeen leaves of wonderfully drawn and coloured stipple-engravings.
It must have
entailed chaos at the binders so that there is no wonder at its early disappearance from the market and at Harris eventually producing a more conventional retelling a dozen years later. Engraving has been dropped in favour of letterpress with much simpler hand-coloured woodcuts and the new versification has none of the zing of the earlier versions. It is though the best-known picture book and reproduced in the Opies’ best-selling Nursery Companion. Also there, the Opies list in their notes many foreign-language treatments of the narrative but they do not seem to have come across two that stem directly from the London ones. In Amsterdam Vrouw Dribbel finds ‘een stuk geld’ and follows the course of the first Harris edition, following its text and illustrations very closely but amending the muddle over the pictures being plonked in the middle of the story. In Paris, on the other hand, Les Tribulations de la Mère Goody gives us a prose retelling of the second Harris edition which, with many interpolations by the French editor, extends to nineteen chapters but using copies of the English woodcuts.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His book The Ladybird Story: Children’s Books for Everyone, The British Library, 978-0-71235-728-9, £25.00 hbk, is out now.
A Nursery Companion, Iona Opie and Peter Opie, 978-0192122131, Oxford, available from Amazon
The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes edited by Iona Opie and Peter Opie, 978-0198600886, Oxford, £30.00
The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book by Iona Opie and Peter Opie, illustrated Joan Hassell, 978-0198691129, Oxford, £18.00