Little Tommy Thumb with his Pipe and his Drum (and some of his successors)
I have just bought
a very rare nursery rhyme book with the title I Love Little Pussy and Other Rhymes. I can trace no other copy anywhere (unless the British Library have one among their multitude of uncatalogued ephemera or some Ladybird Book collector has an undisclosed copy squirreled away.) For this thin quarto volume of twelve ‘untearable’ pages, all fixed together with Sellotape, is among a mass of equally rare examples of The Ladybird Series, which Wills & Hepworth published for twenty-five years before they invented the little books that everybody is made to gush about. Its chief feature, apart from its delicious ugliness, is that it nowhere contains the rhyme of ‘I love little pussy’.
That is typical of those Series books
but it joins my collection in a year when nursery rhymes are having a particularly lively time. Right at the start there was a big exhibition in the Osborne Collection at Toronto which not only showed a multitude of published versions but neatly contrived to use them to display variant treatments of individual rhymes. There is some Canadian bilingualism at the end of ‘Humpty Dumpty’:
All the King’s horses
Et l’armée du roi
Couldn’t make Humpety Dumpety
Ce qu’il était autrefois.
And a chapbook published in Otley gives us the two rhymes about Tom the piper’s son who steals a (sugar) pig in one and in the other is found deficient in his father’s calling: For the only tune that he could play was ‘Over the hills and far away’.
And that brings us home again
to Newcastle upon Tyne where Seven Stories is celebrating publication of the rhyme collection of the same title compiled by Elizabeth Hammill, the initiator and co-founder of the institution, as a present on its tenth birthday. (All royalties are going to the foundation.) Here too variety rules, for Elizabeth has quarried the world to find rhymes native to cultures beyond Britain and her birth-place America. Who, for instance, knows this Caribbean clapping rhyme?:
Little Sally Water
Sitting in a saucer
Crying and a-weeping for someone to come …
Furthermore her seventy-seven illustrators have each been given a double-page spread to exercise their craft (and have generously made a further present of their original artwork to Seven Stories)
Nor is that all,
for earlier this year the Seven Stories archive was able to purchase the original drawings and watercolours for one of the most famous of twentieth century nursery-rhyme collections: Kathleen Lines’s Lavender’s Blue, illustrated by Harold Jones (who, alas, cannot be found in the recently re-issued Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature). Some of these form part of an exhibition arising from Elizabeth’s anthology which, facing Toronto across the Atlantic, raises hopes that Seven Stories, and the Children’s Literature Unit at the University next door, may become an Osborne Collection all our own.
But whence came all these crazy rhymes?
Almost everything you need to know on that score can be found in the Opies’ magisterial Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. While acknowledging the true origins in the sung or spoken word, they point to a little book that was first published in 1744 as the begetter of the print tradition of the English nursery rhyme: Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book. This I have, rather more than once, described as the Gutenberg Bible of children’s literature, and since its treatment in the above-mentioned Oxford Companion is a disgrace, it may be worth offering a justification for the claim.
Unlike the Gutenberg Bible
Tommy Thumb was not a very big book – its pages measured about 8 x 5 centimetres – and similarly its two volumes have not survived so well. Its first volume has vanished entirely and its second is known in only two examples. Nevertheless the character and contents of that volume are magical – and the more so since it was published at the very start of serious trading in children’s books. It consists of just 38 nursery rhymes, each with an etched illustration, and many will still be found in Lavender’s Blue and its like – although I don’t think that all will pass muster today, such as:
Suck a Bubby.
Your Father’s a Cuckold,
Your Mother told me
Furthermore, like its ancient predecessor, it is a novelty of the printer’s art. It is designed to be printed on an etching press, but the letters for the words are not engraved on the plates but stamped in with metal punches and then, at the press, half the plates were printed in black ink and half in red so that the colours alternate as you turn the pages – a delight wholly in keeping with the spirit of fun that imbues the whole exercise.
And the revolution implicit
in that venture can now be seen to be more widespread than was thought. For, thanks to the digitising of eighteenth century newspapers and their advertisements, it is now possible to posit that Tommy Thumb was only the first of a quantity of similar publishing high jinks. Throughout these early years children were being offered rhymes, riddles, pictorial alphabets (often in the black/red printing combinations) which may disabuse some who think that Morality ruled the market from the start. The trouble is that, as occurred with the lost Volume I, it was all too popular for its own survival.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. In 2013 he collaborated with Andrea Immel on a study, Nurse Lovechild’s Legacy, which included three facsimiles to reveal the hitherto unremarked background to these early rhyme books under the general title Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book (Los Angeles: Cotsen Occasional Press). They also speculated on the possible contents of the lost Volume I.
Elizabeth Hammill’s Over the Hills and Far Away is published by Frances Lincoln, 978-1-8478-0406-8, £14.99.