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Movable and Toy Books; Myths and Heroes. 0710: Anon., The British Champion; or Honour Rewarded

Author: Anon.
Title: The British champion; or honour rewarded. Containing 1. The history of St. George and the dragon; II. The story of Miss Friendly and the merchant; III. Rural happiness; IV. The fairy's present; or, the history of Miss K. Graceful; V. The pleasing story of Master Want-Thought
Cat. Number: 0710
Date: No date but c.1797?
1st Edition:
Pub. Place: York
Publisher: Wilson, Spence and Mawman
Price: 4d
Pages: 1 vol., 95pp.
Size: 10 x 6.5 cm
Illustrations: Frontispiece plus 41 further wood-cuts
Note: Bound in Dutch flower boards

Images of all pages of this book

Page 002 of item 0710

Introductory essay

From its title, one would expect The British Champion; or Honour Rewarded to provide tales of chivalry, derring-do and patriotic soldiery - just the kind of thing, in fact, which is to be found in the tale of 'St. George and the Dragon' with which the collection opens. But the story of England's patron saint occupies just seven of the 95 book's pages (and only one of the 42 woodcuts). It is succeeded by stories of much more 'domestic' heroism, like the tale of Fanny Friendly's virtuous decision to hand back £50 note she has found, or the narrative of Master Want-Thought who learns of the importance of learning to read. Such characters form, in a sense, a new breed of national hero to supersede St. George. They are honest, astute, diligent, commercially-aware, and possessed of all the virtues which allow themselves and their nation to flourish. After all, then, as its title had promised, this volume does contain a new national pantheon.

The catalogue of the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books suggests a date of c.1795 for its copy of The British Champion, which seems to be identical to the Hockliffe copy. The Osborne catalogue also mentions that 'A dated edition [of The British Champion] was published in 1797 with forty-four cuts attributed by Thomas Hugo to Thomas Bewick.' (St. John, 1975: 2, 863) Where this edition is to be found is a mystery. Perhaps the reference is to a copy in the British Library which, like the Osborne and Hockliffe copies, is undated, but has '1797' written onto a flyleaf in manuscript. Yet this British Library edition also has just forty-two cuts, just like the Osborne and Hockliffe copies. In any case, the decade in which The British Champion was published can be determined by the surviving imprints of its publishers, Wilson, Spence and Mawman of York. No earlier such imprint exists from before 1788, and no later one that 1800. Indeed, imprints from 1800 show that Spence and Wilson were still printing and publishing in York, but Mawman had moved to London.

The book is divided into seven sections - the five parts named in the title, and, at the end, 'An instructive and edifying Letter from a Father to his Son' and a poem called 'The Pet'. Brief synopses are set out below.

I. The history of St. George and the Dragon (p.5)

II. The story of Fanny Friendly and the Merchant (p.12)

III. Rural Happiness; of, The Pleasures of a Country Life. By a Young Lady. (p.21)

IV. 'The Fairy's Present; or, the History of Miss Kitty Gracewell' (p.31)

V. 'The History of Master Wantthought' (p.57)

VI. Additional material (p.87)

I. The history of St. George and the Dragon (p.5)

St. George is the son of Albert, High Steward of England, and is born at Coventry. He is taken from his three nurses by a wicked enchantress, named Calyt, who keeps him in her cave. When he turns eighteen, Calyt arms her protégée and sends him out into the world to seek adventures. He wanders into Egypt where he hears of the dragon which has eaten all the virgins in the land save only the King's daughter. He kills the dragon by plunging his sword down its throat, and wins the hand of the princess. This is only the first part of the standard tale of St. George. His further adventures may be followed in the Hockliffe Collection's copies of The Seven Champions of Christendom: 0718 and 0719.

II. The story of Fanny Friendly and the Merchant (p.12)

A merchant has just got a £50 banknote but, meeting a friend and thrusting the note in his pocket, he forgets all about it. When he takes out his handkerchief, the note falls out of his pocket, but Miss Fanny Friendly, a young girl, notices it. She accosts the man and returns his note. He notes down her name and address and says he is pleased with her honesty. So are her parents when she tells them her story - they call her their angel and advise her never to be guilty of a dishonest action. Only then does a length of silk and a note for £20, and a promise of a suit of linen, arrive from the merchant. The tales ends with an authorial injunction to remember virtue above all things.

III. Rural Happiness; of, The Pleasures of a Country Life. By a Young Lady. (p.21)

Guidebooks to London for children from the provinces, which mixed historical anecdotes with descriptions of major landmarks, were a popular kind of children's book throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Hockliffe Collection contains several examples, such as those published by John Newbery and his successors, and by Thomas Tegg (e.g. 1025 and 1029). 'Rural Happiness; of, The Pleasures of a Country Life' seems to be, in some ways, a guidebook to the country, designed for town children. However, it also has a strong moral element. The narrator visits the country with her mother. There they visit some sophisticated and polite company. Our narrator has to suppress her appetite, for she is too overawed to eat as many of the delicacies on offer as she would like. Her mother praises her restraint, though she says she by no means likes the strict formality of these occasions. Then they visit rural villages, full of rude, flimsy huts. Our narrator expects 'to find their inhabitants in as wretched a situation as those I have read of, where giants and witches resided' (p.25). However, everyone is happy, nature is beautiful, and the villagers sit around conversing. Her mother delivers this sermon:

You see, my dear little daughter that happiness is confined to no particular spot; it is every where to be found, if we will but take the trouble to seek it; and believe me, we have not far to go for it, since it lies within ourselves. Do not despise those who live in a poor and humble situation; for they often enjoy that peace and serenity of mind which is frequently unknown to people in exalted stations. Here every thing is peace and quietness; for they have no desire beyond the real necessities of life. They reap the fruits of those toils and labours, in the gratification of every thing which is in itself plain, simple and frugal. The want of gilded carriages and numerous attendants give them no uneasiness; they eat when their appetites call for it, they lie down when they are weary, they rise with the sun to pursue their labour, and, when that is finished, they amuse themselves in the manner you now see. They even look down with pity upon those people who make their lives miserable in continually wishing for more. (pp.28ff.)

IV. 'The Fairy's Present; or, the History of Miss Kitty Gracewell' (p.31)

Kitty's mother dies when she is two. She is obedient to her father, though, and 'It was her constant business to visit her poor neighbours, and give them victuals and money' (pp.31-2). She has lots of sweethearts, but avoids their company 'because some of them were wild' (p.33). When she turns fifteen, her father gives her a diamond ring ('and when you are as good as she was you shall have one too', the reader is told, p.32). The ring had been given to him by the Fairy Virtue, who lives near his country house.

In the country, out on a walk, Kitty and her maid meet Prince Frederick riding by on a fine horse. He accosts her in fairy tale language:

In what land have you lived, that the fame of your beauty should never yet have reached my ears? (p.38-9)

She responds in the language of the moral tale:

Seek not, Sir, says she, for beauty, for it decays; but one that has a virtuous soul is an inestimable jewel (p.38-9)

The Prince admires her wisdom, and announces that for three years he has been engaged on quest to find a woman in possession of a certain diamond ring; 'she, by the destinies, is to be mine', he says (p.38-9). Only then does Mr. Gracewell come along and recognise the man as Prince Frederick. The prince promises to call again. Undaunted by this prospect, Mr Gracewell spends the evening reading, as is his custom.

When the Prince calls on the following day, he is prevailed upon to recite his adventures. He had been on a voyage when his ship was overtaken by a tempest and driven onto the Island of Plenty. There the Fairy Virtue accosted him and revealed that if he stayed virtuous, and overcame the challenges placed in his way, in three years he would meet the bearer of the Diamond Ring, and she would be his wife. He was given a magic sword and a fine horse, and sent on his adventures. First, he came across a giant, who instantly attacked him. The Prince killed the giant and rescued his prisoners. Next, he resisted the lures of a Queen - 'one of the brightest beauties, to my thinking, that ever the sun shone on' - even though she promised 'to make you the happiest of mortals' (pp.49-50). He was about to accompany her when he remembered his virtue, and a sort of 'silent monitor' sent him on his way (p.50). But on the following day he found himself, when he woke, in a sort of prison. The Queen appeared and told him that her love for him made her lock him away, that he might have wealth and power if he simply agreed to live with her, but that should he refuse, he would suffer greatly. The Prince steadfastly refused, and soon other women appear, impressed by his virtue, and they told him to use his sword to free himself. He did so, and found that he must fight many 'black men with swords in their hands, and shields on their arms'. Defeating them, he was transported out of the dungeon, and with the help of a hermit, he found his way back to his father's kingdom.

After all this we return to the story of Kitty. Though she is much below the Prince in rank, he marries her, and they 'became a pattern of true virtue and godliness' (p.56).

V. 'The History of Master Wantthought' (p.57)

This a multi-part tale. Master Wantthought is idle. He does not read, pays no consistent attention to anything, and so is not even good at games. Spurned by the other boys, he finds himself crying on the step of an old woman. She counsels him to apply himself, and teases him for not being able to read. The other boys also tease him. When he complains that some of the other boys do not read, and just play games all day, the woman explains that they, the poorer children, have to help their parents make a living - 'these boys help their father to pull turnips, and their mother to spin!' (p.63) - and it is to be expected that Master Wantthought should read better than them, being from a more affluent background. Here then, is a clear demonstration of the target audience of a book such as this. It also suggests that one of the major spurs to reading is the social prestige of it, or rather the social embarrassment if one cannot read.

Having taken this advice onboard, Master Wantthought does begin to apply himself, and does learn to read. Later, he becomes friends with Master Nevil, a richer boy, and the theme of the story switches to emphasise the necessity of contentment with one's lot theme. As Master Wantthought's tutor puts it, 'Believe me it is not the part we act on the stage of life, but the manner in which we support the character allotted to us which constitutes our merits, and secures our happiness.' (pp.82-3)

There has also been an inset tale of a girl whose grandmother has cancer of the breast. The girl has devoted herself to caring for her grandmother. She appears like Little Red Riding Hood, with a basket of eggs for her grandmother. Master Wantthought asks her if she would not rather be enjoying herself than being so busy in caring for her relative. The girl replies in the negative.

Additional material (p.87)

At the end of the volume comes some additional material not mentioned on the title-page. First comes 'An instructive and edifying Letter from a Father to his Son' (begins p.87). It deals with the best way to bestow charity. Since the recipients of charity often find it difficult to be grateful, every donor has the obligation to give in such a manner as will enable recipients to express their thanks in a manner which does not humble them or cause resentment. Again this is a striking demonstration of just what social class of reader this kind of text was aimed at.

Finally comes 'The Pet' (begins p.93), a three-page poem about a boy who is doted upon by his mother to the extent that he becomes hopelessly spoiled. Some time later he is found drowned and his mother expostulates that she should have been much stricter, so as to eradicate his vices while there was still time.

St. John, Judith (ed.) with Dana Tenny, Dana, and Hazel I. Mactaggart, The Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books 1476-1910. A Catalogue. Volume II, Toronto: Toronto Public Library, 1975