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Copperfields, my local second-hand bookshop has room after room stuffed full with overflowing shelves and books stacked on almost every inch of floor and is an endless source of curiosities and gems.  Yesterday, with a few minutes to kill in the town centre before trudging back up the hill to Wimbledon Village, I indulged in one of my favourite pastimes and, inelegantly navigating around piles of books spilling out from shelves, made my way to the ‘under the stairs’ area where there is usually a small selection of Victorian and Edwardian pictorial bindings. These books can be highly collectible, rightly valued for their attractive and decorative bindings. But they are just as often a happy hunting ground for the literary detective not least because they are the sort of books that were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries presented to children as school, club and church-sponsored prizes.  Prize books often have elaborate, gilded and highly attractive prize presentation book plates which in turn may have intriguing details about a long-forgotten organisation or the lucky recipient.  Just a little digging can reveal fascinating glimpses of literary, local and social history at level which usually slips below the radar of more formal, traditional historical studies, exposing forgotten cultures of ordinary folk.  Yesterday’s visit reaped gold-dust and I left the shop with this seemingly unassuming copy of G A Henty’s In the Hands of the Cave-Dwellers (Blackie and Co, undated but likely to be a late 1920s or early 1930s edition).

G A Henty In the Hands of the Cave-Dweller

G A Henty, who wrote 120 or so historical adventures for young readers between 1861 and his death in 1902, will be a familiar name to those interested in decorative and pictorial bindings. From 1882 Henty’s novels were published in the UK by Blackie and Co, and the influence of Tawlin Morris, Blackie’s Art Director from 1893, promoter of the ‘Glasgow Style’ and a talented artist, can be seen in many Henty editions.

Decorative Binding in Talwin Morris Style

Henty was tremendously popular in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when his combination of fast-paced action adventure, wholly worthy young heroes (and occasional heroines), historical accuracy and correct if not fine writing style both appealed to children and was approved by parents and authorities.  He is credited with inspiring others, such as R M Ballantyne and W G H Kingston, to write similarly entertaining and educational rippingly good yarns. Henty’s appeal waned in the post-war years, when his particular blend of Christian conservatism and pro-imperial history was more widely seen as jingoistic, elitist and racist and many of his books went out of print.  But in the last forty or so years, interest in Henty has revived, partly fuelled by the growing home-school movement where his books are widely used to inspire historical interest in children in an entertaining fashion.  Original editions of Henty’s books are collected by many and almost all are back in print. The Henty Society was founded in 1977.

This volume, then, appealed in part because of the Henty cache and in part because, although certainly produced well after his death, its binding shows clearly the design influence of Talwin Morris. But the clincher was the decorative and intriguing presentational bookplate and associated insert.  The book was presented, on 28 July 1935, to one Arthur Brown as a “Progress Prize” when he was in Class IV A of St Helier No.7 J M School.  And tucked inside the front cover is Arthur Brown’s term report, showing his performance in reading, recitation, composition, arithmetic, handwriting etc, for the term ending 1 August 1934.  The book plate is pretty enough to be desirable – but what an unusual school name!

Progress Prize Bookplate Arthur Brown No 7 School St Helier 1935

The St Helier Estate straddles London’s suburban boroughs of Merton and Sutton. It was built between 1928 and 1936 by London County Council to re-house people from decaying and over-crowded areas of inner and central London.  It was the second largest of a serious of ‘out-country’ estates built by the Council in late 1920s and 1930s and covered 825 acres of arable land and pasture – much of which had previously been used to grow lavender for the already declining herb industries. The St Helier planners aspired to follow the garden city principles of Sir Ebenezer Howard although contemporary newspaper reports suggest that they may have fallen short in execution.  The huge St Helier Hospital where John Major, future UK Prime Minister, was born in 1943 opened in 1938 and still dominates the area both physically and economically.  To service an intended population of some 40,000, seven churches, two pubs and a 2000-seater cinema were built alongside 9,000 houses and flats.

Sources vary on how many schools were planned for the St Helier Estate with estimates ranging from a high of 18 to as few as 10.  It seems though that only nine (Nos. 1 to 4 and Nos. 6 to 10 – School No. 5 was planned but never built) emerged as distinct institutions although some of these had junior and senior departments and some were segregated by gender.  Each of the schools was originally given a number, and seem to have been known by these numbers, only acquiring recognisable names later on.  School No. 7, which Arthur Brown attended, was originally a mixed school but later became girls only known as Winchcombe School.  Our Arthur, in 1934 and 1935, was in the Junior Mixed Department (the J M initials on the bookplate are spelt out in full on his school report.)

Arthur’s report records that he was “a very good worker. [His] English is particularly good – it is a pleasure to read his compositions. He has also made good progress in Arithmetic. Conduct VG”.  We can also see from this report that he was top of this class in 1934.  The report is signed by D M Baker, as the class teacher, and has the head teacher’s, D M Lloyd-Carter, signature printed on.  It also has the signature of A H Brown – presumably Arthur Brown himself.

Arthur Brown's School Report from No 7 School St Helier, 1935

The front free endpaper also has a book-seller’s blind stamp indicating that, when new, the book was originally offered for sale by “William Pile, Bookseller, Sutton and Wallington”.  William Pile Ltd was a local institution whose growth mirrored the development of London’s Surrey suburbs.  William Pile opened his first shop in 1870 in Wallington, with a Sutton branch opening in 1890 and a further branch in Epsom in 1916.  Pile, who is described in an article by Sutton’s Local Studies and Archive Centre as a “venerable, bearded figure”, also established a printing works in Hackbridge in 1878 and was one of the founders of the Surrey County Herald newspapers.  The print works produced, among other things, Pile’s local directories.  The Sutton shop, located at the junction of Sutton High Street and Carshalton Road and known locally as Pile’s Corner, grew from a small, single storey affair into a multi-department store offering stationery, fancy and leather goods and a circulating library with some 8,000-9,000 titles alongside book sales. All three branches closed in February 1963.  (Sutton Local Studies and Archive Centre have published a series of photographs of Pile’s Corner.)

I love the personal history provided by these artefacts and can’t help but wonder what became of Arthur Brown. Did he get to build on his academic talents as a budding scholar? Or was his life cut short by the war that was only a few years away? Or did he have some other future? Regardless of his future, I’m delighted to have found his book.

Do you remember the early days of the St Helier Estate? Did you go to school there – perhaps School No.7? Do you remember Arthur Brown? Or the head-teacher D M Lloyd-Carter? I would love to hear your memories or add to the history of this book.  And I’d be thrilled to be able to reunite the book with the Brown family.

This copy of G A Henty’s In the Hands of the Cave-Dwellers is available for purchase via ABEbooks at £20.00.