‘Circles’ of communicating children: provincial newspapers and child writers in late-nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland

Sian Pooley
University of Oxford

In late-nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland, around one-third of weekly provincial newspapers introduced a column aimed at young readers. In an increasingly competitive marketplace for the popular press, these children’s columns sought to attract the most literate generation of working-class readers. A minority of these columns also sought to nurture children’s engagement with the newspapers’ ‘Circles’ as writers, by publishing the letters, stories, poems and drawings that children submitted enthusiastically for publication. This paper examines the communities of communication constructed mutually by the journalists, child writers, and wider communities of readers, so as to ask three principal questions. What did the popular press and practices of newspaper reading mean to these children who were growing to adulthood after 1870? How did this pioneering young readership shape developing regional, class and gendered cultures of newspaper reading? And, to what extent did the young prompt journalistic innovation to appeal to this new market for the popular ‘family’ press in the final decades of the nineteenth century?

This paper draws on a larger on-going research project that uses children’s writing in the popular press during the seventy years before the Second World War to explore children’s experiences, beliefs and identities. The attitudes to newspapers and periodicals that these young writers expressed are linked to their familial circumstances, as recorded in the decennial census enumerators’ books, and the specific local socio-economic contexts in which these children were growing up. By using age as a category of analysis and – for the first time – including the voices of working-class and lower-middle-class children, it becomes clear that young readers and writers were central to the story of the growth of the reading communities of the provincial popular press in later-nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland.

This paper principally engages with the conference strand focused on ‘the role of the reader in press interactions’. In so doing, it secondarily intersects also with the ‘extension and expansion of readership’ and the articulation of ‘regional and national identity’ across the United Kingdom.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900