‘Dear Uncle Toby’: Content and Readership of ‘The Children’s Corner’ in the Nineteenth-Century Provincial Newspaper Press.

Frederick Milton
Newcastle University

In 1873, the first children’s column in a British newspaper
appeared. This very brief short column in the Belfast News-Letter
marked the beginning of the recognition by newspaper proprietors of
children as potential and profitable readers for their publications.
Beginning in 1876, the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle began a more
adventurous feature with the founding of a ‘Corner for Children’
that ran until the paper’s closure in 1940. Within this column, the
newspaper also introduced its remarkable ‘Dicky Bird Society’
(DBS), a children’s club that marked a real attempt by the paper to
engage with young people by focusing upon the topical issue of nature
conservation and animal welfare.

From the 1880s onwards, a host of children’s societies and columns
followed in the wake of the DBS, as other provincial weekly newspapers
attempted to emulate its extraordinary success. By 1886, 100,000
children had enrolled in the DBS to campaign for bird protection and
were carrying out progressive nature conservation work, such as
feeding the birds and preventing egg-collecting. By 1914, a
children’s column had become a firm fixture in the provincial press,
and the 42 societies traced so far had a combined membership of 1.3

The objective of this paper is twofold. Firstly, it argues that the
numbers enrolled by the newspaper societies point to the significance
and ability of the provincial newspaper press to successfully engage
with children and instruct them in worthy activities, in particular,
engaging children within the growing public affection for wild birds
and their protection. Secondly, it is also possible to assess the
intended audience of this proselytising. Children regularly wrote to
the editors of these columns and these letters were published. When a
child was enrolled into one of related societies, such as the DBS,
their name was diligently added to the burgeoning membership list, and
this was duly published by the newspaper as a glowing testament to the
success of its children’s feature. When a child died, the DBS in
particular, chose to publish a glowing eulogy of the recently departed
individual as a ‘Gone Home’ notice. Evaluating these letters,
membership lists and obituaries, a highly accurate and revealing
picture detailing the age, class origins and gender, of the actual
readership of these newspaper columns can be constructed. This
analysis offers a fresh interpretation of our understanding of not
just our knowledge of newspaper history and its audience but also the
broader canon of children’s literature.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900