The Boys Own Paper started on Saturday January 18th 1879 and I have lots of early editions which have been bound into annual volumes and then after those a few examples of Boys Own Annual where the publisher reprinted the previous years editions in book form. The magazine was printed weekly and was full of exciting stories both fact and fiction, sports advice (later editions had articles on how to play cricket by WG Grace) along with things to do, most of which would be well beyond the target age group nowadays. The masthead reproduced above hinted at the wonders that would be found inside.
In exploring The Boys Own Paper I thought about taking my collection as a whole but decided that a more representative idea as to what a boy of 1879 would get from such a paper would be to just look at the very first issue which cost 1 penny back then which according to the Bank of England inflation calculator would be 50p nowadays so a very reasonable price as any equivalent today would be significantly more expensive.
The front cover looks very promising but the game, described as football, is clearly what we would now call rugby. Indeed rugby football was commonly played in schools from the 1850’s following its creation at Rugby School in the 1830’s, Association Football (what we now think of as football) only had it’s rules set in 1863 and wasn’t as popular in schools even by 1879. The story concerns a boy, who picked for the team for the first time gets involved in a very close match which they only win right at the end, very much the sort of thing to catch the readers attention to the publication. The paper is 16 pages long and this tale takes up the initial 2½ pages. It was followed by a short poem and then the first part of what was to become a long running serial “Out with a Jack-Knife” and a much shorter series (just three parts) by Captain Webb, the first person to swim The English Channel.
The natural history column Out with a Jack-Knife proved especially popular and ran for a long time, in this first example it is 1½ pages long and describes finding various worms, centipedes and even glow-worms in a small overgrown garden area after first explaining that what you need is a proper British made jack-knife not one of those inferior foreign knives that include useless corkscrews, saws, things for getting stones out of horses hooves etc. British is best is a long running assumption in these magazines and this wouldn’t change right through until the magazine finally folded in 1967 after 2,511 issues, initially weekly and then monthly after WWI.
Captain Webb’s tale as to how he came to swim The Channel is full of self-deprecation as is appropriate for a Victorian gentleman. The final paragraph of the section reproduced above even says how difficult it is for him to write the piece because it is about himself but he did manage a page. Between the two sections came another page long article entitled “An Afghan Robber” which despite the unpromising title turns out to be a remarkably balanced piece of writing, especially for the time, which is actually quite complementary regarding the Koran and the Muslim faith in general.
There then followed a series of stories, the most significant of which was “From Powder Monkey to Admiral”, this became a major storyline in future issues and by part four it was the front page tale. Subtitled “Or, the Stirring Days of the Royal Navy” this had it all for the boy looking for action and adventure in his reading and it would continue to be the front page story for most of the rest of the year and was always at least two pages in length, a significant proportion of 16 page publication.
Two shorter articles towards the end of the magazine are intriguing, I’m not sure if having read the piece about monkeys I was therefore expected to have one or more as a pet although it did lead me into that interpretation but I was more interested in the first column on Outdoor Pursuits entitled “Skating and Scuttling”. Skating I can understand, but deliberate sinking of ships as a pastime is definitely rather advanced for boys to be getting up to. It turns out that a ‘Scuttler’ is somebody who frankly is a nuisance out on the ice, dashing about without regard for other users and even worse can gather with others of their type to form conga lines spinning across the surface. The publication then has shorter and shorter articles until there is finally an essay writing competition based on a drawing with no caption.
I do want to include one item from issue three of The Boys Own Paper which gives some idea as to how advanced in skills boys were expected to be.
This is regarded as a project that “any lads with fair mechanical aptitude’ can make what is clearly a quite advanced craft. This isn’t a simple coracle or lash up raft, what we are looking at is a serious rowing boat and you are going to learn how to do it from your weekly boys magazine. I cannot imagine any publication aimed at this age group suggesting such a thing in the present day.
Well that was issue one of The Boys Own Paper in next weeks blog I’m going to look at issue one of The Girls Own Paper which came out a year later and what a contrast it is…