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Arthur Mee: The Children's Editor

Arthur Mee was born into a working class family in Stapleford (near Nottingham, England), in 1875. He was the second child and oldest son of Henry Mee, a mechanical engineer, and his wife, Mary. The family was a very happy one, and in time there were to be ten children altogether. Both of Arthur’s parents were noted for their piety, and his father was a deacon in the Baptist Chapel they attended.

Arthur’s formal education lasted till he was 14 years old. A friend later wrote that he left school

a sound English scholar, but too soon for even a peep into classical realms. He had no aptitude for chemistry, mechanics, or geometry, and as an editor he imagined that present-day pupils might have been equally unattracted by these subjects. Hence his disinclination to the use in his publications for the young of technical terms common to most schoolboys of today. Never would he use such words, for example, as “diameter” or “circumference,” but always width, and so many feet or yards round. If a technical term was not familiar to him, he argued, then it might be unfamiliar to thousands of others, both adult and juvenile. The practice had its disadvantages in lack of precision and directness, but Arthur had ever in mind the one who might not know and might be gravelled by technicalities.
(Ernest Bryant, quoted in Sir John Hammerton’s Child of Wonder: An Intimate Biography of Arthur Mee, pp. 27-28)

In 1889 he commenced his first job, as a copy-holder for the Nottingham Evening Post, and this proved to be the first step to a career in journalism. He was an excellent journalist, and before many years passed he was in London, first working for one of the London newspapers, and then free-lancing.

Shortly after his move to London, Arthur Mee married Amy Fratson. They had one daughter, born in 1901, who they named Marjorie. Like other children, Marjorie was full of questions, and it was this fact that led to the publication of The Children’s Encyclopedia. Her father later wrote about it as follows:

“...there came into her mind the great wonder of the Earth. What does the world mean? And why am I here? Where are all the people who have been and gone? Where does the rose come from? Who holds the stars up there? What is it that seems to talk to me when the world is dark and still? So the questions would come, until the mother of our little maid was more puzzled than the little maid herself. And as the questions came, when the mother had thought and thought, and answered this and answered that until she could answer no more, she cried out for a book: ‘Oh for a book that will answer all the questions!’ And this is the book she called for.”
(“To Boys and Girls Everywhere”, in volume 1 of The Children’s Encyclopedia)

Arthur Mee’s books proved extremely popular with adults and children alike. His biographer, Sir John Hammerton, comments “Whatever one’s opinion may be of the merits of Arthur Mee’s books as contributions to English literature—and there is room for difference of opinion on that subject—no one is likely to dispute their inspirational value to their own age (p. 223f.). According to Hammerton, one of the reasons for this popularity was that “[he] had the power to make plain to the average man, woman, and child the aspects and imports of the problems which the very men who had wrested them from nature could not make so plain” (p. 158) – and this was done in such a way as to communicate the writer’s own enthusiasm for his topic to the reader. There are scientists and historians today who credit Arthur Mee with introducing them to the subject that later became their specialty. Others tell of how they taught themselves to read with the aid of the Children’s Encyclopedia, or how they read it from cover to cover, with obvious delight.

He was a prolific writer. Apart from The Children’s Encyclopedia he produced a number of biographies, a Children’s Bible, Children’s Shakespeare, books of travels around England and Europe, and various anthologies of quotations from great men and women of the past (his Book of Everlasting Things, for instance). He also founded and edited the Children’s Newspaper, and was dubbed “journalist in chief to British youth”.

Finally, it must be said that Arthur Mee was a man of his time. He was known publicly as a Christian, and stood up boldly for Christian principles, though at the same time he was a staunch believer in evolution, and seems not to have believed in the literal resurrection of the Lord Jesus. His view of evolution was like that of Charlotte Mason (among others) – namely that evolution was a wonderful discovery whereby people could now see, scientifically, exactly how God had created the world. He had a great reverence for the Bible and its teachings, and this comes across very clearly in what he writes. His writings also reflect his intense patriotism and his optimism that the world was getting better, and would continue to do so for the rising generation.

Arthur Mee died suddenly in May 1943, following an operation.

Further information on Arthur Mee's life and work may be found in:

bulletSir. John Alexander Hammerton, Child of Wonder: An intimate biography of Arthur Mee, Hodder & Stoughton: London, 1946 [out of print]
bulletSimon Appleyard, The Storytellers: A Glimpse into the Lives of 12 English Writers, First published in 1991 by This England Books, 73 Rodney Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, ISBN 0 906324 20 3 [available from This England]

Copyright © Ruth Marshall 2004

 

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