Case # 3: Children’s Adventure Fiction: Promoting Empire-Building

Why did social reformers look to child migration as an appropriate solution for poverty? What was it about colonial relocation that made sense to these rescue workers? Looking to the broader Victorian cultural contexts, we can see an entire body of adventure fiction devoted to the subject of children as global travellers working hard on behalf of empire. Children’s adventure fiction was popular throughout the period, in both serial and book form. This case includes some of the more popular magazines—The Boy’s Own Annual and The Girl’s Own Annual—as well as authors who helped popularize the literary genre. Influenced by formative works such as DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe (“Robinsonades”), these adventure stories often blend together the idea of colonialism and Christian enlightenment. Reformers would have had such stories in mind when they thought about relocating children in the colonies to work. They would have envisioned migration as an act of salvation, saving souls and spreading English values throughout the colonies. And the young migrants themselves would have reflected upon such stories as they braced themselves for “adventure” in an unknown land with the weight of empire resting heavy upon their small shoulders. 

Boy's own annual

Boy’s Own Annual, v.11 (1888-9) London: The Religious Tract Society, 1886. [Child PZ5 no.0355]

This serial began in 1879 as the Boy’s Own Paper, with the weekly issues eventually collected and rebound at the end of the year as The Boy’s Own Annual. The Boy’s Own Paper was funded by the Religious Tract Society, which also published works by notable Victorians such as Hesba Stretton, of the waifs and strays novels (see cases #2 and #5); in keeping with the Religious Tract Society’s goals, The Boy’s Own Paper sought to instill Christian values in young readers. Many of its stories focused on adventure themes, which were increasingly popular throughout the second half of the century.

Regular contributors included some of the best-known authors of Victorian boys’ fiction, such as R.M. Ballantyne, G.A. Henty, W.H.G. Kingston, Talbot Baines Reed, and Gordon Stables. Among the first stories in volume 11 is Jules Verne’s “Adrift in the Pacific: or the Strange Adventures of a Schoolboy Crew” (Verne is, of course, best known for Journey to the Center of the Earth [1864], Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea [1870], and Around the World in Eighty Days [1873]). At 1d per weekly issue, The Boy’s Own Paper was meant to appeal to young readers across the class spectrum, and current scholarship estimates circulation as high as 150,000 in 1888. Home children would have at least heard of these stories, as they were often circulated orally, if not physically, among young readers—their stories becoming the stuff of legends. It is easy to imagine how the paper’s glorification of global adventure would have appealed to the young migrants.

Boy's own annual

Boy’s Own Annual, V. 9 (1886-1887) London: The Religious Tract Society. [Child PZ5 no.0355]

R.M. Ballantyne was among the regular authors to contribute stories of boys' global adventure to The Boy's Own Paper. Ballantyne was one of the most prolific authors of children’s adventure romances in the nineteenth century; his novel Coral Island (also in this case) helped to popularize the idea of colonial adventure as a kind of Christian duty.

Shown below is his story, “The Prairie Chief” (taken from the 6 March 1886 issue of the Boy’s Own Paper), glorifying colonial adventure in the North American West. Originally from Scotland, Ballantyne himself was no stranger to global travel, and for such stories drew upon his own personal experience working with the Hudson Bay Trading Company in Canada from the age of 16 to 22 (1841-1847).  He would eventually use his knowledge of the Canadian colony to explicitly promote the child migration schemes in his novel, Dusty Diamonds (see case #5).

Boy's own annual

Ballantyne, "The Prairie Chief," Boy’s Own Annual, V. 9 (1886), p. 360.  

The girls' own paper

Elizabeth Whittaker, “Robina Crusoe,” Girl’s Own Paper, issue 156, Saturday, 23 December 1882, pages 196-197 [Nineteenth Century UK Periodicals; Gale Primary Sources 

The Girl’s Own Paper was a periodical publication of stories catering to young female readers. It was launched in 1880 by the Religious Tract Society as a companion to The Boy’s Own Paper and meant to counteract the negative influence of pernicious penny magazines. The 16-page serial sold for 1d per weekly and eventually reached a circulation of 250,000 (outselling The Boy’s Own Paper).  As with its counterpart for boys, the weekly issues were bound and sold at the end of the year as The Girl’s Own Annual. Because it was intended for young girls, the paper often relied on a mix of moralistic fiction, articles on self-improvement or domestic skills, as well as occasional poetry and music. Like its counterpart for boys, The Girl’s Own Paper was committed to adventure and thus featured stories that sometimes imagined women’s role extending beyond the domestic sphere. “Robina Crusoe,” shown here, is an excellent example of this young female adventurer who learns to serve her nation through a kind of colonial caregiving. As signaled by its title, the story is a typical “Robinsonade” in which our protagonist is shipwrecked and must learn to survive on her own; but in this story, our heroine blends together masculine and feminine traits in order to build a home and also act as a kind of missionary and mother to the local indigenous people. She becomes an almost surrogate “mother empire” when her adopted children (both white and indigenous) marry and form a new, Christianized island culture. Stories such as this would have appealed to reformers and young female migrants looking to Canada as an opportunity to prove the Home Child’s place within the wider empire.

The coral island

R. M. Ballantyne (1825-1894), Coral Island. (1857) New York: E.P. Dutton, 1954. [LP PR4057 .B15 C6 1954]

Ballantyne was one of the best-known children’s adventure authors of the Victorian period. During his lifetime he produced over 100 works, many of them published serially. He was a regular contributor to the Boy’s Own Paper. Coral Island is among his most popular and influential work – both R.L. Stevenson (Treasure Island [1883]) and William’s Golding (Lord of the Flies [1954]) are said to have written their novels as a rather cynical reply to Ballantyne’s idealized picture of the young castaway’s innocence and ready cooperation. Coral Island tells the story of three young boys—Ralph, Jack, and Peterkin—as they learn to survive on their own after they are shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific. The novel is a typical “Robinsonade” (case #2) in its blend of faith and adventure. But it also leans heavily toward endorsing colonial themes, as the young boys play the part of missionaries by converting the local cannibals and saving the indigenous women from mercenary marriages. It is easy to imagine how young readers like the Home Children would have interpreted such stories as a divine endorsement of colonial migration.

Allan Quatermain

H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925), Allan Quartermain: being an account of his further adventures and discoveries in company with Sir Henry Curtis, Commander John Good, R.N., and one Umslopogaas. Toronto: Rose Pub. Co., 1887. [LP PR4731 .A62 1887t]

Haggard was one of the more popular writers of children’s adventure fiction, and through novels such as King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1886-7), helped to popularize the Imperial Quest Romance. This latter type of fiction is typically defined by its mix of misogyny and blatant imperialism, in which the male protagonist seeks to dominate some kind of feminized, foreign land as verification of English superiority. Allan Quartermain (1887) recounts the adventures and exploits of the eponymous hero, first made popular in Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Despite his texts’ often blatant racism, Haggard’s best-known protagonist has enjoyed a long and prosperous legacy, being played in subsequent adaptations by no less than Richard Chamberlain, Sean Connery, Cedric Hardwicke, Patrick Swayze, and Stewart Granger. A version of Allan Quartermain has also appeared in graphic novelist Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999- ; and film adaption 2003). Young Victorian readers eager for male role models would have found in Quartermain a proud defender of empire and colonial adventure.


J.H. Ewing (1841 –1885), Jackanapes. (1880) Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1886. [Child PZ5 no.0758]

Juliana Horatio Ewing was a popular author of Victorian children’s stories—some of her books sold more than one hundred thousand copies. Her best-selling story Jackanapes, was first published (at her mother’s urging) in 1879 by Aunt Judy’s Magazine, a children’s journal edited by Ewing. Her other major works include The Brownies and Other Tales (1870; also included in this reprinted edition), Jan of the Windmill (1876; a story about an orphan who finds happiness with a foster family), and The Story of a Short Life (1885; which later inspired Grace Kimmis to build The Guild of the Poor Brave Things for boys with disabilities), to name but a few. Jackanapes is an adventure story inspired by the Zulu wars of 1879. It is the story of a young orphan (nicknamed “Jackanapes” by his aunt) who eventually becomes a cavalry officer and dies heroically after saving his friend in battle. Ewing’s portrayal of the orphan’s noble sacrifice would have provided inspirational material for those involved in the child rescue and migration schemes.

Sturdy and strong

G. A. (George Alfred) Henty (1832-1902), Sturdy and Strong, or: How George Andrews Made His Way. (1888) New York: A. L. Burt, 18--. [Child PZ5 no. 1032]

G. A. Henty was a popular writer of boys’ adventure fiction, including historical novels and adventures set in England and throughout the British Empire, including With Wolfe in Canada (case #4). Sturdy and Strong, set during the 1850s in England, depicts the story of George Andrews and how his goodness leads him to success. At the beginning of the novel when the family faces the threat of the workhouse, George’s mother presents the colonies, including Canada, as a viable option for them once she has regained her health and they have regained some wealth (8-9). In this way, Canada serves as a place of hope to get them through difficult times, even though they never do travel to Canada during the novel. Canada was also constructed as a place of hope and opportunity for the Home Children.

Mr. Midshipman easy

Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848), Mr. Midshipman Easy. (1836) London: Collins’ Clear-Type Press, [1915?]. [Child PZ5 no. 1340]

Captain Frederick Marryat, popular for his sea adventure stories, also wrote about Canadian adventure, such as in The Settlers in Canada (case #4). Mr. Midshipman Easy follows Jack Easy as he goes on adventures at sea and also follows Jack’s struggles with his father’s belief in the equality between all men, which Jack comes to disagree with. His father invents a machine to change people’s behaviours in order to reach this idea of equality. Jack travels to many countries, especially around the Mediterranean, and he has many adventures with storms at sea and fights with other men. While Jack does not actually need to go to sea for monetary reasons, the novel focuses on Jack’s interest in adventure. This novel, then, depicts a young boy’s yearning for adventure away from home.

Mr. Midshipman easy

Marryat, Mr. Midshipman Easy, [1836; 1915?], frontispiece.

Four on an island

L. T. Meade (Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith) (1844-1914), Four on an Island: A Book for the Little Folks. New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, 1892. [Child PZ5 no. 2246]

L. T. Meade was a prolific and popular writer of girls’ adventure and school stories. Four on an Island tells the story of four children who become shipwrecked and use their knowledge of books such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Johann David Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson (both in case# 2) to survive. The children, two sets of siblings, are living in Brazil but their families are planning to return to England, and the eldest siblings’ father retains a strong sense of Englishness. The displayed frontispiece depicts the moment that the children set out on the boat that will ultimately cause them to be shipwrecked on a deserted island. While the siblings must all work together until they are eventually saved, this novel is also an example of girls’ domestic labour being depicted as useful in adventure stories.

Four on an island

Meade, Four on an Island: A Book for the Little Folks, [1892], frontispiece.

Case # 3: Children’s Adventure Fiction: Promoting Empire-Building