The Poor Child’s City – E. Nesbit on teachers, schools and making Magic Cities in Wings and The Child 1913

“There are no words to express half what I feel about the teachers in our Council Schools, their enthusiasm, their patience, their energy, their devotion. When we think of what the lives of poor children are …” E. Nesbit

It has been a tough time for many children and teachers during Lockdown, with schools mostly shut, rapidly adapting to home schooling and being taught online, the inequalities of the nation shown up by concerns over free school meal vouchers and lack of data or laptops.

Cotton Reels and pine cones or acorns for Magical City gardens

I started reading Wings and The Child or the Building of Magic Cities (1913) by E. Nesbit (of Railway Children fame) with some scepticism about this middle class pastime of borrowed silver candlesticks and marbled bound volumes set up by servants in the library or the nursery.

The first half of the book is about her thoughts on childhood, education and the state of England, the second half is how she makes her Magic Cities with the help of her children.

Reading this book, I get echoes of Baden Powell’s Scouting for Boys and E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, a concern for the rapidly urbanising State of the Nation, shown up in BP’s case by the poor standard of recruits for the Boer War.

What I didn’t realise is that Edith Nesbit, in response to many letters from children about her children’s book The Magic City (1910), exhibited and manned her Magic City at during the Child Welfare Exhibition Olympia of late 1912 and early 1913, the year her book was published.

Here at the Exhibition, she had a wide range of visitors from foreign royalty to teachers. Fellow exhibitors included the suffragette or suffrage societies.

Regular blog readers will have read my recent posts on H.G. Wells’ Floor Games (1911) and Little Wars (1913).

Edith Nesbit (or Mrs Hubert Bland) and her husband Hubert would have known Wells and his Little Wars friends like Mr W. (Graham Wallas) through the socialist Fabian Society. Arguably Wells’ science fiction books have their own criticisms of the state of the Nation or colonialism and Empire such as The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine.

This Edwardian period is one where I often base my games, from suffragette bill postering on wheels to Scouting Wide Games for Boy and Girl Scouts.

Reproaching my initial modern prejudice about this book and her Edwardian Middle Class background, Nesbit shows that she is aware or able to adapt her thoughts to the situation of children in rural or urban board schools (primary schools) established in the 1870s.

Clothes pegs sawn into three parts for building.

The Poor Child’s City – CHAPTER VII, Wings and the Child, E. Nesbit, 1913

“When my city was built at Olympia a great many school-teachers who came to see it told me that they would like to help the children in their schools to build such cities, but that it would not be possible because the children came from poor homes, where there were none of the pretty things—candlesticks, brass bowls, silver ash-trays, chessmen, draughts, well-bound books, and all the rest of it—which I had used to build my city.

So then I said I would build a city out of the sort of things that poor children could collect and bring to school. And I did. My friends Mr. Annis and Mr. Taylor, who were helping me to explain the city and show it to visitors, helped me with the building. We did it in a day, and it was very pretty—so pretty that the school-teachers who came to see it asked me to write a book to say how that was done. And so I did.

There are no words to express half what feel about the teachers in our Council Schools, their enthusiasm, their patience, their energy, their devotion.

When we think of what the lives of poor children are, of the little they have of the good things of this world, the little chance they have of growing up to any better fate than that of their fathers and mothers, who do the hardest work of all and get the least pay of all those who work for money—when we think how rich people have money to throw away, how their dogs have velvet coats and silver collars, and eat chicken off china, while the little children of the poor live on bread and tea, and wear what they can get—often enough, too little—when we think of all these things, if we can bear to think of them at all, there is not one of us, I suppose, who would not willingly die if by our death we could secure for these children a fairer share of the wealth of England, the richest country in the world.

For wealth, by which I mean money, can buy all those things which children ought to have, and which these children do not have—good food, warm clothes, fresh country air, playthings and books, and pictures.

Remembering that by far the greater number of children of England have none of these things, you would, I know, gladly die if dying would help. To die for a cause is easy—you leap into the gulf like Curtius, or fall on the spears like Winkelried, or go down with your ship for the honour of your country.

To lead a forlorn hope, to try to save one child from fire or water, and die in the attempt—that is easy and glorious. The hard thing to do is to live for your country—to live for its children.

And it is this that the teachers in the Council Schools do, year in and year out, with the most unselfish nobility and perseverance.

And nobody applauds or makes as much fuss as is made over a boy who saves a drowning kitten. In the face of enormous difficulties and obstacles, exposed to the constant pin-pricks of little worries, kept short of space, short of materials and short of money, yet these teachers go on bravely, not just doing what they are paid to do, but a thousand times more, devoting heart, mind, and soul to their splendid ambition and counting themselves well paid if they can make the world a better and a brighter place for the children they serve.

If these children when they grow up shall prove better citizens, kinder fathers, and better, wiser, and nobler than their fathers were, we shall owe all the change and progress to the teachers who are spending their lives to this end.

And this I had to say before I could begin to write about how cities may be built of such materials as poor children can collect and bring to school …” (E. Nesbit, Wings and The Child, 1913)

You can read the rest of this section and the whole of Wings and the Child here:

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38977/38977-h/38977-h.htm#Page_174

Cocoanut Cottage … tin can towers

Wings and The Child – A very interesting book , along with Little Wars and Floor Games that captures the spirit of our childhood games and our modern gamers’ scrap modelling.

Many of her other comments in Wings and The Child on the ‘institution’ of Education from the content of curriculums, class sizes and the lack of time for concern for the individual personality of children might be heard in school staff rooms and home education groups today.

The communal or collective efforts (collective in many senses of the word) to make these Magic Cities in urban or rural Board Schools must have been splendid sights to see, the shiny tin can city version of the glories of the Victorian and Edwardian “Nature Table” in primary schools and Sunday Schools.

Bravo Board and Council School Teachers!

Blog posted by Mark Man of TIN, 24 January 2021

9 thoughts on “The Poor Child’s City – E. Nesbit on teachers, schools and making Magic Cities in Wings and The Child 1913”

  1. One of the most successful clubs I ran ever at school was a Lego club. Children really became engrossed in building both communally and individually. Sometimes you saw children in a completely different light as they lost themselves in creating buildings and cities, being focussed when often they appeared not in other situations. The activity of building was transformative.
    Blockplay as part of the curriculum was terrific too,see the examples of what school can buy
    https://www.communityplaythings.co.uk/products/wooden-toys/blocks/unit-blocks
    Greek temples, Viking boats model schools were created using such equipment. They were planned beforehand and recorded by photos or drawings afterwards. The album created proved inspiration for others. Children of all ages nursery to P7 enjoyed this activity, each at their own level.

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    1. I thought you would find the Education side of this book interesting. I think Lego is a tremendous thing for adults and schools / children, what Eddie Izzard calls a “world idea”. I think that the founder or family previously made wooden toys.

      There is a lovely story about when the Iron Curtain / Berlin Wall fell (crikey! Thirty years or more ago) that in one Eastern Bloc(k!) city they filled a town or city square with mountains of white Lego bricks – a toy from the West people had never seen – and left people young and old to sit and make and break and remake and chat in freedom.
      I hope both Wells and Nesbit would have appreciated these blocks and the Bootlego in Poundland (maybe not the expensive franchise stuff that rescued their company recently). Nesbit was surprisingly sniffy about Plasticine in 1913.

      If only we had some kind of Time Machine (I could ask Mr Wells?) we can send them back some basic Lego blocks from the future to Wells, Nesbit, RLS and of course, the Brontes!

      I think RLS would have appreciated Lego – his Block City poem reminds me of wooden bricks, Lego or even digital Lego of Minecraft.

      https://manoftinblog.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/block-city-rls-and-minecraft/

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  2. Thank you for another wonderful post, Mark! I love the historical deep dives you do. I wanted to share a possible connection, cross pollination, or possible example of convergent evolution.

    When I first read Floor Games, I was immediately reminded of the wonderful place where I began teaching back in the ’90s, City & Country School (https://www.cityandcountry.org/). The founder, Caroline Pratt, invented those unit blocks Mr. Gruber mentioned, around 1913. Here’s a link to the school archives to see pictures of kids at work with blocks as early as the ’20s:

    (http://digitalarchive.cityandcountry.org/items/browse?collection=8)

    I have no idea if Caroline Pratt was aware of HGW’s or E. Nesbitt’s books; I believe she and her colleagues did have connections to the US socialist movement, though, so perhaps there were ties to English Fabians? More research to be done!

    Scott

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    1. Quite possible she knew of them, or at least Nesbit’s book. As you say it could be entirely independent block creation in1913. Montessori and other writers on childhood might also have been influences.
      Floor Games would already have been out in 1911.

      Fascinating what a small world it is (and a small world made of blocks).
      Wells’ book on Floor Games was reprinted, and I believe the same of Nesbit.

      Both of them had well established literary reputations with books and magazine serials in both British and American magazines.

      Both authors books would be in public and college libraries. I’m sure the reviews in newspapers and teachers / education journals would also make progressive teachers aware of these books either side of the Atlantic. Quite possible with the Fabian Society connection as well to the US socialist movement.

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