As I mentioned being involved in the recent radio broadcast about Arthur Mee and have been giving some background on some of the authors involved in writing stories for his Children's Newspaper, I thought you might like to know a little more about the man himself.
Arthur Henry Mee was born on 21 July 1875, in a small cottage in Stapleford, Nottinghamshire. He was the second son of ten children born to Henry Mee, a railway fireman, and his wife Mary. The Mee family moved to Nottingham shortly after Arthur was born and he was raised and educated in that famous industrial town.
Arthur’s family and surroundings influenced many of his lifelong beliefs. His father was a strongly religious man with a nonconformist political attitude mirrored by Arthur’s own deeply held religious convictions; and growing up around the coal mines and lace mills of the north instilled a strong sense of belief in the character of the working classes, the backbone of England and the English. The major disgrace of these industrious men, in Arthur’s eyes, was alcohol and he was to become a lifelong campaigner for sobriety.
He was educated at Stapleford School and made use of his reading skills by reciting Parliamentary reports for the benefit of Henry Mellows, the local baker, as he worked which inspired an interest in current affairs. At the time Arthur left school, his family moved to Nottingham and Arthur was able to find work with the Nottingham Evening Post as a copy-holder, employed to read aloud handwritten copy as the proof-reader checks the typeset text.
At the age of fifteen Arthur taught himself Pitman’s shorthand and would practice by taking notes from sermons at the Baptist chapel. One Sunday, the topical sermon seemed to him newsworthy and he hurried home to write it up, taking his report to the offices of the Nottingham Express. The article was printed and, on its strength, Arthur was taken on as an apprentice reporter.
In those days the apprentice would be expected to gather news from the police, fire stations and hospitals, attend local council meetings and report on court cases and meetings of charitable societies. By walking between assignments he was able to save his tram allowance for more important purchases like pork pies and custard tarts.
On completing his apprenticeship with the Express, Arthur found work as an editor on the Express’s sister paper, the Nottingham Evening News, earning the substantial wage of thirty shillings a week. He took rooms in Nottingham with another young journalist, John Hammerton, who had just been appointed editor of the Express. Despite their differences in personality – Hamerton was neither religious nor a tee-totaler – the two became lifelong friends.
Arthur learned to type and was soon supplementing his wages by writing articles for George Newnes’s Tit-Bits and other journals. At the age of 21, Newnes offered Arthur the enormous salary of £1,000 a year to join Tit-Bits, an offer Arthur soon accepted.
In 1896 he moved to London and over the next few years worked on Tit-Bits, the Morning Herald and St James’s Gazette. In 1901 he was appointed editor of Black and White, an illustrated sixpenny weekly, where he was able to employ his friend John Hamerton as literary and dramatic critic. It was also on this paper that he met Miss Margaret Lillie, who was to be Arthur’s secretary for nearly forty years.
Arthur had met Amelia Fratson whilst on holiday in 1895 and the two married on March 6, 1897. The young couple moved into a house in Tulse Hill, London, and had a daughter, Marjorie, in 1901. Soon after, they moved to Hextable, Kent, where Arthur discovered to his disgust that the local post office was also the local off-licence. Arthur bought some land and had a tearoom cum library built which he persuaded the authorities to also use as the village’s post office.
In 1903, Arthur and John Hamerton dreamed up the idea for a new publication to be called Who’s Who This Week which they presented to Alfred Harmsworth, the publisher of the Daily Mail and many magazines. Harmsworth turned the idea down but asked Arthur to join the Mail as a features editor. Harmsworth also suggested a new part-work to be entitled the Harmsworth Self-Educator of which Arthur was to be general editor.
The Self-Educator was an astonishing feat, published in 48 fortnightly issues between 1905-07. The success of the title was equally astonishing and Arthur demanded an additional £1,000 a year on his salary – and got it.
Arthur’s next project was based on his own suggestion. He had discovered a book entitled The World’s History written by a German author, Dr H. F. Helmolt which became the basis for the Harmsworth History Of The World in 1907-09 which Arthur co-edited with James Hammerton. The book was another enormous success and led to Mee’s most important work to date, the Children’s Encyclopaedia which ran for 50 parts between 1908 and 1910.
The success of Mee’s work made the author an vital cog in the Harmsworth empire and Lord Northcliffe was not blind to the fact. When Mee considered going into local government in 1910, Northcliffe immediately set about persuading him against the move and Mee eventually relented, writing, “I have merely tried to be a good citizen. But I will give it all up. I will do nothing that you consider distracting or jeopardizing in any way.”
Arthur Mee continued to work for Northcliffe’s publishing empire, following the huge success of the Children’s Encyclopaedia with a revised version which mutated into the monthly Children’s Magazine, later retitled My Magazine under which title it ran until 1933. Mee then edited a new weekly in 1933-34 entitled Arthur Mee’s 1000 Heroes which was reprinted in two volumes, running to a staggering 1,828 pages.
Alongside all these publications, Mee was also editing and writing the Children’s Newspaper, launched in 1919.
In 1936, Mee bought out the first volume of one of his most famous series. ‘The King’s England’ was a journey through the country that Mee loved so dearly—indeed, Mee’s original title for the series was Motherland. Rather than attempt to produce one of the part-works he was so famous for, Mee realised that to serve the traveller in the days when motoring around the countryside was an increasingly popular weekend pursuit, he would have to produce a handy-sized guide county-by-county. To achieve this, Mee employed dozens of writers to visit thousands of villages and pen their impressions of town and country in 40 counties.
The series was, for the most part, a snapshot of an England on the brink of war, although even at the time of publication it was a romantic portrait of cricket on village greens and rolling moorlands; grimy industrial towns were described as the workshops of the Empire and depressing streets were not the “true” England—that was to be found in nearby woodlands and dales.
Mee’s introductory volume was entitled Enchanted Land in which he wrote: “It has been a wonderful journey, this new exploration of England, and we must have seen a hundred thousand lovely things in our half million miles. We made up our minds to put down nothing bad if we could help it, but to be recording angels, and this is the story of what we have seen in this Enchanted Land.”
The series has been reprinted in recent years by Stephen Rudd’s King’s England Press, returning to the original texts as woven by Arthur Mee rather than the revised editions that appeared in 1964-73 which cut away all of Mee’s lyrical prose. A village described by Mee as “She walks in beauty; this charming patch of a secluded countryside has beauty at every step” became “Colston Bassett is a picturesque village near Bingham.”
These changes from picturesque to practical helped make Arthur Mee rather unfashionable. Although his Children’s Encyclopedia was continually in print (if much revised) until the 1960s, Mee’s style of education has fallen out of favour. To the modern writer an ancient tree is interesting because of the way the world has changed around it in its lifetime; to Mee the tree itself was a living entity to be held in awe as its mighty branches may have provided dozens of bows for the King’s warriors at Agincourt.
Mee’s death was surprising and sudden; he went into hospital on 27 May, 1943, for what should have been a minor operation on a gland, and died the following day. A remembrance service was held at St. Dunstan’s, Fleet Street, on 5 June.
Sadly, Mee was unable to complete the ‘King’s England’ series before his death. 35 counties had been covered by 1942, the schedule for the release of new titles reduced because of the paper shortage during the war. Others who had worked with Mee for many years stepped in to complete the last few remaining books and they remain one of the testements to Mee’s love for his home country. Mee may have idealised England but his influence for the good in shaping Britain’s children cannot be underestimated.
Mee's birth town of Stapleford is home to the Arthur Mee Centre, which provides specialist facilities for students with learning disabilities and for those taking art & design, childcare and pre-foundation programmes.
(* Children's Newspaper (c) Look and Learn Magazine Ltd.)