The tale of Mr Warne

Front cover of binding
Beatrix Potter: “The tale of two bad mice” (London and New York, 1904) Shelfmark: OLS POL 2971

This summer marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of Frederick Warne & Co., the well-known publisher of children’s books. Here in the Department of Early Printed Books and Special Collections we hold several hundred of Warne’s publications with over a third of them belonging to the Pollard Collection, a collection of more than 10,000 children’s books.

The firm was established in late June 1865 at Bedford Street, Covent Garden by Frederick Warne (1825-1901). At a young age Warne had joined his elder brother in the bookselling business of their brother-in-law, George Routledge, and in 1851 became a partner in his publishing firm. Warne later set up his own company with partners Edward J. Dodd and A.W. Duret and the firm expanded to New York in the 1880s. The publishing house issued a number of popular series of reprints in both fiction and non-fiction. They also published editions of works by celebrated children’s authors and artists and utilised the skills of the leading London colour printer Edmund Evans.

Opening featuring two nursery rhymes with Greenaway's illustrations
Kate Greenaway: “Mother Goose or The old nursery rhymes” (London and New York, [ca 1887-1905?]) Shelfmark: OLS POL 1534
We have marked the anniversary with a small display of Warne’s publications which will be on view until mid-September 2015 in the exhibition case in the foyer of the Berkeley Library. Included are children’s books illustrated by Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott and by the author most associated with the firm, Beatrix Potter. Next year, in fact, will mark another significant anniversary, 150 years since the birth of Potter on 28 July 1866.

Potter's illustration of Benjamin Bunny and Peter Rabbit
Beatrix Potter: “The tale of Mr Tod” (London and New York, 1912) Shelfmark: OLS B-9-904

Potter first wrote the story of Peter Rabbit in 1893 in a picture letter to the child of a former governess. Following rejection by six publishers (including Warne), The tale of Peter Rabbit was issued privately by the author in December 1901. The following year Warne reconsidered and published the first commercial edition. Thus began a collaboration between author and publisher which saw the publication of twenty-three small format Peter Rabbit books.

Dating Warne’s children’s publications can often prove problematic. Toy book publishers at that time often collected together and reissued a group of works previously published separately, usually in time for Christmas and seldom dated. The copy of Caldecott’s picture book included in the display is a typical example. Library accession dates or provenance information can sometimes help to suggest a possible date. In the case of our copy from the Pollard Collection (at OLS POL 684) the clue comes from an inscription on the endpapers from a mother to her child, Rupert S. Thompson, from Surrey, dated Christmas 1899.

Front cover of binding
Angelica Selby: “In the sunlight: a tale of Mentone” (London and New York, 1892) Shelfmark: OLS B-14-303

Taking note of the changes over time in a publisher’s imprint can also narrow down a likely date and Chester W. Topp’s bibliography, Victorian yellowbacks & paperbacks, 1849-1905 (Denver, 1993-2006) is a useful resource. Warne was a prominent issuer of yellowbacks, paperbacks and cheap cloth issues of children’s literature and volume 4 of Topp’s work is indispensable in building a picture of his output in this area.

Frederick Warne retired in 1895 leaving the firm in the hands of his three sons, Harold, Fruing and Norman. Norman, the youngest, became Potter’s editor but died suddenly from leukaemia in 1905 only four weeks after he and Beatrix had become engaged to be married. Potter continued publishing her ‘little books’ with the firm and, having no children of her own, bequeathed the rights to her published works to Norman Warne’s nephew, Frederick Warne Stephens, after her death. In the 20th century the firm introduced its famous Observer’s books series of handy pocket reference guides (we hold several hundred of them here in the Library). The company was acquired by Penguin Books in 1983 and later this year the publisher is issuing a celebratory volume, Classic nursery tales: 150 years of Frederick Warne.