Copyright 2008

The Victorian Readers

Clare Bradford

The young readers were to begin at home, to be taken in imagination to various parts of the Empire, to Europe, and to the United States of America, and thus to gain knowledge of their rich heritage and acquire a well-founded pride of race.
Preface, Victorian Readers: Eighth Book

Given that children represent the future of societies and nations, the texts presented to them always promote the values and social practices which adults deem desirable. This is especially the case in regard to institutional texts. The eight books which constitute the Victorian Readers are symptomatic of the reading material provided to school-children in state and most independent schools across Australia during the first half of the twentieth century, when state-based school readers were produced: the Victorian Readers, the Queensland Readers, the Adelaide Readers, the Tasmanian Readers. Many Australians recall school readers with nostalgia and affection, since they provided children with reading material when few families had access to a wide range of fiction and non-fiction. Louise Mack's 'Sunrise in the Blue Mountains', in the Sixth Book, invited generations of Victorian Readers to imagine themselves watching the sun rise over Govett's Leap, along with the five girls who feature in this excerpt from Mack's novel, Teens. The language of Mack's description, redolent of the picturesque tradition in its emphasis on the grandeur and majesty of the scene, imprints upon the girls' experience a domestic and Australian sensibility: having raptly observed 'the fair wonder of a mountain dawn' (229), they drink billy tea and eat egg sandwiches. As Jane McGennisken notes, this is a story about 'the way in which Australian children are formed in relation to the landscape' (15).

At the other end of a scale between pleasure and terror, one has only to mention 'The Hobyahs' to Victorians who attended state and Catholic schools from the 1920s to the 1950s to know that this story, included in the Second Book of the Victorian Readers, evokes memories of childhood nightmares and imaginings of the hobyahs 'creep, creep, creeping' (56) into homes and bedrooms (see Gibbs 222). In her essay 'Hobyahs!' Inga Clendinnen describes herself re-reading a 'small, grim book' (59), the Second Book of the Victorian Readers. The book reminds Clendinnen of her childhood difficulties in learning to read, which were exacerbated by the fact that many of the stories and poems of the Second Book were without appeal or narrative interest. A story of German origins, 'The Hobyahs' comprises a gruesome narrative about creatures which prey on an old man and woman and their dog, Yellow Dog Dingo. If 'Sunrise in the Blue Mountains' invests the Australian landscape with a romantic glow, 'The Hobyahs' locates horror in the bush. Clendinnen says, 'Try whispering "Hobyahs!" to anyone over forty when you're deep in the bush, when the dusk comes creeping up from the gullies between the tall grey gums. Then watch them run' (63).

The Victorian Readers comprise stories, poems and essays selected to inculcate knowledge and moral principles. In this respect they accord broadly with the agendas of literature for children, which as John Stephens says belongs 'firmly within the domain of cultural practices which exist for the purpose of socializing their target audience' (8). But the Readers were not simply read by children; they were used as literacy materials. This means that children listened to them and read them, silently and aloud, many times over; some texts (especially poems) were committed to memory; and children were drilled in and tested for their capacity to read and understand the content of the Readers. As texts mediated by teachers and received by children in the institutional settings of schools, they did not simply influence individual readers, but afforded a shared experience which shaped communal values. The Federal Minister for Public Instruction said as much about the School Paper in 1909, noting that in this publication 'the Department possess[ed] a powerful means of producing educative effect in any desired direction' (qtd in Musgrave 1994).

The Origins of the Victorian Readers

From 1896 the State Education Department of Victoria produced the School Paper, a monthly publication which included already-published work (stories, poems and non-fiction) as well as commissioned material and contributions by teachers. The introduction of the Victorian Readers was prompted by practical and ideological agendas. The main practical consideration related to cost and durability: whereas parents had been required to pay for School Papers as they were produced, it was envisaged that the Readers would be more robust publications which might be expected to last for some years, passed down from older to younger siblings in families. The Readers also offered the possibility of materials graded for each year level, which might be supplemented by the School Paper.

In 1927 Charles Long, who had edited the School Papers for more than thirty years, was invited to return from retirement to produce the Victorian Readers, and by 1930 all eight readers had been prepared. Long's Preface to the Eighth Book explains that 'the selection of matter and the obtaining of drawings from local artists to illustrate it were entrusted to committees of inspectors and teachers' (v). The aim of the committee established to select material was to choose items

such as possessed literary merit, were informative, were likely to arouse interest, and were suitable as regards the average standard of attainment of the grade or forms for which the book was intended. The young readers were to begin at home, to be taken in imagination to various parts of the Empire, to Europe, and to the United States of America, and thus to gain knowledge of their rich heritage and acquire a well-founded pride of race. The inculcation of sound morality was always to be kept in view, and support given to the creation of a feeling against international strife and to the implanting of a desire for world-wide toleration. The grouping of the selections (story, essay, poem etc.) in order to secure continuity of thought – one selection serving to reveal and support another – was to be aimed at throughout, so that the contents of the book might not be a mere collection of unrelated items, but approach as nearly as possible to a unity. (v–vi)

Embedded in this statement of aims are naturalised assumptions about what constitutes literariness; what information is valued; what children find interesting; what is suitable reading for children of a particular age or grade; what is regarded as 'sound morality'. The nationalistic agenda of the Readers is evident in the principle that 'the young readers were to begin [their reading] at home', exposed to material by Australians and about Australia, The vision of 'Australia' proposed in this formulation is that of a white nation enjoying 'pride of race', building its 'rich heritage' on Britishness and aligning itself with other white nations.

The principle that the Readers were to promote 'a feeling against international strife' and 'a desire for world-wide toleration' represents a departure from the School Papers, in which themes of war and military history were prominent. Desmond Gibbs notes that 'in 1900 the Papers published 'a special series of articles on the Boer War, including vivid descriptions of battles, on people's personal experiences of the war and on the gallantry of particular contingents in South Africa' (194), while in 1914, entire issues of the School Papers focused on World War 1, including appeals to children to form 'patriotic leagues' (Gibbs 195). By the time Long prepared his Preface to the Eighth Book in the late 1920s, the influence of postwar movements for peace and disarmament were evident in his emphasis on the importance of internationalism and 'toleration'. Nevertheless, the Seventh and Eighth Books of the Readers disclose a lively tension between anti-war sentiments and celebratory accounts of the heroic deeds of Australian soldiers. The Eighth Book includes an extract from C.E.W. Bean's In Your Hands, Australians in which the author addresses young Australians as legatees of the Anzacs: 'Australia lies in your hands now, where those men, dying, laid her' (87). This extract is followed by Englishman John Bright's 'What is War?', which advocates a Christianity working for peace and universal understanding.

Reading the Readers

Despite the cultural importance of the Victorian Readers, they have attracted relatively little scholarly work. Desmond Gibbs's 1987 PhD thesis (University of Melbourne) focused on the social content of school textbooks in Victoria between 1848 and 1948, with a chapter on the Readers; P. W. Musgrave published a survey of Victorian school readers in two essays published in Paradigm in 1994 and 1995; Vicki Macknight's 2005 M.A. thesis (University of Melbourne) on cultural difference, empire and nationalism in Victorian primary schools in the 1930s and 1950s included reference to the Victorian Readers; Jane McGennisken (University of Tasmania) is currently undertaking a PhD on themes of national growth in Australian school readers; and I incorporated discussions of the Victorian Readers in my study of representations of Indigenous peoples and cultures, Reading Race: Aboriginality in Australian Children's Literature (2001).

The 'Victorian Readers' subset of the AustLit database offers an array of tools which facilitate research into these texts. It provides a contents list of all material (illustrations, non-fiction and fiction) included in the first and second editions of the Victorian Readers Books One to Eight, and the Victorian School Papers produced between 1928 and 1930, in which authors and works can be located using a keyword search. In addition, hyperlinks from the contents list connect the researcher with related work and agent records. The subset also creates full, individual records for 134 items of literary material by Australian authors across the Readers, and 194 items across the School Papers. These can be researched using keyword, agent, work and subject searches. The subset thus offers a record of the reading material provided to children in state schools in Victoria at the end of the 1920s. For the first time, researchers have online access to a complete list of authors and contents (Australian and non-Australian) of the School Papers and the Victorian Readers, and it is now possible to search for keywords, themes, authors and works within this group of texts. Further, biographical and bibliographical information about the Australian authors, and those who visited Australia, can be located with ease.

P.W. Musgrave reports that 29.4% of the items in the eight books of the Victorian Readers were written by Australian authors, 27.8% by British and 7.7% by American authors. In his summary of the themes and content of the Readers Musgrave lists the following: nationalism/patriotism; religiousness/devotion to God; social rules/laws; heroes; work ethic; attitudes to peace and to war; wealth; and poverty (ibid.). However, a theme-and-content analysis of the Readers does not capture the cultural work they carried out. The Victorian Readers provide an insight into the history of reading in Victoria; how canon-formation worked; how Australia was represented to young readers.

It should not be imagined that Charles Long and his committee merely sourced and, where necessary, simplified suitable texts for theReaders; rather, they modified and embellished their sources. The Eighth Book contains excerpts from Thomas Mitchell's first-person account of his ascent of Pyramid Hill in 1836. It is instructive to compare the versions in the Reader with the work from which they are adapted, Mitchell's Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia. Consider these three examples:


As I stood, the first European intruder on the sublime solitude of these verdant plains, as yet untouched by flocks or herds; I felt conscious of being the harbinger of mighty changes ....
Thomas Mitchell, Three Expeditions (159)

As I stood, the first intruder in the sublime solitude of those verdant plains as yet untouched by flocks or herds, I felt certain of being the harbinger of mighty changes there....
Victorian Readers: Eighth Book (4)

In the Readers's version of Mitchell's text Indigenous habitation is wiped out entirely, since the explorer is said to be not merely the first European intruder but the first intruder; and in the change from 'I felt conscious' to 'I felt certain', Mitchell is attributed a higher level of agency and conviction.


We had at length discovered a country ready for the immediate reception of civilized man; and destined perhaps to become eventually a portion of a great empire.
Thomas Mitchell, Three Expeditions (1839: 171)

We had at length discovered a country for the immediate reception of civilized man, and fit to become the abode of one of the great nations of the earth.
Victorian Readers: Eighth Book (4)

It appears from the changes made to this sentence that the Readers's editors regarded Mitchell's vision of the future as too qualified and too limited to suit their agendas, with its cautionary 'perhaps' and 'eventually' and the limitation it places upon nationhood: 'a portion of a great empire'. The Readers's drive to patriotic nationalism is evident in the way it omits all Mitchell's qualifications and looks to an Australia which is 'one of the great nations of the earth'.


Of this Eden I was the first European to explore its mountains and streams-to behold its scenery-to investigate its geological character-and, by my survey, to develope those natural advantages, certain to become, at no distant date, of vast importance to a new people.
Thomas Mitchell, Three Expeditions (171)

Of this Eden it seemed that I was the only Adam; and, indeed, it was a sort of paradise to me, permitted thus to be the first to explore its mountains and streams, to behold its scenery, to investigate its geological character, and, finally, by my survey to develop those natural advantages, all still unknown to the civilized world, but yet certain to become, at no distant date, of vast importance to a new people.
Victorian Readers:Eighth Book (4–5)

The Readers' version enlarges on Mitchell's writing to produce a more overtly patriotic message. The embellishment drives home the explorer-as-Adam image, in a conjunction of colonial and religious discourses that promotes Mitchell as the discoverer of a paradise previously unknown not merely to Europeans, but to humans. The interpolated phrase 'all still unknown to the civilized world', linked to the 'Adam' reference, implies not merely that Aboriginal people do not count as observers because they are uncivilised, but that the land is entirely empty of inhabitants. These strategic alterations to Mitchell's text promote explorers and settlers as firstcomers and as 'natives' of Australia.

The Eighth Book

The Eighth Book was the first of the series to be produced, and typifies how the Readers are constituted and ordered. It comprises eighty-five separate pieces, well over half of which are British in origin. The British texts include poems such as Browning's 'How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix', Milton's 'On His Blindness', Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott' and Wordsworth's 'The Solitary Reaper', as well as prose excerpts from works by Dickens, Kipling and Lamb. Of the thirty-three texts on Australian topics, twenty-nine are by Australian writers, of whom Amy Mack is the sole woman. These Australian texts divide between descriptions of the land, accounts of life in the outback (including abridged versions of Banjo Paterson's poems) and stories of heroism and adventure, such as Ross Smith's 'Through the Cloud Ocean' (100–107) a description of the first leg of his flight from England to Australia. The nationalism promoted by these texts is founded on British literary traditions and on a modified version of the Bulletin ideal of the rugged bushman. The main modification lies in the fact that whereas the Bulletin writers habitually represented the natural environment as the tough and unforgiving location in which bushmen proved their masculinity, the Eighth Book features lyrical and often celebratory descriptions of the land, such as Amy Mack's prose piece 'Autumn Jewels' (41–43, H. Stuart Dove's 'The Home of the Lyre-Bird' (43–46) and Henry Kendall's poem 'September in Australia'(40–41).

Like the others in the series, the Eighth Book incorporates illustrations, maps and photographs. The frontispiece is Frederick McCubbin's triptych The Pioneers, a telling choice with its celebration of settler heroism, its melancholic tone, and its contrast between the active, energetic masculine figure and the pioneer woman who sits dejectedly on the ground in the first panel and stands, an icon of motherhood, in the second. The caption beneath the picture, 'A picture that enshrines a complete record of our life and land', presents The Pioneers, as saying all that need be said about an Australia empty until settled by pioneer endeavour. This insistence on a terra nullius vision of Australia is sustained throughout the Eighth Book, in accounts of exploration such as 'Victoria First Glimpsed by White Men' (2–3) and 'On Pyramid Hill' (4–5); and in descriptions of pristine, empty landscapes. The few texts which refer to Indigenous habitation – C. E. W. Bean's 'The Old Inhabitants' (7–11), Henry Kendall's 'The Last of His Tribe' (11–13), and Donald MacDonald's 'From a Western Hill-Top' (13–19) – construct Indigenous peoples and cultures through tropes of absence and lack (Bradford.20–26).

Discussing themes of national growth in Australian school readers, Jane McGennisken cites the epigraph of the First and Second Books: 'A little child shall lead them'. McGennisken argues that the Victorian Readers and the Tasmanian Readers concern themselves with 'the literary production of children and childhood as analogous with the production of an innocent Australia' (3) whose white inhabitants are, in effect, honorary indigenes. As McGennisken also notes, the Victorian Readers include many stories about brave boys and girls whose heroic actions identify them as leaders of the future. The Eighth Book takes the theme of heroism further in a set of texts featuring models of imperial manhood: 'Elizabethan Seamen: Pioneers of Empire' (191–92); 'The Founding of New England' 193–97); 'A Gentleman of Canada' (199–201) and 'How I Landed in New Zealand' (203–08). Through the relentless masculinism of these texts, their unquestioning promotion of imperialism and their assumptions about the superiority of Europeans, they position (male) readers as future leaders, charged with claiming new territory and turning it to profit.

The Eighth Book ends with a trio of poems: John of Gaunt's lines on England from Shakespeare's King Richard II, John Farrell's 'Australia to England' (224–25) and George Essex Evans's 'A Poet's Song' (225). Farrell's poem comprises an apt summary of the directions of the Victorian Readers. The 'little child' in the epigraph of the First Book, projected onto the 'Australia' who addresses England in this poem, reaffirms allegiance to Britishness and Christianity: 'You set and showed the whole world's school/ The lesson it will surely read,/ That each one ruled has right to rule–/ The alphabet of Freedom's creed' (224). If England is the world's schoolmaster, the Australia imagined here displays the qualities of the virtuous and brave Australian child depicted throughout the series.

The demise of the Victorian Readers – that is, the cessation of their use as the principal literacy materials for Victorian children – occurred gradually from the 1940s, when they were issued in a revised edition. In 1947 the 'John and Betty' series of readers was introduced to Victorian schools, reflecting pedagogical shifts which emphasised the importance of providing children with contemporary material. In other parts of Australia, publishers were producing reading series which were taken up by State Departments of Education, including Schonell's 'Wide Range' series in Western Australia, and the Longman 'Boomerang' series in South Australia. In Victoria in 1950 a Reader Revision Committee was established to produce new readers for first and second-grade children, and by the mid-50s this committee was recommending that new materials should offer 'increased size, more illustrations, more short stories and short explanatory notes' (Gibbs 235). Teachers took increased responsibility for choosing reading materials from the supplementary readers produced by publishers who sought to gain a foothold in the educational market. From the 1960s, too, Australian trade publishing for children increased markedly in volume and quality, so that the Victorian Readers no longer comprised a main source of reading material.

The Victorian Readers subset profiles one important group of texts for Australian children. But the Victorian Readers have much in common with the Tasmanian Readers, the Queensland Readers and the Adelaide Readers: they were developed and used in state and independent schools in the decades following Federation; and they share many of the same components, since favourite texts were frequently recycled. To read these collections and to ponder on the socialising agendas evident in the selection and arrangement of excerpts and in the ways in which texts were modified, is to understand how these school readers positioned children as Australian subjects.


Bradford, Clare. Reading Race: Aboriginality in Australian Children's Literature . Carlton South: Melbourne UP, 2001.

Clendinnen, Inga. 'Hobyah!'. In Inga Clendinnen, Agamemnon's Kiss: Selected Essays. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2006. 59–63.

Gibbs, Desmond. Victorian School Books: A Study of the Changing Social Content and Use of School Books in Victoria, 1848–1948, with Particular Reference to School Readers. University of Melbourne: PhD Thesis, 1987.

Mack, Louise. Teens: A Story of Australian Schoolgirls. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1897.

Macknight, Vicki. Imagining the World from the Classroom: Cultural Difference, Empire and Nationalism in Victorian Primary Schools in the 1940s and 1950s. University of Melbourne: MA Thesis, 2005.

McGennisken, Jane. '"A Little Child Shall Lead Them": Reading Tasmanian and Victorian School Readers as Encoded Themes about National Growth'. Unpublished essay, 2007.

Mitchell, Major T. L. Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia. Vol. 2. 2nd ed, London: T & W Boone, 1839.

Musgrave, P. W. 'Readers in Victoria, 1896–1968: I: The School Paper and Children's World. Paradigm 15 (December), 1994.

––. 'Readers in Victoria, 1896–1968: II, The Victorian Readers'. Paradigm.16 (May) 1995. Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction. London: Longman, 1992.

Victorian Readers: Eighth Book. Melbourne: Government Printer, 1928.

Victorian Readers: First Book.: Melbourne: Government Printer, 1928.

Victorian Readers: Second Book.: Melbourne: Government Printer, 1930.

Victorian Readers: Sixth Book.: Melbourne: Government Printer, 1929.

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