Ephemeral Reading: Christmas and Summer Annuals in the John Johnson Collection. Guest post by Terry Hale, University of Hull

We are very privileged to have a guest post by Dr Terry Hale from the University of Hull. An expert on annuals, this festive post explores a little-known corner of the John Johnson Collection.

Cover of Ally Sloper's Summer Number, 1883
Ally Sloper’s Summer Number, 1883. JJColl: Annuals 1

Despite the considerable level of academic interest in Victorian literary culture, much of it in recent years focusing on sensation fiction, the more ephemeral publications of the era – notably, Christmas Annuals, the closely-related Summer Numbers/Annuals, and even, starting in the early 1880s, the Shilling Shocker – have fared much less well. This is all the more surprising given that such ephemeral productions, though looking back to such relatively well-documented forms as the literary annuals, gift books, and keepsakes of the 1820s and 30s, were largely a product of the same forces that gave rise to Victorian sensationalism or, in the case of those productions aimed at juvenile readers, an attempt to mitigate and channel those forces in more wholesome directions.

A large part of the problem is, of course, that such ephemeral productions have simply not survived. By and large, readers discarded such material almost as quickly as they acquired it, probably at the same time they took down their decorations in the case of Christmas Annuals or while packing their trunks before returning home from their holidays in the case of Summer Numbers, while collectors, bibliophiles and librarians have tended to view such material as unworthy of their attention. Even Shilling Shockers, with their fragile paper wrappers and far from sturdy paper spines, were hardly designed to survive more than a single railway journey.

The net result of this is that anyone seeking to research the history of such marginal publications is going to struggle to access material. Indeed, finding a substantial run – never mind a complete run from its inception in 1860 through to its demise in 1898 – of the legendary Beeton’s Christmas Annual, in which Sherlock Holmes first made his appearance in 1887, would tax the combined strength of the entire British library system. The National Library of Scotland has a number of issues, for example, as does the British Library. But between them, nothing like a complete run – and very little from the publication’s final decade despite the promise of their catalogues. In fact, this is a problem with most Christmas Annuals. Very few such publications were under the same ownership from start to finish, and it is quite clear that a change of proprietor rarely, if ever, improved distribution, especially when such changes occurred in the latter stages of a particular title’s life cycle – and this directly impacts on conservation

But if accessing Beeton’s Annual poses considerable problems for researchers, there are a great number of lesser annuals – including those attached to such standard Victorian monthly periodicals as Belgravia, London Society, or Tinsley’s Magazine – that pose no less insurmountable obstacles.

It is for this reason that the John Johnson Collection, accessible through the Bodleian’s Weston Library, is such a useful resource. For although the Collection is, like those made by other collectors, a serendipitous enterprise, it contains not only a great deal of material not available elsewhere, some of which allows us to patch the gaps in other collections, but that material comes complete with the fragile paper wrappers in which such items were originally issued. This business of wrappers is more important than one might imagine since the covers often contain information about price, publisher, year of publication, and even the name of the editor which is not repeated elsewhere. The vast majority of annuals that have survived have been bound together higgledy-piggledy without wrappers which makes even the question of assigning a date to them something of a laborious process.

More significantly, however, the John Johnson Collection has particular strengths of its own: firstly, in the field of annuals aimed at children; secondly, in the not unrelated area of annuals produced by evangelical groups; and, thirdly, with regard to the emergent sensation novel.

Cover of The Quiver Annual, 1880
The Quiver annual, 1880. JJColl: Annuals 11

Thus, Annuals Box 10 (of the thirteen box-files in which the annuals are stored) contains a useful set of the lavish Christmas Numbers (1869, 1870. 1879 to 1886) offered by The Quiver, a periodical perhaps attempting to soften its strongly evangelical stance following the death of its proprietor, John Cassell, in 1865. One of the high points of examining this set of material was the discovery of a little known story by the writer Bernard Heldman dealing with fraud (‘To Be Left Till Called For’, The Golden Mark, Christmas Number of The Quiver, 1880). Since Heldman himself was later convicted of fraud and subsequently changed his name to Richard Marsh when he started writing sensation fiction, this item is something of a curiosity.

Cover of Good Cheer, the Christmas annual of Good Words, 1877
Good cheer, the Christmas annual of Good Words. JJColl: Annuals 5

Elsewhere we find the 1877 Christmas Number of Good Words with contributions from Anthony Trollope and Margaret Oliphant (Box 5); the The Fireside Christmas Number for 1895 (again Box 5); and Paths of Peace, 1897, the Christmas Number of the Sunday Magazine (Box 11).

Another interesting body of material aimed at the children’s market, though this time of an entirely secular nature, is to be found in Box 1, which contains four Summer Numbers of Ally Sloper’s Annual (1881-1884), together with a twelve-year run of Ally Sloper’s Comic Kalendar (1876-1887). The hand behind all this material is Charles Henry Ross (1835-1923). In August, 1867 Ross published a full-page picture strip in the humorous magazine Judy, of which he was then editor. This picture strip, entitled ‘Some of the Mysteries of Loan and Discount’, introduced the character Ally Sloper – thereby creating what is now generally considered the first British comic strip. Judy was taken over by the artist Gilbert Dalziel in 1872, though Ross’s wife, Marie Duval, who had stronger graphic skills than her husband, continued to draw the Ally Sloper strips until 1879. Finally, in 1883, Ross sold his rights in Ally Sloper to Dalziel. The material gathered in the John Johnson Collection, therefore, casts considerable light on this early transitional phase in the development of the comic strip.

Cover of the first issue of Ally Sloper's Comic Kalendar, 1876.
First issue of Ally Sloper’s Comic Kalendar, 1876. JJColl: Annuals 1


Double spread from Ally Sloper's Comic Kalendar, 1876
Double spread from Ally Sloper’s Comic Kalendar, 1876. JJColl: Annuals 1

Ross’s work both as a writer and as a graphic artist extended far beyond Judy. During the same period, he was also supplying both Beeton’s Christmas Annual and Routledge’s Christmas Annual with comic strips as well as various skits and stories. Ross is also a significant, though largely overlooked, figure in the development of sensation fiction. It now seems likely, for example, that he was the principal author of the pseudonymous Penny Dreadful Ruth the Betrayer; or, the Female Spy (1862-63), a work which is now considered to have been the first to introduce the figure of the female detective to popular literature.

Cover of the Round Table Annual, 1890
Round Table Annual, 1890. JJColl: Annuals 11

Ross was not above mocking the conventions of sensation fiction, however, and in 1872 he published a sophisticated parody of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Mary Braddon entitled Hot and Cold; A Life and Death Search which constituted the entirety of Routledge’s Christmas Annual for that year. The John Johnson Collection does not include a copy of Hot and Cold, but it does contain two issues of a Christmas Annual entitled The Round Table (numbers for 1880 and 1890; Box 11), both containing criminous matter, of which Ross was editor. This criminous theme is picked up in other annuals, such as John Camden Hotten’s The Piccadilly Annual (1871), a work largely dedicated to Hunted Down and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Box 9); The Englishman’s Christmas Annual (1877), a bizarre publication created by Dr Edward Kenealy, the barrister who had defended the notorious Tichborne Claimant and who was still trying to drum up public support for his client more than two years after he had been sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment for perjury (Box 4); and an extremely scarce copy of Remington’s Annual for Christmas 1889 (Box 10). (Remington & Co. was one of the more elusive publishers who clustered around Henrietta Street in the 1880s.)

Paradoxically, though shilling monthlies such as Belgravia and London Society were at the forefront of publishing sensation fiction in instalments, their various Christmas and Summer Annuals, though by no means devoid of interest, are relatively tame affairs.

London Society was launched by the publisher James Hogg in 1862. From the outset, it published a Christmas Annual and, starting around 1868, a Summer Number as well. However, while tracking the evolution of the Christmas Annual has been made slightly easier by the fact that, at least as far as the early years are concerned, copies are occasionally to be found in bound collections of the periodical itself, this is not the case with regard to the Summer Numbers which are very scarce.

Cover of London Society Holiday Number 1868.
London Society Holiday Number 1868. JJColl: Annuals 7

On this basis, the five copies of the London Society Summer Numbers (for  1868, 1869, 1871, 1875, and 1886) in the John Johnson Collection (Box 7) are of particular interest, not least since they all retain their bright paper wrappers. Indeed, while  the noted bibliographers Sadleir and Wolff both list their holdings of the Summer Numbers, the earliest issues they record are for 1872 (Sadleir) and 1874 (Wolff) – the John Johnson Collection, therefore, indicates a slightly earlier launch date and raises the possibility of an even earlier one.

Summer Tourist, 1871
Cover of Summer Tourist, 1871. JJColl: Annuals 11

Interestingly enough, the contents of these early Summer Numbers themselves – and we can include here Mary Braddon’s The Summer Tourist of 1871 (Box 11) – provide a fascinating glimpse of how the Victorian Miss came to terms with the new phenomenon of the middle-class family holiday. Thus, the various articles, stories, and poems, not to mention illustrations, deal with such issues as the merits of one destination over another, both at home and abroad, how to select a hotel, the advantages and disadvantages of travelling companions, picnicking, and even the etiquette and management of seaside romances.

Needless to say, other researchers will undoubtedly find other pathways through the John Johnson Collection and other points of interest along the way. There can be no doubt, however, that the Collection itself comprises a major repository of such material, a repository, moreover, that has not only been professionally catalogued but is easily accessible thanks to the helpful ministrations of the library staff though for those unfamiliar with the Bodleian it is certainly worth sending an email a few days in advance of a personal visit.

An index to the Annuals is online via the John Johnson Collection website

Admissions procedures are at:  http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/johnson/visit/researching-in-person and http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/using/getting-a-readers-card