Children's pages and columns in newspapers have been common throughout the world since the nineteenth century. South Australian newspapers followed much the same patterns as their British and American compatriots, often simply copying original articles from the American newspapers and magazines for their own children's columns.
The first children's magazine in the world could be said to be the French L'ami des enfants, which appeared monthly from January 1782. The earliest known English children's magazine was John Marshall's Juvenile magazine of 1788.
But the most prolific publishers of periodical literature for children were American, beginning with the Children's magazine of Barzillai Hudson and George Goodwin in 1789. This was the first of hundreds of titles for American children, down to the present day. The most popular nineteenth century American titles were: Youth's companion (1827-1929), Our young folks (1865-1873), St Nicholas (1873-1940) and Harper's young people (1879-1899). Material from all these were freely re-printed in children's columns in South Australian newspapers.
South Australian newspapers seem to have begun including children's columns in the 1870s. Ebenezer Ward's Kapunda-based newspaper, the Farmers' weekly messenger appears to be the first South Australian newspaper to include a children's section. From May 1874, just a month after it began, the Messenger's 'Column for the young' re-printed short stories from American children's magazines.
The city newspapers followed this small country trend-setter. When the weekly Adelaide observer appeared in a new format in January 1880, its first new-look issue included a children's column. Anonymously written stories under the collective title, 'Australian elves,' were possibly the work of the prolific newspaper serial-writer, Frank 'Atha' Westbury. These were published in the first year of the column. From 1881, the Observer simply re-printed stories from Harper's young people, and other American children's magazines.
In June 1880, the South Australian Chronicle and weekly mail (the Chronicle) - the Observer's competitor - also began a column for children, titled 'The little folks,' or later 'The young folks.' In its first years the column simply reprinted serial stories from St Nicholas.
In September 1884 the monthly illustrated newspaper, Pictorial Australian, took things a step further. It printed a children's column containing an article about ducks, and an announcement of a competition for young readers. Children were invited to send in articles, water colour drawings or puzzles. However the competitions were apparently not as well-patronised as the newspaper had hoped. Atha Westbury was a regular contributor of serials for adult readers of the Pictorial Australian, and the issue of January 1885 included his story 'Golden cloud, a Christmas dream for young people.' The issues of June and August 1885 contained two stories for children by Atha,' from his 'Australian elves' collection. The first described a beggar boy in Sydney, the second the death of a baby.
Letters to 'uncles' and 'aunts'
From the 1840s, American newspapers such as Prairie farmer encouraged young readers to send in letters for publication. In Adelaide, in July 1894, 'Uncle Harry' (David H. Bottrill) established 'Uncle Harry's letter' in the children's column of the Adelaide observer and the Saturday issue of the Evening journal. Bottrill had distinct religious and moral views. He created a Sunbeam Society for young readers,
... with a view to obtaining or giving help in cases of distress amongst children, whether from accident, bereavement, or poverty.
(Adelaide observer, 14 July 1894, p. 35)
Bottrill's full-time work was as a postal clerk, but his column became so popular that in 1896 he began working full time for the Register newspaper as a journalist. Bottrill and his 'Sunbeams' raised hundreds of pounds for charity. Large sums were given for the building of the South Adelaide Creche in Gouger Street, and the Queen Victoria Hospital at Rose Park. Money was also given to three Adelaide orphanages, as well as other charities connected with children.
However, the main content of his newspaper column were the letters sent in by children across the country and suburbs, describing aspects of their daily lives. In August 1909 Bottrill left the newspaper to establish a children's magazine, the Sunbeam, with his wife, 'Aunt Sophie.' The magazine lasted until 1911, when he was forced to again look for newspaper work. His column was briefly re-started in the Saturday issue of the Daily herald in 1912.
The Advertiser quickly latched onto the popularity of their rival syndicate's children's page. One year after Uncle Harry began, in August 1895, the Chronicle (the Advertiser's week-end newspaper) launched a children's mail bag under 'Aunt Dorothy.' Like Uncle Harry, Aunt Dorothy was also interested in charitable causes, specifically the establishment of Minda Home for disabled children. Aunt Dorothy's page with its letters from children - particularly country children - was possibly one of the longest lived children's mailbags in history. The column ran from 1895 until the closure of the Chronicle in 1974.
Between February 1897 and 1909, Aunt Dorothy was joined by 'The General,' and his 'Soldiers of the Pen' club for older readers. The General, like Aunt Dorothy, encouraged young people to write letters for publication in his column. He wrote articles for his young adult readers about such matters as 'the Eastern question' - referring to events in Turkey. (Chronicle, 1 May 1897, p. 37) His readers were clearly interested in topical subjects. In 1909 Don Clarence of Kadina wrote, "Dear General, It is about time that capital punishment was abolished ..." (22 May 1909, p. 47)
Following the Farmers' weekly messenger, various South Australian country newspapers included a column for young readers at various times. In the nineteenth century these columns mostly consisted of stories and puzzles copied from the American children's magazines, and occasional competitions.
In the early twentieth century some country newspapers put much effort into creating and maintaining children's columns. In March 1904 the visionary Kapunda herald began a 'Children's corner' under 'Children's Friend.' Children's Friend placed his column at the centre of a carefully arranged network. Through working with the 96 schools across the district covered by the newspaper, he promoted writing and drawing competitions. Letters, essays and jokes written by children were published in the column, with high standards of excellence encouraged, and winning pieces were circulated through the district schools for inspection and inspiration. The Kapunda herald had a circulation of 1,000, and just two months after the children's column began, 1,000 children entered written work for its second competition - not a bad effort, even in a time and place when large families of children were the norm. This involved a great amount of effort to sustain, and the column stopped printing children's letters in 1909.
The West coast recorder began a 'Young crusaders' column in November 1914. 'Mage Merlin,' who compiled the column, took a high moral tone with his Young Crusaders. In September 1915 the column was taken over by 'Uncle Ned' of Tumby Bay. Both invited young readers to send in stories for publication in the column, alongside short pieces of moral advice. The Young Crusaders ceased in 1917, to be renewed in 1928 as a children's mailbag under 'Uncle Toby.' The letters to Uncle Toby from young readers epitomised much of what was written by country children to the various newspaper mailbags, reflecting their daily lives. Ernest Goddard of Darke's Peak wrote to the Recorder column in 1928,
Dear Uncle Toby, ... I am sorry I did not write last week, but I could not get down to post it, as the horse we were riding to school was not well, so we could not go to school. My brother Will drives us to school in the truck now ...
(West Coast recorder, 30 August 1928, p. 11)
Many country newspapers had similar children's letter columns at different periods. The Loxton Clarion, had 'Uncle Don' and his 'Children's corner' between 1925 and 1926. The Murray pioneer had 'Mopoke's mailbag' between 1925 and 1927.
The Gawler Bunyip took a different approach, publishing a series of original stories about two young children, 'Dubs and Dibs' between 1931 and 1933. The author was obviously a Gawler resident, and the various adults passing through the story may have been actual Gawler people, perhaps staff and their families at the Bunyip.
The major religious newspaper published in South Australia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the Australian Christian Commonwealth, (previously the Christian weekly and Methodist journal). This had a children's column, which was considerably enlarged when the newspaper was re-vamped in early 1902 under the editorship of Charles Martin. Two columns were added for young adults, 'Talks with our girls by Thelma,' and 'Our young men by Old Oxford' (William Torr). The Methodists believed they were breaking new ground, and certainly no other newspaper in South Australia at the time had anything quite like this for young adult readers - apart from the General with his 'Soldiers of the Pen' in the Chronicle, and 'Young crusaders,' in the West Coast recorder. The Australian Christian Commonwealth also had a mailbag for young readers, run by 'Uncle Ben' (the Rev Brian Wibberley).
All the young people's columns in the church newspaper naturally took a high moral tone. The children writing to Uncle Ben followed this lead, sending him short moral stories they had written, but were also encouraged to send in puzzles.
The famous Possum's pages of the Sunday mail began in July 1921 as, 'The Mail Club and Mr Possum.' From 1924 this included the May Gibbs Gumnut babies comic strip, 'Bib and Bub.' Children writing to Mr Possum were referred to as 'Clubmates' or 'Mates,' and later 'Sunshiners.'
Like the older mailbags for children in the Chronicle and other newspapers, readers of Possum's pages were encouraged to send in letters, puzzles, stories, jokes and drawings, as well as entries for competitions. Possum encouraged the children who joined his club to write every week, (31 May 1930, p. 24) but reminded them that there was not room to print all the letters. In good weeks in the early years of the club there were sometimes 50 or even 65 new members per week. (7 March 1931, p. 14, 11 April 1931, p. 16) In the early years Mr Possum wrote about his life with Mrs Possum and Pollyana at 'Nut Nook.'
The comics section of the pages was expanded with the addition of a strip about the dog 'Bonzo' by George Studdy, from August 1929 until February 1930. Ginger Meggs joined the section in February 1931 under the title 'Us fellers.' He is still a feature of the Sunday mail today. From October 1944, with the lessening of war-time restrictions on newsprint, the Mail began publishing a magazine supplement, as it had in a small way before the war, which included Possum's pages and an enlarged comic section. Ginger Meggs temporarily was dropped, but re-appeared after a very short interval. The new comics included in the section were: Nancy, Ben Bowyang, Henry, Blondie and Dagwood, and Superman. Inspired by the War, a 'Pictorial stories of brave deeds,' a cartoon tale of the adventures of various real people 'doing their bit' was included.
Barbalet, Margaret, 'Bottrill, David Hughes (1866-1941)' Australian dictionary of biography, vol. 7, Melbourne University Press, 1979, pp. 353-354
Egoff, Shiela, Children's periodicals of the nineteenth century: a survey and bibliography, London, Library Association, 1951
Kelly, R. Gordon, Children's periodicals of the United States, Westport, Conn.: Greenport Press, 1984