Hesba Stretton, 1832-1911

Biographical note

Pseudonym of Sarah Smith, one of the most popular Evangelical writers of the 19th century, who used her "Christian principles as a protest against specific social evils in her children's books." Her moral tales and semi-religious stories, chiefly for the young, were printed in huge numbers, especially as school and Sunday school prizes. She became a regular contributor to Household Words and All the Year Round under Charles Dickens's editorship, after her sister had successfully submitted a story of hers without her knowledge. Altogether she wrote more than 40 novels.

The book that won her widespread fame was Jessica's First Prayer, first published in the journal Sunday at Home in 1866 and the following year in book form. By the end of the 19th century it had sold at least a million and a half copies. Brian Alderson (children's book critic) notes that its sales were "nearly ten times as many as those of Alice in Wonderland." The book gave rise to a genre of stories about homeless children "that successfully combined elements of the sensational novel and the religious tract and helped introduce the image of the poor, urban child into the Victorian social conscious." A sequel, Jessica's Mother, was published in Sunday at Home in 1866 and as a book in 1904.

Smith became the chief writer for the Religious Tract Society. Her experience of working with slum children in Manchester in the 1860s gave her books a greater sense of authenticity, for Stretton's books "drive home the abject state of the poor with almost brutal force." She became one of the co-founders in 1894 of the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (created in 1894), which combined with similar societies in other cities such as Manchester to form the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children some five years later.


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