During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the picture book came into its own in England. This period of extraordinary fertility was dubbed “the dawn of levity” by F. J. Harvey Darton, even though it coincided with the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). The protracted war with the French cast its shadow over English children’s books nevertheless. An overtly militaristic school book like John Evans’ New Geographical Grammar (1811), described preparations supposedly being made in French port towns for the invasion of England. The Naval Heroes of Great Britain: or, Accounts of the Lives and Actions of the Distinguished Admirals and Commanders who have Contributed to Confer on Great Britain the Empire of the Ocean (1806) contained accounts of martial valor that were supposed to stir up the desire to serve one’s country.
Other children’s books bear out the truth of the Duke of Wellington’s sorrowful observation that the only thing as sad as a battle lost is a battle won. I can’t remember when I began to notice pictures of disabled veterans in Regency children’s books. After the Battle of Waterloo, the sight of an old soldier with a cork or wooden leg must have been common in England. Only an high-born officer like Henry Paget, second earl of Uxbridge could afford a sophisticated prosthetic device to replace a limb shattered on the battlefield.
Some disabled veterans scraped together a living performing on the streets of London. Billy Waters, an American-born freed slave, who fought in the British forces during the American War of Independence, became something of a local celebrity. This is one of three pictures of Billy Waters I have found in Cotsen–the other two are in The Cries of London Drawn from Life (1823) and a book of London cries lacking a title page published ca.1821 by J. Bysh.Pictures of amputees may be more common in children’s books issued by the Quaker firm of the Dartons and they may be an indication of pacifist tendencies. This one from My Real Friend is unusual for showing quite graphically the daily accidental humiliations to which an amputee had to endure. The passage the picture accompanies follows.
Perhaps the most unusual sighting of a disabled veteran I’ve found so far is the frontispiece by R. Stennett for Parlour Amusements; or A New Book of Games and Forfeits (ca. 1820). It shows a group of children playing the game of “Old Soldier” which is described inside. One person is supposed to impersonate the impoverished veteran and notice how the boy has improvised a wooden leg from a pair of bellows. The verse rules are followed with a model dialog between imaginary players to show how the process of questions and answers ought to play out.
The game of “Old Soldier,” which also goes by the name of “Here Comes an Old Soldier from Botany Bay,” was played for almost a century in the English-speaking world. Halliwell-Phillipps included it in Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales (1849) under the title “The Poor Soldier.” The second edition of Cassell’s Book of In-door Amusements, Card Games, and Fireside Fun described it as old in 1882, but didn’t speculate as to its probable age. The 1901 volume of the Pennsylvania School Journal recommended “The Game of the Poor, Old Soldier” as an amusing one for small children in 1901, as did Grace Lee Davidson’s 1916 Games and Parties for Children.
This appearance in Parlour Amusements seems to be the earliest recorded and perhaps it is a relic of the Napoleonic Wars. The larger question is to consider what exactly such a game tells us about attitudes towards the disabled veteran during the nineteenth century. Here he seems to be treated simply as a character type that offers a good opportunity for dress up, rather than as a brave soul whose broken body deserves respect as a symbol of patriotic service to his country. Whatever its meaning, the frontispiece of Parlour Amusements, along with the other illustrations shown here, offers a surprising glimpse into the impact of war on civilians.
This post was originally published in 2016, but it is worth reading again as two wars rage simultaneously in two countries. It is a sad reminder that children are not always spared the realities of war in the books they read.