An Australian Audience and The Children's Hour

The Irish National School Readers were used in schools across Australia for much of the nineteenth century. There was, however, an increasing discontent with them as the century wore on and as Australia moved closer to federation and the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia.

In 1869, the Board of Education of Victoria complained in their parliamentary report that the readers ‘refer to a different hemisphere’ and too much is included that has ‘an interest only local to Great Britain.’ In 1871, revised versions of the readers were produced by the Irish Commissioners specifically for an Australian readership, but as Michelle Smith points out, these changes were ‘superficial and trivial’. The new readers retained the older content and were simply supplemented with brief additions on kangaroos, snakes, and the discovery of Australia. Special Collections in the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne hold several examples of these revised readers, as do the State Library of NSW. 

The Adelaide Illustrated Readers

The Adelaide Illustrated Readers (1899) Cover

By 1889, the State Education Department of South Australia produced their own school reader, The Children’s Hour. Other school readers and magazines both in South Australia – such as The Adelaide Illustrated Readers – and across Australia’s state system soon started to appear in its wake. These texts gradually eclipsed the use of the Irish readers in Australia. As recent scholars of these school magazines observe, changing the content to suit the educational needs of colonial children in Australia involved more than simply shifting the historical and geographical emphasis to the southern hemisphere.

Jane McGennisken maintains that the advancement of the near-unified nation of Australia was ‘undoubtedly perceived as one of the most important aims’ of these home-grown readers. Philip Cormack further argues that titles like The Children’s Hour were ‘part of a process that made Australia thinkable as a nation, and Australianness possible as an identity.’ These school magazines thus began to try and negotiate an Australian identity that remained loyal to the British Empire.

Catherine Helen Spence

Catherine Helen Spence (photograph) by unknown photographer, n.d.

Spence certainly understood and contributed to this function of the Australian school reader. In 1880, her economics primer for schools – The Laws We Live Under – stated that the ‘well-being of the colony depends very much on all its children being prepared for the duties of citizenship by receiving a good plain education.’ Spence also contributed several short stories for children to the early editions of The Children’s Hour as part of a short-lived series called ‘Aunt Kate’s Cupboard’. Written in a didactic and moralising style, Spence’s stories attempted to educate the child reader into becoming responsible citizens of the nation. Children’s literature here becomes embroiled in the process of nation building and many of Australia’s earliest texts for children by Australia’s first authors also engaged in this process.