Close to Stapleford Library is the Arthur Mee Centre on Church Street. Now part of Nottingham College, it was Stapleford Board School when its most famous former pupil learned the importance of self-discipline and hard work, along with a devotion to God and England. His teacher was George Byford, a Conservative man from Essex who instilled in Mee a view that the British Empire was always a force for good. Mee’s formal education left him well-schooled in English but with no aptitude for chemistry, mechanics or geometry, subjects he’d later make more attractive to his young readers by avoiding the technical terms he had struggled with in school.
In 2011 a blue plaque was placed on the wall of Mee’s old school which reads:
‘ARTHUR HENRY MEE – 1875–1943 – Journalist and prolific author – Originator and editor of The Children’s Encyclopedia, The Children’s Newspaper and The King’s England – Born in Stapleford and attended school here’
Arthur Mee was born in 1875, into a working-class Baptist family in Stapleford’s Church Street. He was the second child (of ten), his father Henry a Liberal with a social conscience, his mother Mary a former cotton lace-winder. The Mees moved to Orchard Street then 7 Pinfold Lane, in a two-bedroomed terraced house. Arthur left school aged fourteen just as his family left Stapleford, moving to the north of the city. He joined the local newspaper, the conservative ‘Nottingham Daily Guardian’, as a proof reader’s copy-holder and he taught himself shorthand.
By 1891, with the Mee family living at 126 Manning Street in St Ann’s/Mapperley Park, Arthur became an apprentice reporter for the Nottingham Daily Express, a radical Liberal newspaper with offices on Upper Parliament Street. He was working for the editor John Derry and it suited him. As Mee said, “The Guardian is a Tory paper and I am a Liberal.”
The Mees moved to 213 Woodborough Road, moving again to 237 Woodborough Road (now no. 311) where Arthur’s parents lived out their days. The house was close to the Woodborough Road Baptist Chapel (now the Pakistan Centre) where the Mee family worshipped. Arthur was also a member of the Nottingham Mechanics’ Institute.
Aged twenty, Arthur was made editor of the Express’ evening news edition. It was the paper’s new editor, a Scottish man called John ‘Sandy’ Hammerton, that appointed Mee and the two men became lifelong friends and collaborators, Mee becoming “journalist in chief to British youth”, Hammerton “the most successful creator of large-scale works of reference that Britain has known”.
Sir John Hammerton was also a reputed biographer (Dickens, Barrie et al.), and wrote a biography of Arthur Mee entitled ‘Child of Wonder’ (1946) in which he examined his friend’s ability to explain complex science:
“[Mee] had the power to make plain to the average man, woman, and child the aspects and imports of the problems which the very men who had wrested them from nature could not make so plain.”
Hammerton greatly encouraged Mee’s career, including his contributions to the popular working class penny weekly ‘Tit-Bits’, owned by George Newnes. Impressed by Mee’s articles, Newnes invited him to join the London staff of ‘Tit-Bits’, and Mee made his move to the capital in 1896. He met Amelia ‘Amy’ Fratson whilst holidaying in Skegness and they married in 1897. A year later Mee joined the staff of the ‘Daily Mail’ becoming their literary editor in 1903. He was now writing for Sir Alfred Harmsworth’s Amalgamated Press and, together with Hammerton, Mee moved away from journalism, taking an editorial role for Harmsworth earning £1000 a year. Wealthy and no longer needed in London, Mee left Lambeth for Hextable in Kent.
Mee and Hammerton produced ‘The History of the World’ (1907-9) and ‘Natural History’ (1909-11) but it was the fortnightly magazine ‘The Children’s Encyclopaedia’ that would make the biggest impact. It was Mee’s six-year-old daughter Marjorie’s constant questions, and her mother’s response, that got Mee thinking. Of this he wrote:
“…there came into [Marjorie’s] mind the great wonder of the Earth. What does the world mean? And why am I here? Where are all the people who have been and gone? Where does the rose come from? Who holds the stars up there? What is it that seems to talk to me when the world is dark and still? So the questions would come, until the mother of our little maid was more puzzled than the little maid herself. And as the questions came, when the mother had thought and thought, and answered this and answered that until she could answer no more, she cried out for a book: ‘Oh for a book that will answer all the questions!’ And this is the book she called for.”
Mee opened ‘The Children’s Encyclopaedia’ with a message for his readers: “It is a Big Book for Little People, and it has come into the world to make your life happy and wise and good. That is what we are meant to be. That is what we will help each other to be, Your affectionate friend, Arthur Mee.”
The encyclopaedia was an immediate hit and went on to educate millions of readers. The US edition, known as ‘The Book of Knowledge’, sold three-and-a-half million sets. The Google of his day, Mee had revolutionised home-school learning. Together with his researchers he popularised general knowledge in ways they thought patriotic and optimistic, writing that was influenced by both the Bible’s teachings and Mee’s distorted version of Darwinism. This first edition contained an illustration depicting a controversial ‘racial hierarchy’ that was removed in later editions. The encyclopaedia was known to favour the fascinating over the factual, such as the idea that lemmings throw themselves off cliffs, a myth that originated in ‘The Children’s Encyclopaedia’. Other writing proved prophetic. Mee told his readers that they would one day carry telephones in their pockets.
In 1914 Arthur Mee moved to Eynsford, near Sevenoaks, to a house he’d commissioned and would live in for the rest of his life. The family’s garden featured a children’s ‘garden of knowledge’.
Mee founded ‘The Children’s Newspaper’ in 1919 which he continued to edit along with his encyclopaedia. His other children’s publications include ‘Arthur Mee’s Gift for Boys and Girls who Love the Flag’ (1917), ‘The Children’s Bible’ (1924), ‘The Children’s Shakespeare’ (1933), and ‘Arthur Mee’s 1000 Heroes’ (1933).
The British Library has in excess of 400 works attributed to Mee. In addition to writing for children he produced biographies and travel books, as well as ‘1940: Our finest hour’ (1940) and ‘Immortal Dawn’ (1941), published while his only child Margorie was serving as a member of a voluntary aid detachment.
His final project was a guide to The King’s England, a series of guidebooks he’d started in 1936. Aiming to become “a new Domesday Book of 10,000 towns and villages”, the series romanticised the English countryside. Nottinghamshire gets an edition (copies are in our libraries). The King’s England Press, founded in 1989, reprinted this historical series.
Having twice refused the offer of a knighthood, Arthur Mee died unexpectedly in 1943, aged 68, following an operation at King’s College Hospital in London. In his office safe was a copy of his obituary, written several years earlier by his former editor in Nottingham John Derry, who described Mee as “one of the most successful journalists in the world”.
So popular were Mee’s Children’s Encyclopædia and Newspaper that they continued to be revised and published decades after his death. His work may be romanticised, sentimental, and occasionally unpalatable, but Mee’s young readers saw him as a friend and his influence was wide ranging. Enid Blyton read and reread ‘The Children’s Encyclopedia’. Aged eleven she entered a poem into a competition in Mee’s monthly ‘My Magazine’ which resulted in her poem being published. And, in the 1970s, he was even played by a Python. Not bad for a lad from Stabbo.
Mee wrote that “[Stapleford] was a quiet village”, but has now “given away its rural charm and accepted its place in industry.” On Nottingham: “She is the Queen of the Midlands, and is making herself more beautiful than ever.”