Imagination in Education

Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia

An endangered achievement of 20th century Art

Volume 1 of an early edition of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia is now online in facsimile, in four sections. It is in four sections, with a contents list for each section, and the coloured pages are also set in a slide-show.

One great value of having this volume now available online for everyone is that it shows what children liked to read and were taught in those days. See the school lessons, including how to read, and learning French! They start in section Two. (And the Things to Make and Do.) Other contents of the volume include art, animals, countries, earth and space, familiar things, history, ideas, literature, biographies, ourselves, picture atlas, plant life, poem and rhymes, power, stories, the bible, and wonder questions.

(Tips. Cursor on a picture on the screen to zoom or open up more pages. Some of the black-and-white pictures look pixilated when first enlarged but improve. The link to return to the home page is at the bottom right hand side of the screen.)

We treasure illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. A painting by Cezanne sells for several million dollars. Artists overseas make ephemeral art out of rotting foods and bicycle parts. It is still possible to buy a ten-volume set of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia in trading magazines. But how much longer? A treasure of the 20th century may be lost. Yet every library for young people should have a set to browse, from an edition no later than 1968 and our museums and State libraries should all have early sets in all their glory.

See below for How to introduce children to its treasures.


Arthur Mee was born on July 21, 1875, at Stapleford near Nottingham in England. His career was like one of his own heroic stories. One of the ten children of Henry Mee, a Baptist artisan and political radical, Arthur started work at fourteen reading copy to the proofreader on the local paper. By the age of twenty he edited the evening edition, and in London at twenty-one he wrote six large columns weekly, edited a picture magazine and worked on two political biographies - one characteristically titled, England's Mission by England's Statesmen. Described as 'torrentially productive', Mee himself estimated he wrote a million words a year for fifty years, only outdone by the comics writer Frank Richards. He helped to write Harmsworth's Self-Educator and History of the World, then wrote his own Children's Encyclopedia , My Magazine, The Children's Newspaper, 1000 Heroes, The Little Treasure House, The Children's Bible, Shakespeare, Bunyan and 'Arthur Mee's ' books about many things. Mee died in 1941, but less distinguished editions of the Encyclopedia and the Newspaper continued into the 1960s. Recently I have tried unsuccessfully to trace theEncyclopedia's copyright and its last publishers, the Educational Book Company Limited, Tallis House, Tallis Street, London, and printer, the Amalgamated Press, London.

The reason for my quest is that I would wish all children to have access to a lightly revised version of this unique Encyclopedia - on CD and/or the Web, or perhaps an updated reprint by the Folio Society or a Book Club - retaining its former glory of gold-figured binding, fine paper, exquisitely readable print, clear layout, and amazing collections of illustrations. For Arthur Mee did not operate on the demeaning marketing principle of 'What will get the kids in?' but 'What is the very best?'

Dubbed 'the Happy Wonderer', Mee himself remained childlike in his wonder about everything. He thought and wrote like a grown-up child, and children have loved it. His curiosity, enthusiasm, optimism, energy and innocence were without bounds, and captivated so many young readers who have grown up to eminent achieving, from Nobel Prize winning to cartooning and politics. Memoirs attest how generations of children were enabled to be self-educators, able to give themselves a grounding in almost every area of human endeavour and knowledge, and discovering the springs for interests, ideals and careers.

My own experience is not exceptional. I was so desperate to read our family's blue-and-gold volumes and understand their thousands of pictures that I learnt to read within a week of starting school. I still remember the effort. At our little 'rural' school, fortunately, the five-year-olds were shown on their first day how sounds matched letters on an alphabet on the wall. I soon cottoned on that adults did not match sounds to letters very well - you had to fudge. But soon I was reading The Encyclopedia ! First the stories and picture-titles, then the rest by extension, I had the freedom of reading! But other children were also beyond the 'I Can Run' and 'Little Half-Chick' in our school readers. My mother said that from the time I was six, schoolmates came around for me to read to them, with sometimes curious pronunciation, not only Fairy Stories of All Countries, but tales such as The Soul of Countess Cathleen, Sohrab and Rustum, the Boy who Would Not Lie, and Harriet Tubman the Heroic Black Slave who led her People to Freedom.

Others even claimed they learnt to read from Arthur Mee's simple instructions.

'During WWII my father was a prisoner of war and my mother was destitute and taken on as a housekeeper by a rich relative. They had bought a recent edition of this expensive encyclopedia and were dismayed when their children showed absolutely no interest, and when they found they could not keep me away from it and I taught myself to read from its pages,' a correspondent told me.

'I loved my Arthur Mee's. I even tried to teach myself French from those hopeless French lessons. My set must have been bought about 1952 and it was hopelessly old fashioned even then, but I thought it was terrific and it sated my curiosity on all sorts of topics,' writes an eminent journalist. 'Arthur Mee's was the most important book of my childhood -- more important than Biggles and William, and I can't say better than that!'

One of our favourite cartoonists has written about his early influences as being the ten volumes of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia, his dog, Dinah, the Maribyrnong River, and to some extent, Queen Elizabeth II, whom he saw passing by in Moonee Ponds in 1954.


The unofficial club of people who tell how they loved the Children's Encyclopedia, are, almost to a girl, wonderful people, passionate for beauty, gentleness and freedom and the pleasures of insatiable curiosity and thinking, and armed with the courage that any independent mind has to have. They were early cosmopolitans, given a wide stage for the intellectual drama of their lives.

Mee's Children's Encyclopedia was not the classified information of the usual A-Z encyclopedia. Around sixteen sections, repeated in each volume, and easier to browse than a classified encyclopedia, included stories, animals, history, physics, biology, engineering, biography, philosophy ('Great Thoughts') literature, the Bible, Things to Do and Make, the earth, poetry, 'wonder questions' and art, all tantalisingly illustrated, so that young readers could be tempted further in as they grow older. The same volume would contain nursery jingles and an inquiry into 'What is Truth?' The sequencing and setting out of everything in time and space gave young readers a mental framework into which they could assimilate new knowledge, including their school learning. Because theEncyclopedia encouraged them to explore everything, they could restructure this mental schema as they learnt more - the ideal Piagetian route for intellectual development.

Any mingy-minded detractor can fault Arthur Mee for his assumptions that the English were the top race and the English boy was the peak of creation - but the qualities he attributed to this eminence were fair-mindedness, kindness, and appreciation of good wherever it was found. Young readers overlooked his super-Englishness because of his equally strong universalism. In those narrower-minded times, he told them about the great deeds of girls and women as well as of boys and men, from all nationalities and races. The world was trawled for its legends, literature and heroes, and every country's contributions to mankind. The first volume opened with a world vision symbolised in the title-picture of children of all nations, 'Brothers and sisters are we all', an idealistic paean and an introduction to the story of the universe, with a symbolic illustration of its child readers surveying the whole wondrous lot swimming into their ken.

Mee assumed that the Christian religion was Top and Jesus Christ the centre of history, which in one illustration stretches out fore and aft, BC and AD. But evolution was accommodated in recounting the Bible story of Genesis, other religious leaders and freethinkers contribute to human progress, and religious-inspired evils were recognised. The Bible stories were meatier than the current diversions in 'Religious Education'. The boy giant-killer becomes King David who 'was swept away into actions so cruel and degrading that we can scarcely bear to think of them'. But 'the whole history of the human race is David's story. The human race falls backward again and again; again and again the pages of its history are stained with grievous crimes; but it does not go permanently backward into its savage state. It recovers and tries to go forward. So it was with David, and so he represents for us the history of humanity. He committed sins, but he did not abandon himself to evil.' Arthur Mee's Christianity was basically that, 'like David', 'he held fast to the idea that overlooking this moral life is a Power infinitely good, infinitely great and infinitely kind, whose purpose is that goodness and not evil shall triumph.'

The mostly Western history is pretty much simplified into Goodies and Baddies, mostly Goodies, and some prejudices are glaring to adults, but the tale is rousing and energetic, crammed with fighters for liberty and heroes of progress, nobly illustrated. The human spirit transcends tragedies and failure. This lesson is reinforced in the thousand poems in the books, which complement nursery rhymes and nonsense with a good deal of Tennyson, Browning, 'Say not the struggle naught availeth', and 'Only the actions of the just smell sweet and blossom in their dust'.

This is brave stuff today, for who could stand the mockery that such moralising would receive. But many children love to learn about morals, heroes, ideals and goals. What they, like Alice, cannot stand are the mouthing Duchesses, the slick public performers. They knew Arthur Mee was telling it like he was, and they read him in private.

The WorldWide Web is the place to find facts (although I could find only three entries about Arthur Mee, one about a school and two about his English county guides.) But its information is not necessarily organised knowledge, and wisdom rarely percolates through a screen. Hypertext-linked write-bytes make no living Tree of Knowledge. For children, the information explosion can be the 'blooming buzzing confusion' that William James assumed was the experience only of the newborn babe. The freedom of the Web can follow Gresham's Law. A recent cartoon in the Guardian Weekly (6/7) displays 'The 20th Century Revolution's' massive technological advances followed by 'The '21st Century Revolution' of IT fizzled down to a teenager huddled over an Internet game, 'Download-boing-phut-crash! '

It would be a sad loss of heritage if remaining sets of the Children'sEncyclopedia go the way of all pulp for lack of interest. It would be also tragic if belated recognition resulted in sky-high collectors' prices, instead of making this great work, lightly re-edited, universally available by Web, CD or print. Libraries, classrooms and parents could keep this Temptation to Learning available in juniors' corners for undisturbed reading, for children to handle with love and care, and to occasionally rescue a no-hoper.

'But the children of the Information Age are different today,' I am told. 'Arthur Mee is old hat. The pictures are too dull .'

  • Certainly children habituated to 'flick-twitch-thankyou-miss' 'barely-reading' flip a few pages and return to TV or computer game. Perhaps, perhaps, some may later return and discover how to dig.
  • Others use the extensive index pragmatically for information - as I still do.
  • But the children who could be illuminated and spark alive would include many lively-minded children that schools find hard to cope with -
  • bright children who reject classroom learning,
  • boys who prefer to know about the world of men, and
  • children who reject literacy because they know of nothing they want to learn to read, since everything in their early classrooms is pitched to a mental age of two to four.
  •  Gifted children do not restrict themselves to living on the cusp of novelty ; they can enjoy the content of what is old and even tatty when it adds value to living. The 'outdated' science and technology and geography still supply foundations that show how we have come to the present, with what struggles, and how drastic the changes have been.
  •  The children of today still need excitement and passion - here it is at the constructive end of the spectrum of life, a contrast to the pressures around them for negative intensities to be the only perceived alternatives to stuffiness.

How to introduce the Children's Encyclopedia
to today's children.

Buy a set in reasonable condition through a trading-post magazine, a second-hand bookshop, a fete. Make sure that it is one of the the good editions, not the later shoddy versions. It must be a set with a blue or brown cover and gold lettering on the back, unless you find a red-covered set that still has the pictures and print clear and good. Some sets come in a little wooden bookcase of their own. Yes, it is old-fashioned, yes, it may look old but - it is a treasure.

Look through with your child/children for say five minutes a day and then leave it so they can browse whenever they likes in their bedroom.

First show some of the pages of colored pictures of birds, shells, insects etc.

Second, some of the pages of famous art and sculpture.

Third, show and read some of the stories.

Fourth. show volume 10 with the Index and how to find anything when he has a project or wants to find out anything else. Some will be out-of-date, but it can be interesting to find out how things used to be. But usually you can find general knowledge items faster from the index than from the Internet. In the index there are also remarkable sets of information, such as a picture-dictionary of Art around p 7109 with 100 entries.

Fifth, show the index in the front of each volume, so you can find out where are the stories, the art, the poems, the history (that's lively!), the wonder questions, etc.

Sixth, find some poems you like, and read them to the children.

Then leave it to them, unless they want you to read them more stories.

I regard the Encyclopedia as the best Drugs and Anti-Suicide education you could get, because it enthused young readers about other alternatives in living; and about the best introduction to the Facts of Life in its message about how precious are other people, our own bodies, and the joy of loving (what matter that the beautiful nudes in the Art pages were smudged in places). The poetry and history gave inspiring models of what courage and freedom can mean.

'They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth' . .

'Though its portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong',

and on that scaffold, Madame Roland, in the French Reign of Terror, crying,
'Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!'

When people talk of cherishing Western civilisation, I do not think of sport or even of television, but of how happy we are if we are able to possess the necessities and securities of life, and also Arthur Mee.