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The Little Visitors

June 28, 2020
by Sian Rees

Sian Rees introduces an unexpected discovery in the work of Maria Hack (1777 – 1844), published by Darton, Harvey & Darton of Gracechurch St in the City of London

In Maria Hack’s The Little Visitors, published in London in 1815, one of the characters is a young slave. Although you might not expect children’s books of the Georgian era to explore the experience of slavery, some authors did embrace the challenge of discussing it with a young readership.

Even after the slave trade was outlawed by the 1807 Slave Trade Act, it was not until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that it became illegal to own or purchase slaves. Maria Hack’s father, John Barton, had been involved in the Society of Friends to Influence the Abolition of Slavery.

In her book, Tom is a twelve-year-old boy who has been bought by sailors in the West Indies and brought to England, before being rescued from poor treatment and delivered to safety. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the wider industry of slavery is not portrayed in detail but Tom’s presence in the story as a credible and charismatic character reveals the violence of his origins through personal experience.

Maria Hack wrote educational books to provide children with assistance in reading, offering information about the world and moral guidance. This ‘conduct of life’ genre was popular among women writers and pioneered by Mary Wollstonecraft in the late eighteenth century. The protagonists are children of the same age as the readers in familiar situations they could recognise and relate to.

The Little Visitors is the story of two sisters, Ellen & Rachel, who visit their learned aunt’s house in the countryside. Through a series of dialogues with their erudite aunt, the girls learn about horticulture, the origin of household goods such as tea and coffee and how the poor sustain themselves through working in farming and domestic service. By the standard of modern children’s books, the story is lacking in excitement. But Maria Hack enlivens her tale by introducing an element of mystery in the form of the aunt’s unusual angora cat, Rosa.

Although the girls are curious to know who gave the cat to their aunt, there is never enough time at the end of each day of educational improvement for her to tell them. So the intrigue builds until one morning their aunt is ready to explain that she once rescued Tom, a child slave, who gave her the cat as a thank you present.

The aunt and Tom met by chance in a seaside town, when she heard a child crying out in distress and saw a black boy trying to escape from a sailor. The aunt confronted the sailor and persuaded him to accept money for the boy, then she placed Tom with someone she trusted to treat him with kindness. The protagonists, Ellen & Rachel, never actually meet Tom but his sympathetic representation as a character of the same age as the girls ensures that they and the readers identify with him and his situation.

Growing up in the sixties and sixties, I do not recall much diversity in the children’s books of that era. So while Maria Hack’s story reveals the limitations of her time, we should recognise her initiative in making a black character visible and refusing to erase slavery from her portrayal of everyday life.

Images courtesy University of California

Sian Rees is the author of PLANTING DIARIES, Gardens, Planting Styles & Their Origins

You may also like to take a look at

The Trade of The Gardener

Darton’s Nursery Songs

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Alex Knisely permalink
    June 28, 2020

    Charming. Thank you for making its charms more widely known.

  2. June 28, 2020

    What a Lovely Story. The Author has a Good Heart.??????

  3. Christopher J.P. Russell permalink
    June 28, 2020

    “At times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. … Gratitude is eternal

  4. David Bishop permalink
    June 28, 2020

    A really touching story. Thank you for sharing. Black lives matter.

  5. Mem permalink
    June 28, 2020

    What an interesting story . It casts this whole horrible episode as more complex than it seems . The role of the slave trade in establishing the industrial revolution is also very thought provoking . These poor people’s bodies fuelled so much of our progress in the west . If the slave trade hadn’t happened our world would be a very different place .

  6. June 28, 2020

    A heart warming tale …..thank you for sharing this with your readers.

  7. Lesley Russell permalink
    June 28, 2020

    Thank you for this, and so many other wonderful posts that open little windows into other times and other lives.

  8. Ms Mischief permalink
    June 28, 2020

    What a lovely little book! Darton is an interesting publisher, and employed some excellent engravers, as the illustrations show. The way in which a children’s story can convey a wider message was something known at the time. There were English people who cared about the downtrodden, and they eventually prevailed, but it is a constant struggle, as the love of money corrupts judgment in harder hearted people, like the sailors in the story. People who lack empathy do not have any notion what it is like to be predated upon, and in almost all societies there are human victims of human predators. Other characters in stories of this era were poor orphan children, born into poverty, and forced into working as chimney sweeps. Many of them died in narrow flues, were injured or burnt, or contracted a terrible form of cancer from exposure to the soot. You have only to think of William Blake’s Songs to know that good people were protesting loudly against the inhumanity of the day, just as they do today. The slavery of the English class system, and the sex business, with all their many deaths and damaged lives was operating here at the same time, killing people here too. Working class children were scalped in factories, lost limbs, were crippled by industrial diseases, died in machinery and down mines. And not just children, adult workers too, male and female. The inheritors of the wealth made by such forms of exploitation over centuries are still among us, the money of the upper classes carefully conserved by lawyers, land and property purchased and handed down.

  9. Eva Radford permalink
    June 28, 2020

    This reminds me of the Marina Endicott’s brilliant and beautiful novel, The Difference, in which one of the characters, the wife of a ship’s captain, buys a little Micronesian boy thinking she is saving him from starvation. She and the boy are forever changed by this act.

  10. Catvonpurr permalink
    June 29, 2020

    A touching tale and beautiful illustrations/engravings! The angora looks very regal.

  11. Agent X permalink
    July 3, 2020

    Would you allow a small correction? –

    The article says “Even after the slave trade was outlawed by the 1807 Slave Trade Act, it was not until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that it became illegal to own or purchase slaves.”

    This isn’t correct in relation to Scotland. – In Scotland, it had been illegal to own a slave from 1778 onwards. Yet another example in which Scotland has been more progressive than the UK as a whole.

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