The Religious Tract Society, London


The Religious Tract Society was a British evangelical Christian organization founded in 1799 and known for publishing a variety of popular religious and quasi-religious texts in the 19th century. The society engaged in charity as well as commercial enterprise, publishing books and periodicals for profit.

The idea for the society came from the Congregationalist minister George Burder, who raised the idea while meeting with the London Missionary Society in May 1799. Founders of the RTS would go on to found the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804.

Initially, the society’s only stated goal was the production and distribution across Britain of religious tracts—short pamphlets explaining the principles of the Christian religion, with the aim of spreading salvation to the masses. The society was interdenominational, including members belonging to most branches of protestantism in Britain but not Roman Catholics or Unitarians.

For the first 25 years of the society’s existence, its main activity was the publication and distribution of religious tracts. From 1814, the society began publishing some tracts specifically for children. In the 1820s and 1830s, the society began commercially publishing bound books and periodicals for adults and children, shifting away from its previous focus on tracts, and leading to a sharp increase in the society’s income. By the 1840s, the RTS had become a sizeable publishing house, with more than 60 employees and a catalogue of more than 4,000 works in 110 languages. From the 1860s, the Society began publishing novels aimed at women and children, providing a platform for a new generation of women writers.

The third quarter of the nineteenth century was a period of impressive and sustained growth for the Society, largely made possible by the introduction of the secular publishing programme. Many of the ‘innovations’ of later years can be seen as the gradual working-out of the implications of that decision, including the Society’s famous range of children’s publications. There seemed to be no limit to what the Society was now willing to publish, as long as it had Christian and moral values in the background. This shift was the subject of some criticism both within and outwith the organisation. Subscribers to the society raised concerns that their contributions were being used to subsidise books which were aimed at a middle-class audience and priced out of reach of the working-class families that represented the previous targets of the society’s evangelical efforts.

The Boy’s Own and Girl’s Own Papers in many ways represent the culmination of the new publishing programme: although solidly imbued with Christian morals, they were very different products from the simple text-only tracts intended to convert semi-literate working-class adults. Although the Society’s sales income was ever-rising throughout this period, there was a significant jump at the point when the papers were launched, in 1879 and 1880 respectively. As always, the Society’s committee agonised about whether it ought to launch the Papers, and as always, it encountered criticism. Some subscribers feared that the new periodicals were ‘too secular in tone, and desire[d] that the religious teaching which they contain should be much more extensive and prominent’, but the committee was swift to point out that ‘the attempt to give them an exclusively religious character would be to defeat the very purpose for which they were commenced’. As usual, the impressive sales figures brought more funds to the Society’s coffers, and enabled it to continue the work of spreading the Gospel all over the world. In addition to the mixture of informative articles that had characterised previous publications, the Boy’s and Girl’s Own included original fiction (often with a heroic Imperial flavour) by named authors, several of whom became successful children’s writers. In addition to imbuing the contents with a stout moral tone, the papers’ editors encouraged their readers to become practically involved in good works, and while the boys raised money for life-boats and homes for poor boys, their sisters sewed book-bags for sailors and knitted mufflers for the London poor. The Boy’s Own and Girl’s Own Papers were part of a confident, successful programme of publishing that included just about everything a Christian household might need: from books and magazines for very young children, through works for adolescents, to magazines for family reading and books for the adults on everything from theological doctrine to popular science and ancient history. There were still tracts, though these had become far more sophisticated than their predecessors, and now dealt with issues of doctrine, or used the same formula of ‘secular information with a Christian tone’ that now characterised most of the other publications. There were also books for school prizes, and labels to stick in them, Christmas cards and calendars, and Bible puzzles.

The Girl’s Own Paper  was published from 3 January 1880 until 1956. . It was sold weekly at a price of one penny. In October 1929, the title became The Girl’s Own Paper and Woman’s Magazine but in 1930 the Woman’s Magazine became a separate publication. In December 1947 the name was changed to The Girl’s Own Paper and Heiress. By 1951 it was called Heiress incorporating the Girl’s Own Paper. In 1956 Heiress closed down, and the name Girl’s Own Paper ceased to exist.

The story paper provided a mix of stories and educational and improving articles, with ‘Answers to Correspondents’ and occasional coloured plates, poetry and music. For the first 30 years, the weekly and later monthly issues included an unusual amount of music content, including musical scores by women composers.

Emily Flora Klickmann (26 January 1867 to 20 November 1958) journalist, author and editor was the second editor of the Girl’s Own Paper, but became best known for her Flower-Patch series of books of anecdotes, autobiography and nature description.

In 1904, she became the editor of The Foreign Field, a magazine published by the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society. By this time, she had also begun writing and editing books on crafts and etiquette, aimed at young girls. Four years later, in 1908, she was appointed editor of the Girl’s Own Paper, in succession to its first editor, Charles Peters. The magazine moved from a weekly to monthly format, and she introduced new themes such as careers advice for girls, advice on style and dress, photography competitions and crafts. Long serials became less common, and their place was taken by a larger number of shorter stories, often from distant parts of the world.
In 1912 she suffered a breakdown through overwork and stress. While remaining as editor, she spent a period of convalescence at a rented cottage close to Brockweir. In June 1913, she married a widower, Ebenezer Henderson Smith (1851 to 1937), one of the executives at the RTS;
In May 1916 she published the first of a series of books of written sketches of life in her country cottage at Brockweir, known in her books as “Rosemary Cottage”, with its idyllic cottage garden and spectacular views over the River Wye and Tintern Abbey. The book, The Flower-Patch Among the Hills, was based on articles which she had originally written for the Girl’s Own Paper, and was highly successful; a reprint was needed after two weeks. She acquired a succession of cottages in the area over the years. In later years the stories grew to involve her household and the local people, combining nature description, anecdote, autobiography, religion, and humour. In all, seven Flower Patch books were published, over 32 years. Her writing has been described as “humorous, elegant and beautifully observed, revealing a genuine love and concern for the natural world”. A keen environmentalist, she wrote of the virtues of gardening without artificial chemicals and the value of natural fertilisers long before they became fashionable, and decried the taking of wild flower bulbs.
She also published novels, advice books, children’s stories and non-fiction on many topics including gardening, cooking, and needlework techniques, some of which have been republished in recent years. She remained editor of the Girl’s Own Paper until 1931, when she and her husband retired permanently to Brockweir. However, she continued to write Flower Patch books until 1948.
She lived an increasingly reclusive life after her husband’s death in 1937. She died in 1958, and was buried in the graveyard of the Moravian Church at Brockweir.

From the 1930s, a greater proportion of Girl’s Own material was directed at younger readers. There were school stories, stories of kidnapped princesses and articles about film stars, although the contents became more serious during World War II.

Between 1940 and 1947 Captain W. E. Johns contributed sixty stories featuring the female pilot Worrals. In her history of the paper E Honor Ward writes that it was an important and positive influence on generations of girls and women, and a vital outlet for women’s writing and ideas, for more than three-quarters of a century.

Sources: wikipedia: The Girl’s Own Paper; wikipedia: Religious Tract Society; “A short history of the Religious Tract Society” Aileen Fyfe,

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