When I was growing up one of my favourite books was the Children’s Encyclopaedia, by Arthur Mee. Ten volumes in dark blue board published in the mid-1920s for an audience still reluctant to abandon notions of empire and greatness. Originally published as a partwork, my grandparents had managed to find a complete bound edition, and every evening I devoured a little bit more. Through this, I learned to read, write and count; I read stories and poems, histories and basic French; I saw pictures (heavily censored I now realise) of great artworks, far flung places across the globe and even the essentials of heraldry. I even managed to make “a simple battery a clever boy can make” despite not being a clever boy!
The picture at the top is the one which starts the Encyclopaedia and is typical of the tone it sets – a ship of knowledge on the horizon of learning, or some such twaddle. It’s very old fashioned and I wouldn’t dream of using it as a resource for anything, apart from possibly classic poems and perhaps the odd fairy tale. That said, I hold it in great affection, and when the original copy with which I grew up was destroyed in a flood, I endeavoured to replace it. I’ve got it in partwork format now and I think I’m missing the last two volumes, but what I have got I still read with a big smile on my face.
Most of the photographs are contemporary and are interesting now as historical documents themselves. They really do show a world that we will never again witness, of a time when electricity was only just becoming a universal source of power and steam was still very much the order of the day. I’m not sure whether many children these days would believe in the ideas of the piano fairies, but it got me through a few music lessons.
I’d be devastated if I lost this again, because I think by now it’s pretty irreplaceable. That’s a shame, because despite all its faults, it is actually pretty thorough and quite fun to read – even if all you do is look at the pictures.