ARTHUR MEE (1875-1943) was not only one of the most famous men of his generation: he also epitomised one strand of his generation’s culture, namely that of home education and self-improvement. So perhaps we can forgive Keith Crawford, Adjunct Professor of Education at Macquarie University, for describing Mee as an “iconic” public figure by the time of his unexpected death, after an operation.
“As with nearly everything in his life”, Crawford suggests, “Mee planned for the end, even down to his obituary. It had been written some years before by John Derry and was placed in the safe in Mee’s office.” In the obituary, Derry described Mee as “one of the most successful journalists in the world”.
Mee’s 700 letters written to Derry, his friend and mentor, are deposited at Reading University, and provide Crawford with material that another friend and colleague, John Hammerton, seems not to have used in his hagiography of 1946. Other source material includes Mee’s letters to the “Chief”, Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe from 1904), now held at the British Library, and the publications that Mee edited, including Harmsworth’s Self-Educator (1905-7), Harmsworth’s History of the World (1907), The Children’s Encyclopaedia (1908), The World’s Great Books (1909-10), Harmsworth’s Natural History (1910-11), Harmsworth’s Popular Science (1911-13), and, from 1919, The Children’s Newspaper.
Then there are all those books for children, such as Arthur Mee’s 1000 Heroes (1933) and Heroes of the Bible (1936), and for adults, including the King’s England series that he masterminded, celebrating the history and romance of individual English counties.
Like his hero, Robert Baden-Powell, Arthur Mee was inspired by God, England, and Empire. Unlike B-P, however, he was one of Samuel Smiles’s “men who have risen”. His father, Henry, a railwayman who graduated to looking after steam engines in the hosiery and lace factories, was a member of the “respectable” working class, being a pillar of Stapleford Baptist Chapel and a Liberal with a social conscience. His mother, Mary, worked as a cotton lace-winder before marrying Henry, with whom she had six children. Arthur, their second, attended the Baptist Sunday school and a board school where self-discipline, compliance, and hard work were encouraged, along with a devotion to all things English and Imperial.
The family’s move to Nottingham in 1889 coincided with Arthur’s leaving school at 14 and finding a job as a copyholder at the conservative Nottingham Daily Guardian. Here he taught himself shorthand and typing by practising on sermons and lectures heard in chapel. By the age of 16, he was an apprentice journalist on the Nottingham Daily Express, a radical Liberal newspaper grounded in Nonconformist principles and edited by Derry and then Hammerton.
By 1895, Mee was editor of the evening edition of the Express and was writing for Tit-Bits, owned by George Newnes. Having fulfilled his ambition to move to London by joining the staff at Tit-Bits, he married Amelia Fratson, became a “suburbanite”, wrote prolifically for a range of publications, and finally attracted the attention of Harmsworth, who offered him £1000 a year. Ever larger houses and even a motor car became possible as Mee’s prodigious efforts at the desk bore fruit in periodicals and books that sold in their millions.
Although occasionally somewhat pedestrian in style, Crawford’s illustrated biography offers intriguing sidelights on the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The devout Mee, who believed that he would never die, was a Darwinian and a eugenicist, before the ghastly results of eugenicism came to light. One of the illustrations in the first edition of The Children’s Encyclopedia, “Your Little Friends in Other Lands”, shows what Crawford calls a “racial hierarchy from back to front moving through African, Asian, Islamic and finally white European races with a Marjorie Mee look-a-like with parasol”. When the encylopaedia was re-published in 1922, the plate disappeared.
While embracing many aspects of modernity — Mee endorsed the “kinema”, for example, and predicted that his readers would one day carry telephones in their pockets — he was deeply troubled in middle age by what he regarded as a creeping decadence and corruption in the nation he loved. He responded in the way he knew best, publishing titles such as Heroes of Freedom (1936) and Salute the King (1936), and championing the preservation of “Old England” through what he called the “Motherland” project, the series The King’s England.
While his daughter Marjorie served as a member of a voluntary aid detachment during the Second World War, Mee published 1940: Our finest hour and, in 1941, Immortal Dawn. Before his death in 1943, he saw that things had to change, and that society would have to be more democratic and egalitarian. Ever the optimist.
Dr Wheeler is Chairman of Gladstone’s Library and Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton.
Arthur Mee: A biography
The Lutterworth Press £20