Charles Kingsley 1819-1875

Educated at Kings College in London and Magdalene College, Cambridge, Charles Kingsley went on to enter the Church of England where he continued to study history and often published his sermons, as well as poems and novels.

His work was very influential. The novel Westward Ho! Inspired the name of a town – even containing the exclamation mark, as well as the Bedford, Westward Ho! And Appledore Railway.

Young People out gathering ferns - and what other nonsense is going on!

Kingsley also coined the term ‘Pteridomania’ – when he felt his daughters had gone mad, obsessed with the collection of ferns which became a national hobby in the nineteenth century, of which more can be read in this post.

Sympathetic to the work of Darwin, Kingsley was very interested in the concept of evolution. As a Christian Socialist, he had strong political views and campaigned against the unjust conditions under which many labourers were forced to work. Both issues are raised in his classic novel, a didactic moral fable entitled: The Water Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby which was written between 1862-3, serialised by Macmillan’s Magazine before going on to be published as a book. 

The story was an instant hit and became a mainstay of children’s literature in the 1920’s. However, it was many years after that when the VV also found herself entranced in the magical underwater tale when she went into a library and pulled Kingsley's book down from the shelves, at which point an obsession with water, mermaids and nymphs was born which is still very much in her mind today, forming one of the themes of a new novel on which she is currently working. But then, as many children before, the VV desperately wanted to believe that Water Babies really did exist, a need that Kingsley understood, explaining when asked about them:

 '...no one has a right to say that no water babies exist till they have seen no water babies existing, which is quite a different thing, mind, from not seeing water babies.'

Linley Sambourne, the famous Punch cartoonist satirised the concept with an illustration which showed the scientists Richard Owen and Thomas Henry Huxley viewing a Water Baby caught in a bottle. Somewhat ironically, when Huxley's five year old grandson saw the illustration, he wrote this letter -

Dear Grandpater – Have you seen a Waterbaby? Did you put it in a bottle? Did it wonder if it could get out? Could I see it some day? – Your loving Julian

To which his grandpater wrote this reply:  

My dear Julian – I could never make sure about that Water Baby.

I have seen Babies in water and Babies in bottles; the Baby in the water was not in a bottle and the Baby in the bottle was not in water. My friend who wrote the story of the Water Baby was a very kind man and very clever. Perhaps he thought I could see as much in the water as he did – There are some people who see a great deal and some who see very little in the same things.

When you grow up I dare say you will be one of the great-deal seers, and see things more wonderful than the Water Babies where other folks can see nothing.

How charming!

Nevertheless, now that she has grown up and is no longer quite so naive, the VV wonders if her fascination for Kingsley's tale may well have been due more to the lovely illustrations of Jessie Willcox Smith than what – on a re-reading – can often be a pompous, long-winded and bigoted story with pages of ranting sermons; literally long lists the ‘ills’ of the world, as perceived by the Reverend Kingsley. There are also many examples of prejudice against Americans (murderous crows), Jews (dishonest merchants who grow rich on the sale of false icons), Blacks (fat old greasy negros), and Catholics (Popes are listed as one of the great bogies, alongside Measles!) - all of which may explain why the story is no longer very popular!

It begins well enough, telling the tale of a young chimney sweep called Tom who is abused by Mr Grimes, his cruel employer. When working in a large country house, Tom climbs down into one of the hearths and sees Ellie, a lovely golden-haired girl in a room where everything is clean and white. Chased away by the child’s nurse, Tom escapes through the window and runs away, eventually coming to a river where he ‘falls asleep’ when trying to wash himself clean. Thereafter, Tom is transformed into a ‘water baby’ and goes on to have many ‘watery’ adventures whereby through a series of moral lessons he meets characters such as Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. His soul is eventually redeemed and returned to human form, becoming a man of science who works for the greater good of mankind.


  1. Always found this rather a creepy story.

  2. I have to admit that when I read it as a child I missed all the bigotry and sermonising. I still have the copy I was given one Christmas and I'm really interested in reading it again now that I've read your post. It's a book that I read and re-read as a child because I loved it so much and it'd be interesting to see if I feel differently about it now.

  3. I think you're quite right, Hermes - but as a child, I was absolutely entranced at the concept of living under the water.

  4. Kath - so did I! Do let me know what you think if you read it again.

  5. How very Victorian, indeed, but having read many of his letters, I am struck by his naivety. He clearly wanted to be on the "progressive" side of his society, but was often led astray by others. One such was his speech therapist (Kingsley had a stammer), James Hunt. Kingsley had no way of knowing that Hunt was a paid agent provocateur for the Confederate cause in the US, but Hunt corresponded with him, persuading him that black and white humans belonged to different species, and then publicising Kingsley's private comments to this effect.

  6. Thank you, Mark - that's very interesting.

  7. My Bookhouse Books series had a poem after Kingsley's Waterbabies as its last selection (Book #3 or #4) Up One Flight of Stairs... and I was fascinated by those pix (not Jesse Wilcox Smiths), especially one that showed Tom with little prickles all over him like rose thorns..... I have just acquired a hardback with the Wilcox Smith pix and think how like 2 of the 3 women in A Wrinkle in Time they look: Mrs. Which and Mrw. Who.... Reading the whole thing now, and -- though it is a very mixed bag with racist/other ist comments {I am Irish and teach in the Black community}... I still find the scientific ramblings interesting. But for a child...? Not today's kids at any rate, and would need a lot of adult editing. c. Wolfe