Dame Trot and her Comical Cats

About ten years ago, I bought a tattered old copy of a 19th century children’s book, 13 by 17 cms, called Dame Trot and her Comical Cats published in 1850 by Dean & Co of Threadneedle Street, London. It was a best seller and I thought it might be interesting to look into its history. Its story is a complicated – and convoluted – one.

The front cover picture shows an artist cat painting the portrait of the famous Dame Trot which stands on the easel

You may be wondering why on earth I bought such a tattered old book in the first place: the answer is that you never know, when writing Historical novels, what will come in useful, and to have an actual copy of an 1850 book which real children had read and enjoyed can help with that sometimes elusive period flavour. You can see that my copy was very shabby indeed and that the pages have actually been sewn together in a sort of cross stitch by hand. It originally cost threepence.

The Comical Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and her Dog, 1805, with illustrations by Sarah Catherine Martin (1768-1826) Courtesy of Wikipedia

Books specifically aimed at children first appeared in the 18th century. They were only the size of playing cards and had crude wood cuts. Then, in 1805, an enterprising printer called John Harris published The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and her Dog, a 10 x 13 cms book with eighteen hand-coloured copperplate engravings by a lady called Sarah Catherine Martin. It illustrated the well-known nursery rhyme of fourteen ‘nonsense’ verses of the life and adventures of Mother Hubbard’s dog.

Old Mother Hubbard / Went to the cupboard / To fetch her poor dog a bone; / But when she came there / The cupboard was bare / And so the poor dog had none

The dog went on to die, to laugh, to smoke a pipe, to sit in a chair, to stand on his head and so on. Children loved it and it sold ten thousand copies in a few months and made Harris his fortune. Harris went on to publish many other traditional rhymes using the same format.

Here Dame Trot is running a school for cats, each cat is dutifully bringing in a mouse

Most children’s books had far cruder illustrations than Miss Martin’s more professional ones as the picture above from Dame Trot and Her Comical Cats shows.

What also interested me was the hand-colouring: ten thousand books with eighteen pictures in each is an awful lot of hand colouring. And they were all done by children. It was a cottage industry; the children sat at a table, each painting in a different colour: red, blue, green, yellow and brown. My own 19th century copy is also hand-coloured – you can see the frequent splodges where the colour went outside the line.

Here Dame Trot’s well-behaved cats are given a lift by Farmer Hodge

If you look carefully, though, you can see that the horses in the illustration above are much better drawn than the cats. What has happened is that the publisher has taken a completely different print engraving and plonked the much cruder cats on top of the horses and wagon.

So why have I introduced Old Mother Hubbard when this post is supposed to be about Dame Trot? All will be revealed in a moment. What happened was an example of a common dodgy publisher’s practice: remember, this was well before there were any copyright laws to protect artists’ or writers’ work.

To complicate the story, in 1813, a rival publishers, Dean and Munday, brought out Dame Wiggins of Lee and her Wonderful Cats, sub-titled, ‘a humorous tale written principally by a lady of ninety’ – obviously to cash in of the ‘comical’ tales popularity. It is an enjoyable read, even today. The cats do various comical and useful things: go skating, mend the carpet, ride sheep and so on. Dame Wiggins has an angular profile like Punch’s wife, Judy – and, we note, like Dame Trot.

Dame Trot’s cats industriously embroider a large silk handkerchief

So how does Dame Trot and her Comical Cats come into the Mother Hubbard story? The Dame Trot story itself is first mentioned in 1706 and has many similarities to Mother Hubbard, except that Dame Trot has a cat rather than a dog. In 1820, Harris brought out his own version of Dame Trot and her Cat. His Dame Trot is a round, cosy old lady, very unlike Dame Wiggins. It, too, was a success.

‘A very respectable grey-whiskered cat’ catches a mouse for a farmer and  is allowed to keep it . Again, the original picture – without the cat or the mouse – may have come from a completely different print.

But, by 1850, John Harris was dead and the publishers Dean and Munday wanted to cash in on the success of Dame Trot but they didn’t have Harris’s copperplate engravings. So, instead, they used their own Dame Wiggins of Lee engravings, changed Dame Wiggins’ name to Dame Trot, gave her six more cats, and adapted the text to suit. For example, in the original, Dame Wiggins’ cats mend a carpet, but Dame Trot’s cats mend a large silk handkerchief, and the colouring is different.

For those of us who write Regency Historical novels, it’s useful to know that your heroine – if artistic – could earn some sort of living illustrating children’s picture books – though I doubt she’d be paid much (and the payment was a one off – there were no royalties).

It also goes to show that there’s nothing new in sharp business practice and, perhaps, that you can’t keep a good story down.

Twitter: @Hawksley_E

Elizabeth Hawksley


Please share this page...


6 thoughts on “Dame Trot and her Comical Cats”

  1. Now that is really fascinating. I didn’t know about the cottage industry using children as painters. But if I’d thought about it, I could have guessed. Children were used, from a very young age, in all sorts of cottage industries.

    1. Good morning, Joanna! I suppose that if you have five children to feed, to sit them down at the table with paint brushes and saucers of red, blue, green, yellow and brown paint will at least keep them busy and stop them getting under your feet. All the same, it’s a bit tough on the children!

  2. Fascinating. Love these old books. It’s illustrative of the sort of thing parents wanted to keep their children amused. Though in the case of the strata of society I write, I expect it was the nurse who read to them, assuming she was lettered. Just the thing, on the other hand, for the hour the children get with their mother.
    I’ve had parents, particularly fathers, reading Perrault’s fairy stories to their children, as they were published then. I have a Folio facsimile version which dates back to the 1700s apparently. But these cartoonish picture books are a different thing altogether and must have been very popular when they came out.

    1. Thank you for your interesting comment, Elizabeth. Lucky you having a Folio facsimile edition of Perrault’s fairy tales! I hope that the children so industriously painting in the colours in ‘Dame Trot and her Comical Cats’ also enjoyed the surreal story. In places ‘Dame Trot’ reminds me of Lewis Carroll or even Edward Lear – though it might well be truer to say that Carroll and Lear themselves were influenced by the humorous irrationality of ‘Dame Trot’ as children.

  3. I’m interested in your comments about hand-colouring of book illustrations by children In earlier times it was very common for children to contribute to the family income in poorer families and not only in factory work in towns. In the countryside they picked fruit, plaited straw for hat making, knitted stockings, scared birds away from the crops etc. As adults it was hard for women to earn an independent income other than by going into service or prostitution and many unmarried women faced destitution. My own school in Newcastle was set up in part to offer an alternative role for girls. It was founded in 1705 by a bequest from Dame Eleanor Allen, the widow of a substantial tobacconist in the parish of Wallsend, to provide an education for ” 40 poor boys and 20 poor girls, the boys to be taught reading, writing and arithmetic, and the girls to be taught reading, writing and fine sewing”. The last skill, of course, being one that allowed a single woman to make an income however small and retain her independence. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the school evolved into two independent schools, for boys and girls, with high academic standards. The girls’ school prides itself to this day on turning out strong and independent women who can make their own way in the world.

    1. Thank for your interesting contribution, Pauline. Three cheers for Dame Eleanor, I say! My source doesn’t say, but it would be interesting to know if both boys and girls painted the pictures in the ‘Dame Trot’ books, or was it just the girls?

Comments are closed.