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Dame Trot and her Comical Cats (1850)

April 22, 2010

Last year, I bought an old copy of ‘Dame Trot and her Comical Cats’ and I’ve been doing some research into it.

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, John Harris, published he‘The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and her Dog’, a 4 x 5 inches book with eighteen hand-coloured copperplate engravings. It sold ten thousand copies in a few months and made his fortune. Harris went on to publish many other traditional rhymes in the same format.

Cats hemming handkercheif

What 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 a different colour: red, blue, green, yellow and brown. My own 19th century copy is also hand-coloured – you can see occasional splodges where the colour went outside the line.

Then, 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’. 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.  

So where does Dame Trot come in? The story 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.

By 1850, John Harris was dead and 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’ seven cats mend a carpet, but Dame Trot’s cats mend a large silk handkerchief, and the colouring is different.

It all goes to show that you can’t keep a good story down.

Elizabeth Hawksley

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. childrensauthor permalink
    April 22, 2010 11:57 am

    I found this very intriguing. Ten thousand copies sold and all hand coloured-in!! Odette

  2. Megg Nicol permalink
    April 25, 2010 8:24 pm

    As a cat lover I can’t wait to discover these books for myself—really interesting!

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