Playing Robin Hood in the Victorian Nursery

By Stephen Basdeo

Thomas Rowland argues that for most of the “mythic” outlaw’s history, “Robin was much more a character of ludic texts, of play games and festival culture, than of writing.”[1]

The exception to Rowland’s argument is probably the nineteenth century when texts, particularly novels and short stories in penny bloods and penny dreadfuls, predominated in the Robin Hood tradition. Of course, there were Robin Hood plays in the Victorian era, such as adaptations of Scott’s Ivanhoe and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian in the 1820s. There was also George Macfarren’s opera Robin Hood, which premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1860 as well as Alfred Tennyson’s play The Foresters which premiered in London and New York in 1893. But these plays and operas were not participatory or “ludic” in nature. Instead audiences merely watched these scripted and well-rehearsed plays which allowed for little in the way of audience interaction, except in the case of pantomimes where the players might occasionally converse with the audience.

Nursery Image play
W.R. Snow’s Robin Hood play.

Evidence for a truly “ludic” Robin Hood, played by the people-at-large, is to a large extent lacking in the Victorian era. There is, along with the pantomime example given above, perhaps another exception: the annual Empire Day celebrations. At this event children would dress up as historical figures and march in a parade through the local town. Kings, queens, Britannias, and John Bulls were a regular feature on this day. There were also some small Robin Hoods to be viewed at these events.[2]

If children wanted to play at being Robin Hood for a day they might also have turned to a script which appeared in Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual in 1871 titled “Robin Hood and his Merrye Men,” written by W.R. Snow.[3] A regular contributor to this annual which contained short stories of “daring do,” Snow also wrote other plays for the publication, in which he adapted various English nursery rhymes and folk tales, as he did with “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son” in the same volume as his Robin Hood play.[4]

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This article provides a brief commentary on “Robin Hood and his Merrye Men” and discusses the influence which previous portrayals of Robin Hood had upon Snow’s script, as well as speculatively discussing how it might have been played by Victorian children, from what we can infer from Snow’s text.[5] (It is of course very probably that the play was simply read by a child who had received the book as a gift and that in many households it was never actually performed, but it is not my intention in this short space to consider the solitary reading of the play).

The late Victorian era was the great age of the boy’s periodical and annual. The Education Act of 1870 mandated compulsory schooling for all children between the ages of 5 and 12. Although truancy continued to be a major problem, given that many working-class children had to work outside of standard school hours and were likely too tired to attend school, most children received a basic degree of education in the “Three Rs.”

The children of the middle and upper classes at this period were usually educated at home by a governess and the boys of the family would then have been sent to one of Britain’s grammar schools or elite public schools.[6] In tandem with the progress of children’s education, the existing market for children’s literature went from strength to strength. There seemed to be a book out there for children from every class, which included expensive books like Howard Pyle’s Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, which retailed at 15s,[7] along with “five shilling” novels such as those by the imperial ideologue G.A. Henty, as well as a number of children’s magazines ranging in price from 6d to 1d.[8]

Routledge’s Every Boy’s Magazine began publishing monthly numbers in 1862. Routledge also began printing special one volume Annuals containing the most popular stories that had appeared in the magazine throughout the year. In contrast to the penny dreadfuls, a class of magazines so hated by Victorian moralists, the Routledge magazine, along with other periodicals such as the Boy’s Own Magazine, would have been considered one of the more “respectable” boy’s publications.[9]

Indeed the readership of Routledge’s Every Boy’s Magazine and the Annual was decidedly middle-class. The magazine was not a penny magazine but retailed at 6d per issue.[10] The annuals were fairly expensive books. Bound in cloth with gilt lettering on the spine and front cover, volumes tended to retail at around 6s each.[11] This may not sound expensive but we should remember that a precarious wage was about 18s per week.[12]

It is doubtful that a working-class family would have spent a third of their weekly earnings on a book like the Annual—penny dreadfuls were popular with working-class readers because they were only 1d. Moreover, the content of the magazine was thoroughly middle-class. Contained in the annual for 1864, for instance, was a guide to Christmas parlour games.[13] Let us also examine the full title of W.R. Snow’s Robin Hood play: “Robin Hood and his Merrye Men: A Sensational Drama for the Nursery.”

Working-class families in Britain, of course, did not have separate nurseries for their children. D.B. Foster in Leeds Slumdom (1897) drew attention to the terrible living conditions of families living in cellar dwellings and the courts and alleys of Victorian Leeds while Andrew Mearns drew attention to issues of overcrowding in the capital in The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883).[14] The picture they painted of working-class living conditions could have described any major urban centre in the Victorian era.

Nurseries were special rooms set aside in the middle-class home for the children and were places where they were cared for by a governess. There were many different gradations in the governess profession, many of whom managed to earn some good money. But the lot of a nursery governess was a dismal one. Often lacking formal qualifications and very poorly paid (many nursery governesses received only “bed and board” as payment), nursery governesses taught children up to the age of ten in a wide range of subjects. Families left the governess to her own devices as far as setting the curriculum was concerned but she would have rarely received money for the provision of teaching resources, so a play “for the nursery” may have been welcome addition to the meagre resources at the governess’s disposal (which, although there is insufficient space to dwell upon this here, is quite interesting because it suggests that Snow was aware of his “governess” readership and catered to them accordingly).[15]

the-lesson-by-jules-trayer-1861
Jules Trayer’s portrait of a governess teaching a child to write (1861).

As well as the low pay, a governess should have been “seen and not heard.” Victorian social conventions dictated that family members should not enter the nursery and while the mother might venture into it from time to time, the father would definitely not.[16] Furthermore, the governess was not considered as part of the family yet she was not one of the servants, often taking her meals in private.[17] How a nursery governess must have felt, marginalised as she was in the household, was perhaps best explained by a contemporary manual for governesses: “It is only the governess, and a certain class of private tutors, who must hear the echoes of the drawing-room and the offices, feeling that, in a house full of people, they dwell alone.”[18] The governess’s world was the children.

The plot of the play is fairly simple. Robin and his men are hungry and look for someone to rob. They catch Maid Marian who instantly falls in love with Robin Hood the moment she lays eyes on him. King Richard then appears and all the merry men profess their loyalty to him.

The whole play occupies but 13 pages of the annual. The nursery governess would have taken the lead in directing the children’s performances of the Snow’s play. There are several characters in the play: Robin Hood, King Richard, Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet, Allen-a-Dale, Maid Marian.[19] Women who married in the 1860s bore an average of six children.[20] Depending on their ages then there would perhaps have been just enough children in the nursery to act out the roles. If there were fewer children in the household, say two or three, then it is likely that some children, along with the nursery governess, assumed two or three roles each.

s-l1600
A Victorian book of Nursery Rhymes. Robin Hood ballads were rarely featured in these children’s books.

We remarked earlier that a governess rarely received any funds from the family with which to buy educational resources. There was probably one single copy of the Annual in the household. Unless the governess made the children learn the lines by heart—a tall order for any child under ten years old, then or now—the book was likely passed around while reading. Getting children to read aloud the lines from the book would of course have assisted in the children’s education. Snow seems to have anticipated this—the language of the play is fairly simple and lacks the faux medieval vocabulary common to many Robin Hood children’s books of the late-Victorian period.

If the governess had little in the way of educational resources, at least the play did not require elaborate props. All the items required for the play could be found in the Victorian home. For example, when the merry men are first introduced, we find Little John sitting under an umbrella.[21] Marian wears a “Sunday bonnet.”[22] In another part of the play Will Scarlet holds up a photograph.[23] There is therefore no sense that Robin Hood is in any way a medieval character. This is accounted for at the beginning of the play itself. We find that there is no specific date or place but that the play is set in Sherwood Forest “on the borders of Nursery Rhyme-Land.”[24]

Although Snow made no effort to be “historically accurate” when writing his play, it is evident that Snow has at least read Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795) at some point, and he at least read the Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (1495) included therein. Some of Robin’s utterances have some resonance with the sentiments expressed in Ritson’s book. Ritson’s book was still the scholarly authority on all Robin Hood matters in the nineteenth century, being reprinted frequently in a variety of editions, ranging from popular paperbacks to expensive hardbound volume.[25] In Snow’s play Robin says, in a very “Ritsonian” fashion:

Thus free and easy, who would not look down

O all the senseless luxury of the town?

The forest wilderness by me is prized;

It is so gloriously uncivilized.

Our humble wants nature can supply.[26]

Those lines have a certain resonance with some of the following statements made by Ritson who supposed that the forest was

free from the alarms and apprehensions to which the foresters … must have been too frequently subject.

While in Ritson’s book, as in Snow’s play,

the deer with which the royal forests then abounded … would afford our hero and his companions an ample supply of food throughout the year.[27]

The influence of the Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode in Snow’s play comes in the final part Snow’s play. King Richard appears in the forest in disguise. Robin and the king have a boxing match and then the king proclaims

I am Richard the Lionheart.

The outlaws then profess their loyalty to the king and then all the characters partake of a celebratory drink.[28] Perhaps, if this drama was ever played, it was accompanied by a real drink.

The vague allusions to Ritson’s remarks and the king’s appearance at the end are the only similarities with earlier Robin Hood material in Snow’s play. There are several short songs in the play but none of them are taken from Robin Hood ballads. This may be due to the fact that almost nobody by the 1870s was singing Robin Hood ballads. If they did sing them, it is probably because they were specifically interested in singing “old” Robin Hood ballads. It is to be wondered whether the tunes were known at all by the 1870s.

The melodies to the post-medieval ballads were rarely included in eighteenth-century editions of Robin Hood’s Garland.[29] The second volume of Ritson’s book contained tunes to two Robin Hood songs in an appendix.[30] The tunes were certainly not included in the later reprints of Ritson’s work. When Cecil Sharpe heard a provincial woman singing a Robin Hood song in the early 1900s, it was remarkable because it was so rare to find evidence of oral transmission of the ballads.[31] To know the tunes of Robin Hood ballads in the late-Victorian era, one really needed to be a scholar or antiquary.

However, the tunes of nursery rhymes were much more widely known in the Victorian era and it is to common nursery rhyme tunes that Snow’s songs were set. Snow includes an air titled “Foresters’ Chorus” which is set to the tune of “Three Jolly Post-Boys.”[32] The tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down” serves as an accompaniment to Snow’s “The Horrid Stick has Cracked Me Down.”[33]

While post-medieval Robin Hood ballads were being produced in serious scholarly tomes, from the 1850s onwards several publishers began printing collections of nursery rhymes in books marketed specifically for children. And these books were attractive to children, being bound in cloth and highly decorative; various pictures could, from the middle part of the century onwards, be “blind stamped” on to the front and back covers of a book and then coloured in.

Yet Robin Hood songs were never a major feature in Victorian nursery rhyme books—the ones I have consulted certainly have not featured any—because, as mentioned above, the collection and study of the ballads was a serious scholarly endeavour by the late nineteenth century. Children would probably not have known Robin Hood songs, and Snow realises this. But the children, or their nursery maids, would likely have been acquainted with at least a few common nursery rhymes. If they did not, then the words could at least have been spoken.

The play, set as it is on “the Borders of Nursery-Rhyme-Land” could hardly have been used by a governess to teach the children about history. Instead the play was preoccupied with teaching children a moral lesson about the rights and wrongs of stealing and of acting like a gentleman. At the beginning of the play, the merry men are quite dejected so Robin goes looking for food in an attempt to cheer them up. With their master gone, the merry men spy a woman travelling through the forest carrying a box. It is Marian. The men decide to rob her and are a bit rough about it; they take her box and then tie her to a tree. Robin arrives back and rebukes them all for acting so ungentlemanly. So, we have a Robin Hood play in which the outlaws are actually counselled not to steal—the whole play is a very odd addition to the corpus of Robin Hood tales.


[1] Thomas Rowland, “ ‘And Now Begins Our Game’: Revitalizing the ludic Robin Hood,” in Robin Hood in Outlaw/ed Spaces: Media, Performance and Other New Directions, ed. Lesley Coote and Valerie B. Johnson (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), 175.

[2] Stephen Basdeo, Robin Hood: The Life and Legend of an Outlaw (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2019), 96.

[3] W.R. Snow’s play is briefly referenced, but not analysed, in the following work: Kevin Carpenter, “Robin Hood in Boys’ Weeklies to 1914,” in Popular Children’s Literature in Britain, ed. Julia Briggs, Dennis Butts, M.O. Grenby, 2nd ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 48.

[4] W.R. Snow, “Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son,” in Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual: An Entertaining Miscellany of Original Literature, ed. Edmund Routledge (London: George Routledge, 1871), 20–29.

[5] On the “gentrification” of the Robin Hood legend see: Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).

[6] Trevor May, The Victorian Public School (Oxford: Shire Publications, 2011), 5.

[7] “Advertisements,” The Athenaeum, December 15, 1883, 796.

[8] For more information on the children’s penny magazine industry and Robin Hood see the following works: Robert J. Kirkpatrick, From the Penny Dreadful to the Ha’penny Dreadfuller: A Bibliographical History of the British Boys’ Periodical 1762–1950 (London: British Library Publishing Division, 2013); Julia Briggs, Dennis Butts and M.O. Grenby ed. Popular Children’s Literature in Britain, 2nd ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016); M.O. Grenby, Children’s Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008). David Blamires, Robin Hood: A Hero for All Times (Manchester: John Rylands Library, 1998), 16–20, 59–63; Bennett A. Brockman, “Robin Hood and the Invention of Children’s Literature,” Children’s Literature 10 (1982): 1–17; Bennett A. Brockman, “Children and the Audiences of Robin Hood,” South Atlantic Review 48 (1983): 67–83; Kevin Carpenter, “A Note on Robin Hood in Victorian Boys’ Books,” The Henty Society Bulletin 12 (1999–2000): 9–11; Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 186–96 and 201–17.

[9] John Springhall, Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics: Penny Gaffs to Gangsta-Rap, 1830–1996 (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1998), 49–50.

[10] See advertisement on the rear cover of the following book: Edmund Routledge, Routledge’s Six-Penny Handbooks: Cricket (London: Routledge [n. d.]).

[11] Henry Cadwallader Adams, The Lost Rifle; or, Schoolboy Faction (London: Routledge, 1876), iv.

[12] William Morris, “The Hopes of Civilization,” in William Morris: News from Nowhere and Other Writings, ed. Clive Wheeler, 3rd ed. (London: Penguin, 2004), 325.

[13] George Forrest, “In-Door Games for Christmas,” in Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual, ed. George Routledge (London: Routledge, 1864), 20–28.

[14] D.B. Foster, Leeds Slumdom (Leeds: C.H. Halliday, 1897); Andrew Mearns, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (London: London Congregational Union, 1883).

[15] Heather Ann Stucky, “The Victorian ‘Border’ Garden and the ‘Boarder’ Governess in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre,” BA diss. Wittenberg University, 2013, 3.

[16] John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 47, 88–89.

[17] Kathryn Hughes, The Victorian Governess (London: Hambledon, 1993), 88.

[18] “Hints on the Modern Governess System,” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 30 no. 179 (1844), 575.

[19] W.R. Snow, “Robin Hood and his Merrye Men: A Sensational Drama for the Nursery,” in Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual: An Entertaining Miscellany of Original Literature, ed. Edmund Routledge (London: George Routledge, 1871), 478.

[20] M. Anderson, “The social implications of demographic change,” in The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750–1950, ed. F.M.L. Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 28.

[21] Snow, “Robin Hood and his Merrye Men,” 478.

[22] Snow, “Robin Hood and his Merrye Men,” 480.

[23] Snow, “Robin Hood and his Merrye Men,” 481.

[24] Snow, “Robin Hood and his Merrye Men,” 478.

[25] “Ritson, J. Robin Hood,” in The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, Volume 1, 600-1660, ed. George Watson, J. D. Pickles, Ian R. Willison (Cambridge University Press, 1974), 1139.

[26] Snow, “Robin Hood and his Merrye Men,” 479.

[27] Joseph Ritson, ed. Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, vol. 1 (London: T. Egerton, 1795), vi.

[28] Snow, “Robin Hood and his Merrye Men,” 488–89.

[29] Stephen Basdeo, “Reading Robin Hood’s Garland in the Eighteenth Century,” Bulletin of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies 2 no. 1 (2018), 6.

[30] Ritson, ed. Robin Hood, vol. 2, 205-06.

[31] Ruth Perry, “What Gets Printed from Oral Tradition: Anna Gordon’s Ephemeral Ballads,” in Catastrophic Bliss: Text and Image in Eighteenth-Century Print, ed. Kevin D. Murphy and Sally O’Driscoll (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2013), 100.

[32] Snow, “Robin Hood and his Merrye Men,” 478.

[33] Snow, “Robin Hood and his Merrye Men,” 486.

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