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"The streets of a dreary London suburb were more dreary than usual on that December evening."

Those are the first words of "Zara, or my Granddaughter's Money", the very first story in the first weekly number of the Girl's Own Paper, which began publication on January 3rd, Anno Domino 1880. The words have the authentic Victorian flavour; perhaps Sherlock Holmes came clattering along those dreary streets in the gathering dusk of that December evening? But no; this is the GOP, published as a weekly, a monthly, and a bound annual volume, and the stories in it, in the 1880s and 90s, assumed a quiet Christian commitment, and dealt with domestic problems, inheritance, lost wills, flirtation, and love. No violence, little crime, no sex, and no horror; what a pleasant change!

The Victorian monthly GOPs had pale blue paper covers with a pictorial heading showing three young ladies, one reading, one painting, and one collecting wild flowers. The cost was one penny per week, or sixpence for the 60-page monthly number. The wide quarto pages, 22cm by 28 cm, allowed room for plenty of black-and-white steel engravings, and from the very first issue onwards there were occasional coloured plates, some of them very fine. It is easy to imagine a Victorian Evangeline or Dolabella running down the wide stairs of her London home when she heard the postman's knock, to collect her weekly GOP and carry it up in triumph to the school-room or the drawing-room, to provide education and entertainment for the rest of the week. Well-off girls in Victorian times often had time on their hands, and the GOP provided them with notes on Bible study, on district visiting, on literature, on fashion, on sewing, cookery, and music, to help the hours to pass. Meanwhile, their poorer cousins were grossly overworked. The GOP was firm in its support for the social order of its day, but it was not uncaring or irresponsible; its fiction and its non-fiction do reflect concern for social problems, and it takes a positive line on women's education and on the need to limit the hours worked by seamstresses and factory workers.

These early GOP weekly or monthly numbers are fragile and hard to find, but they are well worth looking for, for the sake of their format, their stories and articles, and for the delightful advertisements printed inside the covers. Who can resist:

"The Cottager", the cheapest and best Baking Oil Stove in the world, which will do all the cooking of an ordinary coal fire at Half the Cost, saving time, labour, temper and money; requires No Flues – and costs only fifteen and sixpence, complete with kettle, fry-pan, saucepan, steamer, meat-tray and baking covers."

Or who would not be glad to acquire "Queenly Grace and Health", by wearing "Hoven's Patent Stocking Suspender"?

The GOP had an "Answers to Correspondents" page, written by an adviser rather different from the Agony Aunts of later years. The letters themselves are not printed, and so we cannot judge the justice of one Answer, which reads "The whole tone of your letter is highly objectionable, and your composition, spelling and calligraphy need much correction". The advice given was often sensible and important; an early enquirer was told to apply to the Christian University in Madras if she wished to train to become a doctor, because Madras was at that time the only place at which such training could be obtained. Many girls wrote to the GOP because they unexpectedly found themselves forced to earn their own living, while their education had prepared them only for a life of idleness, and this is the theme of much of the fiction; rich Father goes bankrupt, Brother is spoilt and selfish, Mother promptly lies on the sofa and gives up all attempt to help, and uneducated Daughter bravely shoulders the burden of the family, until aided and rescued by a kind and gallant fiancé. The situation must have been a fairly common one.

Girls who kept their precious GOPs, with the extra summer and Christmas numbers, often had them bound into yearly volumes, in half calf or handsome boards. Yearly bound volumes could also be bought from the publishers. These are much more durable than the separate numbers, and so are still relatively easy to find in second-hand or antique bookshops. Each one of them is a delight; I have been collecting them for years. They normally run from October in one year to the following September, and there are sixty-two in all, so they make an exciting project for a collector.

Over the first two decades of its existence, GOP editorial policy remained almost unchanged, but as production techniques developed the steel engravings were replaced by photographs and half-tones, coloured plates were included more often, and the monthly numbers and bound volumes were given coloured pictorial covers, some of which are of excellent quality.

The GOP continued its steady progress through the Boer War and the Edwardian era. Then came the Great War of 1914. The GOP published articles on economical cookery, and on knitting for the troops, and showed photographs of Royalty on hospital visits. The detailed horrors of the war were left unmentioned, but the demographic effects are made very clear. A girl in 1900 could expect to marry, should she wish to do so; by 1919, because of the vast numbers of men killed in the war, many of the girls could look forward only to a single life in a bed-sitting room, leading to a pension just large enough for survival. The GOP acknowledged the new situation, and was full of stories encouraging girls to be more enterprising in their use of education and their choice of work. Its advice on medical and social matters changed; it began to approve of girls' clubs, of girls playing field games, of girls riding bicycles and climbing mountains and going camping together in groups. As the years went by, stories gradually became more juvenile and more light-hearted, often being set in girls' boarding schools or colleges, or overseas in America or Canada or Australia. Famous names sometimes first appear as writers for the GOP. Monthly numbers dating from these years are most attractively produced and are easier to find than the earlier ones, and these also are a good target for a collector's ambitions.

The GOP was in continuous publication through the twenties and thirties, the General Strike, and the start of World War 2. The last bound volume appeared in 1941. The picture cover had disappeared by now, but the big page size remained. Colour frontispieces of girls in WAAF or WRN or ATS uniform set the tone. Major serials were about catching German spies in country lanes; there were stories about rescuing animals in the blitz, and advice on how to drive an ambulance, or how to cope with the black-out. There was plenty of humour and patriotism, some of it jingoistic and artificial, but the tone on the whole was more sombre and sensible than in the years between the wars. And by 1942 the days of the big-page GOP were over.

The new small-size octavo GOP measured 13cm by 19cm, and had only 40 pages. On an inside page is the instruction "Please pass this copy on to as many people as possible, and then drop it in the salvage box". I can picture those little monthly magazines being passed from hand to hand in wartime schools and factories and Services quarters, and then finally, when they were so worn that they were unreadable, being regretfully and obediently dropped in the salvage box. Wartime numbers are certainly very difficult to find, and a complete run would be an achievement of which any collector might be proud. The diminished GOP survived the war, but not the following peace. In 1950 it became part of Heiress, and in December 1956 the joint magazine ceased publication.

The GOP is a time machine. It makes you able to float back to any date you choose from 1880 onwards, to get the feel of the time, to read the stories, taste the food, play the music, or even, if you wish, to make and wear the clothes! The total amount of material is overwhelming; looking for a particular story in those 62 volumes, each with 600 or more pages, is a formidable task. Because of this, I have been working now for several years on a fiction index of all annual volumes and extra summer and Christmas numbers, 1880–1941, and this index, when it is finally completed, should make GOP fiction more accessible to anyone who has begun a collection on their own account.

Honor Ward