Stretton, Hesba (1832–1911)

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Stretton, Hesba (1832–1911)

English novelist and children's writer. Name variations: Sarah Smith. Born Sarah Smith on July 27, 1832, in Wellington, Shropshire; died after a long illness on October 8, 1911, in Ham, Surrey; daughter of Benjamin Smith (a bookseller and publisher) and Anne (Bakewell) Smith; attended day school; never married; no children.

Selected writings:

Fern's Hollow (1864); Enoch Roden's Training (1865); The Children of Cloverley (1865); The Clives of Burcot (1867); Jessica's First Prayer (1867); Pilgrim Street, a Story of Manchester Life (1867); Paul's Courtship (1867); Little Meg's Children (1868); David Lloyd's Last Will (1869); Alone in London (1869); The Doctor's Dilemma (1872); Pilgrim Street (1872); Michel Lorio's Cross (1873); Hester Morley's Promise (1873); Through a Needle's Eye (1879); Under the Old Roof (1882); Jessica's Mother (1904).

Hesba Stretton, the pseudonym of Sarah Smith, was an ardent advocate for the welfare of impoverished children through both her writing and her volunteer work. Many of her some 50 novels, particularly those published by the Religious Tract Society in London, focus on the untaught, frequently abused street urchins who were a common feature of Victorian England. While these books are strongly moralistic and didactically Christian—Stretton was a fervent evangelical—they were also quite popular, several of them immensely so, and they skillfully drew readers' attention to a common problem which many well-bred people might have preferred to ignore.

Born in Wellington, Shropshire, in 1832, Stretton was the fourth of eight children of Benjamin and Anna Bakewell Smith . She came by her religion through her family, for her father was a printer who worked at a firm that dealt mostly in evangelical literature, and her mother was a deeply religious, strictly evangelical woman. Some critics have speculated that Anna's influence on her daughter was intensified by her death before Stretton was ten. After Benjamin switched careers, becoming a publisher and opening a bookstore, the young girl supplemented her education at a nearby day school by reading most of the books in his shop. This, plus exposure to the educated and literary-minded family friends who frequented her home, constituted her higher education. Her father also ran the local post office, and she would later use this setting in several of her novels and stories, including "A Provincial Post Office" and "The Postmaster's Daughter."

Stretton was in her 20s when she began writing, with her first story, "The Lucky Leg," appearing in 1859 in Charles Dickens' Household Words. In the following years, a number of her stories were published in his successor journal, All the Year Round, and in various evangelical magazines. She wrote more seriously after her father's retirement in 1862 precipitated a drop in the family income. In 1863, Stretton followed her sister Elizabeth Smith (who later changed her name to Elizabeth Stretton ) to Manchester, where Elizabeth was working as a governess. It was probably in Manchester, a large industrial city that was also the home of novelist Elizabeth Gaskell , that her concern for neglected children was solidified, for Manchester's numerous factories had spawned a desperately impoverished underclass, many of them women and children. Stretton's first novel for children, however, 1864's Fern's Hollow, in which Christian values triumph over adversity, was set not in an urban slum but in the hills of the Welsh border. She published two more children's books the following year, Enoch Roden's Training, which incorporated her knowledge of the printing profession, and The Children of Cloverley. This latter book featured what would become her frequent theme of instinctually Christian children who, through their untaught virtues and innocent example, show their lost elders the true path.

In 1866, Stretton and her sister moved to London. That year the journal Sunday at Home published Jessica's First Prayer, which made Stretton's international reputation upon its republication in book form the following year. The story of Jessica, a destitute child of the slums whose drunken mother (an actress, which for Victorians was frequently synonymous with a prostitute) has so neglected her that she does not even know how to pray, the novel was hugely successful; it would be translated into numerous languages and sell nearly two million copies over the next 40-odd years. (Tsar Alexander II ordered a copy for every Russian classroom.) As was fairly common in publishing at the time, however, Stretton had sold her copyright to the Religious Tract Society, which alone reaped the enormous benefits of the book's popularity. She learned from this mistake, and later contracted to receive payment for each thousand of her books that sold. Her follow-up children's books, Pilgrim Street, a Story of Manchester Life (1867), Little Meg's Children (1868) and Alone in London (1869), all feature the same sort of innocent protagonists who inspire piety in the adults around them that had proved so popular with Jessica's First Prayer. The latter two books, which in addition to their moralizing contain a strong reformist message, together sold some 750,000 copies. Notes Leslie Howsam, "Stretton wrote with passion about the injustices children suffered in the urban slums of industrial England. She appealed to young readers by putting the Christian message into the mouths and personalities of her child characters, charging children with the responsibility of saving the adults around them and, by implication, the society in which they lived."

Buoyed by her growing success and financial stability, in the late 1860s Stretton also began writing for adults, a genre she found more to her taste than children's books. Paul's Courtship (1867), her first work for adults, was set in the world of printers and booksellers, while David Lloyd's Last Will (1869) took place in Manchester. Over the following 36 years, she would continue to publish both children's and adult novels, often with an underlying political as well as Christian theme. Under the Old Roof (1882), for example, explores one instance of the often devastating consequences to women of British property laws prior to that year's passage of the Married Women's Property Act, which finally allowed married women the right to own property. (Previously, everything they owned, earned, or inherited had been the legal property of their husbands.)

Financially secure, Stretton lived an unostentatious life with her sister Elizabeth, although they did take advantage of frequent travel to Europe. In her later years, she also became a more public advocate of the reforms she espoused in her writing. In 1884, she took part in the first meeting of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, of which she would remain an executive board member for ten years, and was among the founders (as was the immensely wealthy Angela Burdett-Coutts ) of a London chapter of the society. She also collected a relief fund for Russian peasants during the famine of 1892. That year Stretton and her sister moved outside London to a house in Richmond. She published her last novel in 1906, and within a year became too ill to leave her home. She died there in 1911, followed within months by her sister.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall General Reference, 1992.

Howsam, Leslie. "Hesba Stretton (Sarah Smith)," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 163: British Children's Writers, 1800–1880. Edited by Meena Khorana. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Helga P. McCue , freelance writer, Waterford, Connecticut