by Frank E Earp
Biography: Arthur Henry Mee was born in Stapleford Nottinghamshire on 21st July 1875. He was the second child and eldest son, of the ten children born to Henry and Mary Mee (nee Fletcher). Henry Mee was a mechanical engineer working for the railways and in various biographies Arthur’s upbringing is described as ‘working class’. His father was a Baptist Deacon and throughout his life, Arthur was a devout Christian, although he had an understanding and firm belief in evolution. At school the young Arthur does not seem to have inherited his fathers practical skills, but developed a passion for English. He excelled in both the written and spoken word and his reading skills were second to none. Before leaving school Arthur put his abilities to good use and earned a little money by reading allowed ‘Parliamentary Reports’ and newspapers to blind neighbour and local baker, Henry Mellows.
First Job and Cub Reporter: In 1889, – shortly before Arthur left school at the age of 14, – the Mee family moved to Nottingham. This move gave Arthur the opportunity of taking what seems to be his perfect first job. This was at the ‘Nottingham Express’, where he was employed as a ‘copy-holder’ an assistant to a ‘proofreader’. The worked entailed reading allowed the original hand written manuscripts so that the proofreader might check the typeset text. At the age of around 15 Arthur taught himself ‘Pitman’s shorthand and regularly honed his skills every Sunday morning by taking notes of the sermon at the Baptist Chapel. Arthur found one sermon particularly interesting and after the service hurried home to write up his notes as an article. The following day he submitted his work to an editor at the paper who saw its merit. The article was subsequently published and he was taken on as an apprentice reporter. So began Arthur’s long career as a writer and journalist. At this time, it was the job of a ‘cub reporter’ to gather whatever news they could from Hospitals, Police and Fire Stations, and to report on Court cases, Council meetings and the like. All of this meant long days travelling the streets. Where ever possible Arthur would save his tram-fare and walk between location. He considered his meagre income better spent on pork pies and custard tarts.
Life long friend and holiday romance: Arthur finished his apprenticeship with the Express at the age of 20 and was given an editorship at its ‘sister paper’ the Nottingham Evening Post which commanded a substantial wage of 30 shillings a week. With this new found ‘wealth,’ Arthur was to take up rooms in Nottingham with fellow journalist John Hammerton. Hammerton was also a newly appointed editor, but at Arthur’s former paper the Express. Although the two young men were in many ways polar opposites, – unlike Arthur, John was neither religious or tee-total, – they were to become life-long friends. Whilst on holiday in 1895 Arthur met and fell in love with Amelia Fraston, the woman who was to become his wife.
London calls: The ever ambitious Arthur taught himself to type and to supplement his wages further, took to writing articles for National journals like ‘Tit-bits’, – a popular weekly magazine founded by George Newnes in 1881. Arthur’s interest and style of writing meant that his contributions to the magazine soon became popular with the readership. It wasn’t long before his talents were spotted and in 1896 Newnes in person, offered Arthur £1,000 a year to work for him full-time. This was an offer Arthur could not refuse and he moved to the London based magazine. For the next few years he made a sizeable contribution to its content whilst further supplementing his now substantial income, by contributing articles to the Morning Herald and the St. James Gazette. A year after his move to London, Arthur and Amelia were married and moved into a house on Tulse Hill, London.
1901, eventful year: The year 1901 was a truly significant one for Arthur with some life changing and life affirming events. To begin-with, Arthur had that year, taken the post as editor of a ‘sixpenny weekly paper’ know as The Black and White. Here he was able to employ his friend John Hammerton as literary and dramatic critic. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful cooperation, which produced some of Arthur’s best known works. It was also whilst working for this paper that Arthur was to meet a Miss Margaret Lillie, who was to become another life-long friend and his personnel secretary for the next 40 years.
Inspirational daughter: On a more personnel level for Aurther, it was in 1901 that Amelia gave birth to their only daughter, Marjorie. Soon after the birth the couple moved to a new home in Hextable, Kent. No one at the time could have foreseen that it would be Marjorie’s inquisitive nature that seven years later, would inspire Arthur to write The Children’s Encyclopaedia. The work was published in 50 parts between 1908 and 1910 and became one of the most popular children’s books of the day.
Dynamic Duo: In the next two years together with his friend John Hammerton, Arthur came up with an idea for a new magazine with a proposed title ‘Who’s Who This Week’ which they presented to Harmsworth Amalgamated Press, owned by ‘publishing mogul’ Alfred Harmsworth, (Lord Northcliffe). The idea was rejected, but Harmsworth instantly recognised the great potential of both men. Arthur was appointed general editor of The Harmsworth Self Educator which in collaboration with Hammerton, was published as a part-work between 1905 and 1907. Next came ‘The Children’s Encyclopaedia’, the success of which led to Arthur’s editorship of the World’s first weekly newspaper especially for children, ‘The Children’s Newspaper.’ The paper remained in print from March 1919 to May 1965 when it was absorbed by another title. Over its 46 year life, – 25 of which were under Arthur’s editorship, – the paper produced 2,397 issues.
For Arthur and Hammerton their time working for Harmsworth Amalgamated Press was their most productive years. In his lifetime Arthur Mee wrote around 200 books including the most of the 41 volumes of the Kings England series. John Alexander Hammerton, (1871-1949), went on to receive a Knighthood for his services. The ‘Dictionary of National Biogrophy describes him as “The most successful creator of large-scale works of reference that Britain has known”.
Unexpected death: Arthur Henry Mee’s death was sudden and unexpected. On the 27th May 1943 he was admitted to hospital for a routine operation on a gland. He died unexpectedly the following day. A service of remembrance was held at St. Dunstan’s Fleet Street, London, on 6th June. Sadly, the house in Stapleford where he was born, – which was behind the parish church of St. Helen, – has now been demolished. A Blue Plaque on the wall of the Arthur Mee Centre, – next to the Library, – is all that marks the town as the birth place of this great man.