Buried in a churchyard on Ham Common, Hesba Stretton was a prominent Victorian author who wrote powerfully about street waifs and the lot of the poor
Sarah Smith, whose pseudonym was Hesba Stretton, was a novelist and short-story teller, whose most famous book – Jessica’s First Prayer – sold two million copies in her lifetime and was translated into 15 languages. She used her words to highlight the social problems of Victorian times and was at the forefront of fighting cruelty to children, co-founding the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1884.
Smith was born in Wellington, Shropshire, in 1832, the third daughter of Benjamin Smith, a printer, bookseller and postmaster. She gained most of her education from the books in her father’s shop and, unusually for the times, at the age of 26 she began a career as a journalist, using the name Hesba Stretton. The first name is derived from the initials of her siblings’ names and the second from the Shropshire village of All Stretton.
Her first story was published without her knowledge, because her sister Elizabeth sent it to Charles Dickens’s magazine, Household Words. Dickens always gave Sarah his support and she regularly contributed to his magazine.
In 1863 she left home with her sister, Elizabeth, for Manchester. Here she began her career as a novelist, writing children’s stories, including Little Meg’s Children, Alone in London and Jessica’s First Prayer. She wrote over 60 books, which always carried a strong moral message and were often quite melodramatic, telling stories about the hardships suffered by young children in poverty stricken backgrounds, which were based on her first-hand observation of slum poverty. This made her stories both truthful and compelling. She was a great commercial success in her lifetime and, as an unmarried woman, negotiated her own lucrative contracts with publishers. And, while many other female writers of the time were often disparaged by Victorian men of letters, she was held in high esteem.
She also later became the principal writer for the Religious Tract Society and was closely associated with the Friends of Russian freedom, which had been founded to help fight the autocracy of Czarist Russia. In 1892, she raised £900 for famine relief in Russia.
In the same year, Sarah and Elizabeth settled on Ham Common, where they spent their last 19 years. She founded a local branch of the Popular Book Club to circulate good books among the working classes.
She also supported local villagers’ rights over Ham Common in their fight against the Dysart estate. Ham Common became protected land in 1902. Sarah and her sister both died in 1911 at home on Ham Common and are buried at St Andrew’s churchyard, Ham.