The Children’s Champion [1964]

  • The Children’s Champion – Bunty: #348 (12 September 1964) – #369 (06 Feb. 1965)
  • Reprinted – Bunty: #842 (02 March 1974) – #863 (27 July 1974)
  • Reprinted – Lucky Charm #16 (1982)

Plot

In 1868, Hester Langley, daughter of rich titled parents, is feeling dissatisfied with the lavish life her family is living. One night, after another boring party, Hester can’t sleep  and goes downstairs to get a book. She hears a disturbance and decides to investigate herself rather than get a servant. She finds Annie, a young orphan who has sneaked in for someplace warm to sleep. Though not familiar with preparing meals, Hester does manage to heat up some soup for Annie and she questions her about her life. She is distressed to hear that a nine year old sleeps in back alleys, hasn’t eaten for days and only gets scraps when she does eat. Hearing there are many more like her, Hester wants to come to Stepney and see for herself, right away. After persuading her servant Polly to lend her some clothes, her and Annie set off. Hester is horrified with what she sees in Stepney and she returns home with a plan to enlist her father and wealthy friends to help the poor children. Annie thinks she’s very lucky to have met  Hester and calls her “Miss Angel”. Lord Langley in the meantime has woken and questioned Polly, when Hester arrives home he is not happy with her plan. He is not going to have his daughter mixing with the “scum of London”. The Langleys kick Annie out and fire Polly. Lady Langley insists Hester must bathe at once in case she’s picked up germs. But Hester isn’t going to be persuaded from her mission  and if her parents won’t help she is determined to give the London waifs a home herself.

Hester sets off the next day with the money and jewellery that she has and is joined by Polly. The only place they can afford to rent is a stable, and the landlord takes advantage of their desperation, but Hester and Polly clean it up nice.  Her parents get worried when she doesn’t return home, but Lord Langley doesn’t want to call the police because of the scandal it would cause, so he goes looking for her, himself. Annie has gathered all her friends to come to their new home, but then Lord Langley arrives and demands Hester comes home. She won’t budge and her new scheming landlord sees an opportunity to make  money off Lord Langley saying he will kick them out of the stable for a fee, and Hester won’t want to sleep on the streets and will go home.  But that plan fails for Langley as he still hasn’t realised how committed his daughter is to her cause. While asleep on the streets a coster (street seller) named Tom Clark, comes across them, he has known hardships before and he rents them his shed. After being cheated out of money by the first landlord, they are needing more money for supplies so, Hester and Annie go to see her kindly godmother Lady Ella Coombes, but she is away on a trip. Although they don’t succeed on getting supplies, they do pick up another stray on their trip, a chimney sweep boy, Billy.

More difficulties befall them when Hester’s bag is stolen. Tom’s wife, Molly, comes to check on them and hearing their story rounds up help from the community and gets some old furniture for the shed. Later, the boy, Jack, that stole Hester’s bag passes by the shed and is offered some soup. Jack recognises Hester as the toff he stole the bag from and now feels terrible about it. He confesses everything and how he is forced to steal for a man called Mr Luther, so that himself and his young brother, Bert, can have a home. Hester offers them a new home with her, but Mr Luther is not happy and tries to get him back. Luckily Tom Clark and his friends help take care of Mr Luther and get Hester’s money returned too. Mr Luther knows he has to leave the area but is only leaving after he has his revenge on Hester. He sets the shed on fire, while they are out. With no home, Hester has no choice but to ask her parents for help. Her father agrees to replace the shed on the condition Hester comes home, but she refuses to leave the children so he disowns her.

For the time-being Tom’s friends let them stay in their sheds though they have to share them with animals. When Hester and Annie come across a sickly lavender seller,Lucy,  Hester doesn’t have any room for her, but later feels guilty and goes back to find her half dead. She gets Lucy to hospital and gives her a reason to fight. She will never refuse a child again. She goes to her parents friends to implore them for money but of no avail. Luckily her Godmother Ella Coombes returns, and is keen to help with the cause. Jack not knowing this, tries to steal money for Miss Angel but is caught. If not for the intervention of Hester and Lady Coombes he would have been sent to prison. Lady Coombes also pays for refurbishment of the shed. But just as their fortunes are looking up, Annie comes down with Typhoid Fever which soon spreads to other children. With the help of Lady Coombes and Mrs Clark they all pull through, but unfortunately Lady Coombes comes down with fever. Coombes son Edward blames Hester for this and wants to destroy what she has built. He destroys their soup making stall, so Hester finds a hard job in hospital. Polly convinces her that she would be better doing that work as the children need Hester with them. Even still money is tight, Hester often kept going with little food. Jack and Annie break into Lady Ella’s house to see her, she is recovering and did not know her son had lied about Hester being not bothered to visit. She is to go to Italy to help with her recovery, but she leaves Hester money to help her waifs, while she is gone.

Edward spreads talk of the money, knowing it will be robbed, Some thieves do ransack the home but don’t find it. Then Lucy falls ill again and Hester spends most of her money to send her to be by the sea. A new boy, Ben joins the home,  he thinks that Hester is a sucker and takes advantage of her kindness. He riles Jack up in order to get him to help steal from pawn shop, but Hester finds out and follows them. Ben ends up knocking her out, luckily she recovers but Ben runs away. The others think she should give up on him, but Hester won’t abandon him. They eventually find him in the sewers, sick, Hester nurses him back to health and he becomes loyal to her. But heartache isn’t over for Ben as it turns out he is not an orphan, but a runaway from an abusive father who takes him back when he sees him out with Hester. Hester tries to earn money to pay Mr Brown for Ben, and she has the support of Ben’s mother, but the father beats Mrs Brown up badly and runs off with Ben. Hester takes in Ben’s younger siblings and comforts Mrs Brown before she dies in hospital. Hester finds Ben and Mr Brown goes to jail for dealing with stolen goods (no punishment in these times for beating his wife to death!).

With things settled for a while, Hester finally has time to start schooling the children. Still Hester keeps on taking in waifs, and their home is getting crowded. Then Tom arrives to tell her the shed is going to be pulled down to make way for a warehouse. Hester  sleeps outside with the children under a makeshift shelter. After some bad rain the Clarks take them all in temporarily, and Hester falls ill with pneumonia. The children all pray in the street for their Miss Angel and catch the eye of a reporter. The Langleys read about their daughters illness in the paper and put their pride aside, to go to her. Luckily Hester has mostly recovered at this stage and the Langleys want her home with them and agree to take in the children too. They help find sponsors for a new children’s home and the Clarks come work for them. Hester is delighted with the new home, but she is not one to rest, that evening she is out looking for more children to help.

Thoughts

There are many of these stories where the wealthy protagonist gives up her charmed life, in order to take care of young waifs in Victorian England (such as Angel, Haven of Hope and other variations like The Double Life of Delia), this was one of the first. While it is popular, Mandy’s Angel  is probably more well remembered (probably helped by it’s sequels and annual appearances). For this reason it is Angel, I will draw most comparisons to when discussing this story, especially as The Children’s Champion seems to be a prototype for it (perhaps it had the same writer?). The children call Hester “Miss Angel” the same as the children call Angela in Angel, though in the former case Hester still is identified both as Hester and “Miss Angel”. In both cases the protagonist has a close relationship with an orphan named, Annie and relies on them to help with other children. They are both very committed to their cause, looking after the children even to the detriment of their own well-being. There are religious tones in both (although more prominent in Angel) Hester thanks God for sending Annie to her, the orphans pray for Hester to get well, in  Angel Angela often asks God to give her strength and courage and it implies she goes to Heaven in the end.

Where they differ, is Angela is more of a martyr, working mostly by herself, her parents believe their daughter is dead, so she is cut off from all those in her previous life,  and of course with only a year to live, she dies at the end of the story but with her parents carrying on her work. While Hester’s parents  disown her,  she does have more help with Polly, the Clarks and Lady Coombes, and eventually her parents come around. We also see more class divisions as Hester interacts with the upper classes to try and get their help. Angela’s parents while dismissive of the plights of the poor weren’t as aggressive as the Langleys, who refer to the children as “diseased” and “scum”. While Angela’s ending was dramatic and pulls at the readers’ heartstrings, I like that Hester continues her work even when the Children’s Home is built. It shows that the work doesn’t stop just because they have nice place to live now and that Hester is still willing to go out on the streets to continue to find children.

 

While Hester is a bit naive about the plights of poor people, until Annie educates her, she shows dissatisfaction with her wealthy life even before that. She shows courage and willingness to do things herself too, firstly confronting an intruder, and then though never having to cook for herself before, she manages in the kitchen, heating up soup for Annie. Once she knows about the London waifs, she is committed to helping them. I would think that her Godmother Lady Coombes has been a good influence on her, as we don’t see her parents so inclined to help. Lady Coombes is a good ally and also willing to muck in when needed, like helping with Typhoid epidemic, she is someone that Hester obviously admires and has been a positive force in her life. She seems to be the exception among those in Hester’s former life, it is actually the people with little to give that help the most, particularly the Clarks. It’s good to see Annie as Hester’s closest ally too, as she brings the knowledge and experience of a London that Hester did not know about and they develop a good friendship too. It has some stunning art, I particularly like the opening panel for the details of Hester’s clothes and hair before she switches to plainer clothes. The art and a well-thought out story makes this a good read. The story does well concentrating on smaller selection of characters and developing them, certainly as readers we root for them and want them to overcome their obstacles, and are glad to see them get a happy ending.

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