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A Woman I Admire Writing Competition Spring 2018

Hesba Stretton
Jan Johnstone
Highly Commended

Sarah Smith was born on 27 July 1832 at 14 New Street, Wellington, Shropshire to Benjamin and Anne Smith. Her father managed a post office as well as a bookselling and publishing business and Sarah, who loved to read, had plenty of material to study as she grew older. Educated at Old Hall School, Wellington, she began writing at a very young age but it wouldn't be until her late twenties that she became well known as an author of religious stories and an avid supporter of social reform. Perhaps her most important role however, was in the fight to protect vulnerable children, both in Britain and abroad.

Her career started when her sister Elizabeth sent her manuscript, ‘The Lucky Leg’ to Charles Dickens, editor of the magazine Household Words. To Sarah's delight it was published with a request for more submissions and from then on, she contributed regularly to both Household Words and All the Year Round, also edited by Dickens, who remained a close friend, sharing as he did, an equal concern for the conditions of the poor.

By 1858 Sarah was using the pseudonym ‘Hesba’ made up from the initials of her siblings, Hannah, Elizabeth, Sarah, Benjamin and Anne. Her surname indicated her love for the village of Little Stretton where she regularly stayed with her sister Anne. The most successful of her works, printed in 1866 in the magazine Sunday at Home, was ‘Jessica's First Prayer’. It described in great detail the appalling conditions in Britain's city slums, which Hesba had seen for herself, and she used the story to prod the public conscience on the plight of the poor. A year later it was published in book form, becoming a best-seller both at home and abroad and selling over 1,500,000 copies. She wrote over fifty books during her lifetime, all of them exposing the appalling lives the poor, particularly young children, had to endure in Victorian society.

In 1870, together with her sister Elizabeth, Hesba Stretton moved to London. By now a highly successful writer, she regularly submitted articles to The Times concerning the welfare of poor families. As an advocator of social justice, she also concentrated her efforts on improving the well-being of children and in July 1884 Hesba Stretton, along with Lord Shaftesbury, Baroness Burdett-Coutts, Benjamin Waugh and other prominent individuals, met in the Mansion House, London to discuss the plight of impoverished families countrywide. As a direct result the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which eventually became the NSPCC, was founded.

Hesba Stretton died at the age of 79 on 8 October 1911 at Ivy Croft, Ham, London, having revealed to the world through her books, the conditions which poor people had to endure. In her native Shropshire, a stained glass window in St Lawrence's Church, Church Stretton honours the Wellington writer who, throughout her life, worked tirelessly to change the circumstances of needy children, exposing the conditions they lived in, and taking positive and constructive steps towards change.

Jan Johnstone © 2018