Walking With Ancestors
14 New Street was the birthplace and childhood home of the best-selling Victorian novelist Hesba Stretton. Although she is a comparatively little known figure today, during her own lifetime Miss Stretton was a household name whose novels sold several million copies, were translated into numerous languages and gave rise to an entire school of writing.
Miss Stretton, real name Sarah Smith, was the daughter of Wellington’s first postmaster Benjamin Smith, who owned a booksellers and stationery business in the town at 14 New Street. The wide range of books in her father’s shop provided much of the young writer’s initial inspiration, although the strong puritanical streak that ran through much of her work was provided by her mother, who died when Sarah was just eight years old. However, it was not until the age of 27 that she received her break as an author, by which time she had begun to write under the pseudonym Hesba Stretton. The surname was borrowed from her favourite Shropshire village, All Stretton, where she returned to visit relatives throughout her life, while ‘Hesba’ was an acronym of the initials of her five brothers and sisters.
The Lucky Leg
‘Hesba Stretton’s’ break arrived courtesy of no less a luminary figure than Charles Dickens, who published her short story The Lucky Leg during 1859 in the journal Household Words, which he then edited. The inspiration for the tale was provided by an anecdotal story told to Benjamin Smith and related to the authoress by her elder sister Elizabeth, which she then worked up into a story for their own amusement. Unbeknown to Hesba, Elizabeth sent the piece to Dickens who forwarded a £5 fee and requested more stories of a similar nature. A strong friendship eventually blossomed between the two writers and Miss Stretton quickly became a regular contributor to several popular magazines and periodicals. However, she was forced to wait a little longer for genuine literary fame as an author.
A Prayer is Answered
Jessica’s First Prayer originally appeared as a serialisation in the Sunday at Home journal in July 1866. After attracting scores of letters from captivated readers, the story was eventually published in book form and went on to become an international best seller, shifting at least 2 million copies by the time of Hesba Stretton’s death in 1911. The story of a young girl’s spiritual awakening, the novel became a template for Miss Stretton to write many similar stories while providing the inspiration for other writers’ tales of destitute children finding salvation at the hands of generous benefactors. In this respect, she was highly influential in highlighting many real issues affecting the plight of children in late Victorian and Edwardian society and was later instrumental in urging the Rev Benjamin Waugh to establish the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Despite settling in London with Elizabeth, her sister and lifelong companion, Hesba Stretton continued to return to Wellington throughout her life. Her childhood memories of the town also found expression in the semi-autobiographical content of Jessica’s First Prayer, while the surrounding area provided the sentimental backdrop for the reminiscences of ‘Old Oliver’ a character from another of her best selling novels Alone in London, who longed ‘to be a-top The Wrekin seeing the sunset’. Aside from the premises of the former booksellers where she was born, there are still other reminders of her local associations surviving in the town today. Old Hall, the location of Martha Cranage’s Day School for Girls where she was once a pupil, is situated on Holyhead Road, while the former Wesleyan Methodist Chapel she attended with her family, which was later converted into a toy factory, still stands at the top of New Street.