The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby

The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby is a children's novel by Charles Kingsley. Written in 1862–63 as a serial for Macmillan's Magazine, it was first published in its entirety in 1863. It was written as part satire in support of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. The book was extremely popular in England, and was a mainstay of British children's literature for many decades, but eventually fell out of favour in part due to its prejudices (common at the time) against Irish, Jews, Catholics and Americans.[2]

The Water-Babies, a Fairy Tale for a Land Baby
The Water Babies (illustrated by Linley Samboune), Macmillan & Co., London 1885
AuthorCharles Kingsley
PublishedLondon: Macmillan, 1863[1]
Media typeBook


The protagonist is Tom, a young chimney sweep, who falls into a river after encountering an upper-class girl named Ellie and being chased out of her house. There he appears to drown and is transformed into a "water-baby",[3] as he is told by a caddisfly—an insect that sheds its skin—and begins his moral education. The story is thematically concerned with Christian redemption, though Kingsley also uses the book to argue that England treats its poor badly, and to question child labour, among other themes.

Tom embarks on a series of adventures and lessons, and enjoys the community of other water-babies on Saint Brendan's Island once he proves himself a moral creature. The major spiritual leaders in his new world are the fairies Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby (a reference to the Golden Rule), Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, and Mother Carey. Weekly, Tom is allowed the company of Ellie, who became a water-baby after he did.

Grimes, his old master, drowns as well, and in his final adventure, Tom travels to the end of the world to attempt to help the man where he is being punished for his misdeeds. Tom helps Grimes to find repentance, and Grimes will be given a second chance if he can successfully perform a final penance. By proving his willingness to do things he does not like, if they are the right things to do, Tom earns himself a return to human form, and becomes "a great man of science" who "can plan railways, and steam-engines, and electric telegraphs, and rifled guns, and so forth". He and Ellie are united, although the book states (perhaps jokingly) that they never marry, claiming that in fairy tales, no one beneath the rank of prince and princess ever marries.

The book ends with the caveat that it is only a fairy tale, and the reader is to believe none of it, "even if it is true."


In the style of Victorian-era novels, The Water-Babies is a didactic moral fable. In it, Kingsley expresses many of the common prejudices of that time period, and the book includes dismissive or insulting references to Americans,[4] Jews,[5] blacks,[6] and Catholics,[7] particularly the Irish.[8][9] These views may have played a role in the book's gradual fall from popularity.

The book had been intended in part as a satire, a tract against child labour,[10] as well as a serious critique of the closed-minded approaches of many scientists of the day[11] in their response to Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution, which Kingsley had been one of the first to praise. He had been sent an advance review copy of On the Origin of Species, and wrote in his response of 18 November 1859 (four days before the book went on sale) that he had "long since, from watching the crossing of domesticated animals and plants, learnt to disbelieve the dogma of the permanence of species," and had "gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore and pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made", asking "whether the former be not the loftier thought."[12]

In the book, for example, Kingsley argues that no person is qualified to say that something that they have never seen (like a human soul or a water baby) does not exist.

How do you know that? Have you been there to see? And if you had been there to see, and had seen none, that would not prove that there were none ... And no one has a right to say that no water babies exist till they have seen no water babies existing, which is quite a different thing, mind, from not seeing water babies.

In his Origin of Species, Darwin mentions that, like many others at the time, he thought that changed habits produce an inherited effect, a concept now known as Lamarckism.[13] In The Water Babies, Kingsley tells of a group of humans called the Doasyoulikes who are allowed to do "whatever they like" so gradually lose the power of speech, degenerate into gorillas, and are shot by the African explorer Paul Du Chaillu. He refers to the movement to end slavery in mentioning that one of the gorillas shot by Du Chaillu "remembered that his ancestors had once been men, and tried to say, 'Am I Not A Man And A Brother?', but had forgotten how to use his tongue."[14]

The Water Babies alludes to debates among biologists of its day, satirising what Kingsley had previously dubbed the Great Hippocampus Question as the "Great hippopotamus test." At various times the text refers to "Sir Roderick Murchison, Professor (Richard) Owen, Professor (Thomas Henry) Huxley, (and) Mr. Darwin", and thus they become explicitly part of the story. In the accompanying illustrations by Linley Sambourne, Huxley and Owen are caricatured, studying a captured water baby. In 1892 Thomas Henry Huxley's five-year-old grandson Julian saw this engraving and wrote his grandfather a letter asking:

Dear Grandpater – Have you seen a Waterbaby? Did you put it in a bottle? Did it wonder if it could get out? Could I see it some day? – Your loving Julian.[15]

Huxley wrote back a letter (later evoked by the New York Sun's "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" in 1897):

My dear Julian – I could never make sure about that Water Baby.

I have seen Babies in water and Babies in bottles; the Baby in the water was not in a bottle and the Baby in the bottle was not in water. My friend who wrote the story of the Water Baby was a very kind man and very clever. Perhaps he thought I could see as much in the water as he did – There are some people who see a great deal and some who see very little in the same things.

When you grow up I dare say you will be one of the great-deal seers, and see things more wonderful than the Water Babies where other folks can see nothing.[15]


The book was adapted into an animated film The Water Babies in 1978 starring James Mason, Bernard Cribbins and Billie Whitelaw. Though many of the main elements are there, the movie's storyline differs substantially from the book, with a new sub-plot involving Tom saving the Water-Babies from imprisonment by a kingdom of sharks.

It was also adapted into a musical theatre version produced at the Garrick Theatre in London, in 1902. The adaptation was described as a "fairy play", by Rutland Barrington, with music by Frederick Rosse, Albert Fox, and Alfred Cellier.[16] The book was also produced as a play by Jason Carr and Gary Yershon, mounted at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2003, directed by Jeremy Sams, starring Louise Gold, Joe McGann, Katherine O'Shea, and Neil McDermott.

The story was also adapted into a radio series (BBC Audiobooks Ltd, 1998)[17] featuring Timothy West, Julia McKenzie, and Oliver Peace as Tom.

A 2013 update for BBC Radio 4 written by Paul Farley and directed by Emma Harding brought the tale to a newer age, with Tomi having been trafficked from Nigeria as a child labourer.[18]

In 2014 it was adapted into a musical by Fiona Ross and Sue Colverd, with music by David Last. A shortened version premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2014[19], with the full version being produced at the Playhouse Theatre, Cheltenham in 2015 by performing arts students of the University of Gloucestershire. It is due to be performed, again by students, in the same venue in June 2019.[20]


  1. Hale, Piers J. (November 2013). "Monkeys into Men and Men into Monkeys: Chance and Contingency in the Evolution of Man, Mind and Morals in Charles Kingsley's Water Babies". Journal of the History of Biology. 46 (4): 551–597. doi:10.1007/s10739-012-9345-5.
  2. Donoghue, Denis (17 October 2013). "The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby, by Charles Kingsley. The classic children's story is 150 years old". The Irish Times. Retrieved 25 September 2016.
  3. Hoagwood, Terrence (Summer 1988). "Kingsley's Young and Old". Explicator. 46 (4): 18. doi:10.1080/00144940.1988.9933841.
  4. When Tom has "everything that he could want or wish," the reader is warned that sometimes this does bad things to people: "Indeed, it sometimes makes them naughty, as it has made the people in America." Murderous crows that do whatever they like are described as being like "American citizens of the new school."
  5. Jews are referred to twice in the text, first as archetypal rich people ("as rich as a Jew"), and then as a joking reference to dishonest merchants who sell fake religious icons – "young ladies walk about with lockets of Charles the First's hair (or of somebody else's, when the Jews' genuine stock is used up)".
  6. The Powwow man is said to have "yelled, shouted, raved, roared, stamped, and danced corrobory like any black fellow," and a seal is described as looking like a "fat old greasy negro."
  7. "Popes" are listed among Measles, Famines, Despots, and other "children of the four great bogies."
  8. Ugly people are described as "like the poor Paddies who eat potatoes"; an extended passage discusses St. Brandan among the Irish who liked "to brew potheen, and dance the pater o'pee, and knock each other over the head with shillelaghs, and shoot each other from behind turf-dykes, and steal each other's cattle, and burn each other's homes." One character (Dennis) lies and says whatever he thinks others want to hear because "he is a poor Paddy, and knows no better." The statement that Irishmen always lie is used to explain why "poor ould Ireland does not prosper like England and Scotland."
  9. Sandner, David (2004). Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 328. ISBN 0-275-98053-7.
  10. Holt, Jenny (September 2011). "'A Partisan Defence of Children'? Kingsley's The Water-Babies Re-Contextualized". Nineteenth-Century Contexts. 33 (4): 353–370. doi:10.1080/08905495.2011.598672.
  11. The Encyclopedia of Evolution: Humanity's Search for Its Origins, Richard Milner, 1990, p.458
  12. Darwin 1887, p. 287.
  13. Darwin 1860, p. 134
  14. "The Water-Babies, by Charles Kingsley; Chapter VI Page 12". Retrieved 14 January 2013.
  15. Leonard Huxley, The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley Volume 3, p. 256
  16. "Garrick Theatre", The Times, 19 December 1902, p. 4.
  17. (BBC Audiobooks Ltd, 1998) ISBN 978-0-563-55810-1
  18. "BBC Radio 4 - Classic Serial, The Water Babies: A Modern Fairy Tale". 30 March 2013. Retrieved 19 April 2014.
  19. "Stephanie Wickmere". Retrieved 6 November 2018.
  20. "The Water Babies - What's On". Retrieved 3 April 2019.

Pater O'pee : see Wild Sports of the West, W.H. Maxwell, London, E.P. publisher, 1850. An intricate solo dance involving stepping in and around sticks or staves laid crosswise on the ground.


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