Manuscripts and Special Collections

From Rags to Witches - The grim tale of children's stories

This exhibition ran from 4 May to 26 August 2018 in the Weston Gallery, Lakeside Arts Centre.

Original archives and rare books showed a range of children’s stories and traditional tales, from the beloved to the forgotten tales that never got a happily ever after.

From bloodthirsty stories set in sinister European forests, to the benign bedtime tales set in comfortable Victorian nurseries, this exhibition traced the development of children’s literature through the generations.

In this online version you can explore the history behind some of our most beloved fairy tales, get an introduction to some of the items that were displayed, and even read some fairy tales for yourselves. 

Company of Wolves
Little Red Riding Hood from The Company of Wolves (1984)


The history of fairy tales

Once upon a time, fairy tales were not for children.

Told and retold by countless storytellers, the versions we are familiar with can be very different from the ones that entertained our ancestors by the fireside. Those were stories of sex, death and curses, so morally outrageous that in 1604 the Catholic Church placed one fairy tale collection on its Index of Forbidden Books.

Fairy stories began to be seen as a threat to children as new theories about childhood and education developed. A new genre of moral children’s books was born, intended to promote rational thought and Christian morality. Instead of princesses in enchanted castles in faraway places and long ago times, stories were set in the modern world where naughty children met wretched fates and pious children gave heartfelt deathbed speeches warning of the perils of Hell.

East Midlands Connections

But good fairy stories triumphed. The first English-language publication of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories from 1846, was translated by Nottingham’s Mary Howitt, who was so captivated by his stories that she learnt Danish specifically to translate them. A successful children’s author of the time, her best-known poem is The Spider and the Fly.

Children’s books became beautiful in the 19th century, when iIlustrators such as Kate Greenaway became household names. Manuscripts and Special Collections owns a scrapbook of her pencil sketches, given to the University of Nottingham in remembrance of her childhood years spent at Rolleston in Nottinghamshire.


Exhibition themes

The From Rags to Witches exhibition boards which were displayed in the Weston Gallery are available to download or view online.

IntroductionIllustration of a witch from 'Aunt Louisa's Picture Book'. From Briggs Collection, reference PZ6.V2 oversize, barcode 1006125533

Little Red Riding HoodColoured illustration of Little Red Riding Hood from 'The True Story of Little Red Riding Hood...' (1896). From East Midlands Special Collections Pamphlet, reference Not 3.Y16. LIT

RapunzelTitle 'Rapunzel' with decorative border, taken from 'Household Stories: from the collection of the Brothers Grimm' (1963). PT2281.G3.Z


Sleeping BeautyPart of an illustration of the Briar Rose, showing the prince trapped in the thorns, from 'BB's Fairy Book' (1948) From Tony Wilkinson Collection.

Tom ThumbIllustration of Tom Thumb being killed by a spider. From the Briggs Collection, reference pamphlet, PZ6.1.F2 barcode 1005848128

CinderellaIllustration by Arthur Rackham for 'Cinderella' retold by C.S. Evans (from the Supplement to 'The Bookman', Christmas 1919). Reference: Special Collection Periodicals


Case themes

In the exhibition gallery, cases were dedicated to specific themes. While it is not possible to display images here of the items that were on display in the exhibition you can view the boards which introduced each case theme.

East Midlands AuthorsIllustration from 'Dolinda's Ride' by author and illustrator Nora Lavrin. From Accession 2866

Early children's booksOpening stanza or the poem Twinkle, twinkle, little star, from 'Rhymes for the Nursery' (1827). From Briggs Collection, PZ6.7.T2

Cultural themes in fairytalesEngraving of Christ on the cross, from Favell Lee Mortimer 'Peep of Day' (1844). From Briggs Collection, LT210.BS.M6, barcode 6001924828


Accessing items from our collections

Items from our collections are available to consult in the Manuscripts and Special Collections reading room on King's Meadow Campus.

You can search our catalogues to find items in the manuscript and printed collections relating to fairy tales and children's literature. 


Short films and tours

Join archivist and curator, Kathryn Steenson for a guided tour of the From Rags to Witches exhibition...


Watch our series of short films introducing items from our collections...

Focus on: Mother Goose

Focus on: Straparola


Focus on: Cautionary Tales

Focus on: Wonderful Stories


Focus on: Kate Greenaway's Album



From the blog

Read our series of blog posts on fairytales and children's literature...

Kate Greenaway's Album Illustration of dancing children from Kate Greenaway album (1933). From Special Collection, NC242.G7 Oversize XX, barcode 6004590274

Remembering HansIllustration by Arthur Rackham from 'Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales', from Derek Hudson, 'Arthur Rackham. His Life and Work' (London: Heinemann, 1960) p.135 

A Token of Childhood Illustration of ‘The Good Boy’ from The Daisy (or cautionary stories in verse). From Briggs collection, reference PZ6.7.T8, barcode 6001931598 


Turn the pages

Read digitised copies of two traditional fairytales, Little Red Riding Hood and Tom Thumb. 


These versions of the stories appeared in cheap, mass-produced pamphlets in the 19th century. 

Illustration of Tom Thumb being killed by a spider. From the Briggs Collection, reference pamphlet, PZ6.1.F2 barcode 1005848128

Visitor comments

Illustration of an old witch leaning on a cane

Wonderful! Gruesome! Loved the labels to some of the publications - hysterically funny! Thank you.

We both really enjoyed this has inspired us to go away and read more.

Comments from the visitors book

Get the latest updates

Follow Manuscripts and Special Collections Exhibitions on twitter @mssLakeside to keep up to date with the latest exhibition news.


Manuscripts and Special Collections

Kings Meadow Campus
Lenton Lane
Nottingham, NG7 2NR

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 4565
fax: +44 (0) 115 846 8651