Is Bumblebee Bogo’s Budget a Bust?
By August A. Imholtz, Jr.

Bumblebee Bogo’s Budget is a title, which, like Bulgy in Wombolia and sadly many other examples, is, in the opinion of at least this writer, the best thing about the book.  This article briefly discusses the book’s author, the work itself, how it was received by Victorian readers, how it came to be published only because of Lewis Carroll’s intervention, and perhaps why that happened.

On the title page of Bumblebee Bogo’s Budget the author is identified only as “A Retired Judge.”  He was in fact a British diplomat, journalist, and dramatist named William Webb Follett Synge (1826-1891), who joined the British Foreign Office in 1846.  From 1851-1853 he served in the British Legation in Washington, DC, and married Henrietta Mary Wainwright, daughter of Col. Robert Dewar Wainwright of the United States Army.  While he was in Washington, Synge may have met Charles Bogo, who later distinguished himself in the American Civil War as Captain of the naval screw gunboat Juanita.  On returning to England,  Synge began to contribute pieces to Punch and to The Press.  He subsequently was appointed secretary to Sir William Gore Ousely on his 1859 mission to Central America, then became Commissioner and Consul General for the Sandwich Islands, and finally was Commissary Judge and Consul General in Cuba after which on account of his compromised health, he retired from the Foreign Service in 1868.  [Commissary Judges had various responsibilities including examining and deciding cases of detention, capture, or seizure of vessels and their cargoes.] First settling in Guildford, where he made the acquaintance of the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, he moved to Eastbourne in 1883, where Dodgson of course spent many holidays. Synge was also a regular contributor to the Standard and to the Saturday Review.   In addition to Bumblebee Bogo’s Budget, he published the novel Olivia Raleigh in 1875 and the triple-decker novel Tom Singleton, Dragoon and Dramatist in 1879 and other works.

The word “budget” in the title of the Bumblebee book refers not to the fiscal sense of the word in common use today but rather to a so-called transferative sense of the word with the meaning of “the contents of a bag or wallet; a bundle, a collection or stock,” i.e., a collection or anthology. Whether Synge borrowed the name “Bogo” from the American naval officer Charles Bogo, as J.R.R. Tolkien purportedly took the name “Bilbo” from the infamous American Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, is unknown. Further on the Bogo name, there is a Bogo Island off the coast of Denmark but it is not known for its bumblebees.  The name may even have been a nursery coinage by one of the Synge children.  The book’s verses, described by Macmillan in their advertisement as “comical nursery and other rhymes for children,” are thoroughly uninspired, sentimental, and tinged here and there with moralism and pious invocations.  Here are a few sample stanzas:

“Roses and Cherries”

Roses not so red,
Cherries not so juicy,
As the cheeks of Fred
As the lips of Lucy.  

“Uncle’s Hairdresser”

“Since my uncle’s in bed”
(Little Tendertoes said)
“I’ll just go up stairs and plait straws in his head.”
But the uncle said, “niece,
We shall look like two geese,
If you don’t rub the roots first with buffalo grease.”

“Don’t Break Windows”

Sulky Sammy and Spiteful Sue
Smashed my windows and off they flew.
Spiteful Susy and sulky Sam
Were met full tilt by an angry ram…


In a child’s pure laughter joying,
And thy constant care employing
Unto our dear Christ to win
Hearts that break and souls that sin.

And say “tho’ erring, weak and wild,
Blessings still upon my child!
May the baby-love he’d win
Purify his soul from sin,
And make him meet to join the band
Of children in the heavenly land,

Who sing for ever songs of joy
To him who was on earth a Boy.”

And yet reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic really seemed to like such sentiment!  See the Appendix below for a sample of the critical reception Bumblebee Bogo enjoyed. Indeed, the first edition was printed in April 1887 and a second edition (People’s Edition) appeared in December 1887.  Perhaps a few of the poems, very few, are worth reading more than once if that.  
The following one, for example, does have a nice almost Edward Lear ring to it:

“Silly Billy”

Since the Dey of Algiers
Wears pearl rings in his ears,
How can my Poll-Parrot be tried by his Peers?

Well, I don’t think she can,
Now there’s peace with Japan,
But let’s ask Silly-Billy, the Schoolmaster’s man.

The story of how Bumblebee came to be published, moreover, is interesting in itself for several reasons and also provides a different evaluation of the book’s merits from no lesser arbiter of taste than Alexander Macmillan himself.  On March 30, 1886 Carroll wrote to Macmillan:

“I have another piece of business to consult you about, in reference to Mr. Synge.  I have undertaken the publication of a book of poems of his, written for children, and he will send you the MS.  When you have had time to consider it, I shall be grateful for answers to these questions:

  1. Are you willing to publish it for me, on same terms as we at first had for Alice?
  2. What sized-page, and what type would you recommend?...
  3. What binding?...

Three days later Macmillan responded:

“We have received the MS of Mr. Synge’s poems and write to say that we are willing to publish them because you ask us to do so.  Had they come to us independently we should have refused, for it does not seem to me that they are likely to achieve much success: but we could be wrong.”  

A large number of letters were exchanged between Carroll and Macmillan over the next year and a half which are not included in Morton Cohen’s Lewis Carroll and the House of Macmillan.  The illustrations were drawn by Alice Havers, who later provided the drawing of the Sylvie’s locket for Sylvie and Bruno.

Then on October 7, 1887, in response to Macmillan’s plan to send copies of Bumblebee Bogo’s Budget to America, Carroll wrote again:

“Thanks for information about copies of Bumblebee sent to America.  As to the advertisement in the Publisher’s Circular, I would prefer the picture of 2 children wading.  I think the pictures are the best, possibly the only, chance of a further sale: for I have a very moderate opinion of the merits of the verses.”
What began then as an act of kindness, a full publishing subvention in fact, on Carroll’s part, to help his friend Synge, should not be understood as a lapse of aesthetic sensibility on Carroll’s part in regard to the Bumblebee verses but rather the expression of his conviction that illustrations by Alice Havers justified the publication of the book.  Her illustrations remind one quite a bit of the illustrations Harry Furniss would produce a few years later for Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno books.

And to return to the title of the book with which we began, it may be well to quote the following exchange from Synge’s Tom Singleton novel on the title of Tom’s  literary work:

“And what was your play about, Tom?”
“How long it must have been,” said the girl mischievously.
“Yes, everything; love, jealousy, fighting, fun. Capital taking title too, I call it.”
“What was it?””
“The ‘Countess Unawares.’ Regular puzzler, you see. It ought to excite no end of curiosity, as people can’t possibly guess what it’s all about till they’ve seen it.”
The same thing about guessing what it is about is true of Bumblebee Bogo’s Budget as well.


The Month: A Catholic Magazine and Review

Dec. 1887. Vol. LXI.
The author of Bumble-bee Bogo’s Budget* is, we suspect, a little fanciful in describing himself as “a retired Judge,” but at least he is a very good “judge” of what children enjoy. Some of his verses are sure to become favourites: they are musical jingles, with quaint fancies and no meaning in particular, and so just such as children love. “Babyland” and others appeal perhaps more to those of riper years:
Perhaps the songs we sang thee Angels understand: Perhaps our children sing them In their Babyland.
For them the sun’s still shining, The flowers still bright and grand; For they have found what we have lost, The Key of Babyland.
“Bobby, my boy,” reminds us of the lines addressed by Mrs. Craik to Philip Bourke Marston—both lately taken from among us—entitled, “Philip, my King;” and the earlier poem strikes us as also the better. The “Invocation” and “L’Envoi” show capabilities for higher work. The illustrations by Miss Haves are graceful, and the book as a whole is a very dainty one.
The Literary World:  A Fortnightly Review of Current  Literature


January — December, 1887.


p. 202

It is a relief to turn to Bumblebee Bogo’s Budget, by “A Retired Judge” (Macmillan & Co.), a dainty little volume which has some claim to be styled the modern Mother Goose, The Judge writes delightful nonsense rhymes of the sort that children like and Bumblebee Bogo’s Budget is sure to be a favorite in nursery circles.

The Spectator
Vol. 60.  1887.  P. 1128

• Bumblebee Rogo’s Budget. By a Retired Judge. Illustrated by Alice Havers. London and New York: Macmillan and Co.
A volume of verse—almost all of it, we are glad to say, pare nonsense—which reveals the writer’s possession of the peculiar gift that wins the heart of children, lies before us. It is a pity that the title should be so discouraging. That the writer of these very funny verses should have called his book Bumblebee Bogo’s Budget, by a Retired Judge, is only to be accounted for by supposing that the title has some household association which endears it to the writer, but being unexplained, does not excuse it to his readers. The verses, which really do produce the impression of having been written because the author could not help it, are comical and unreasonable to the last degree; but they are not quaint, and that is much to their credit, for quaintness is too artificial a quality to please children. “A Retired Judge” is presumably an elderly gentleman; but this particular Judge has retired into the nursery, to all appearance, and bids fair to be eminently popular with the pinafore public, who are extremely hard to please, and whose criticism is as candid as it is practical. The children will not learn verses by heart unless they like them; and no one ever sees them dancing to rhymes set to their own tunes, unless those rhymes have a touch of the tarantula about them. There is “Hickory, Dickory-dock, the mouse ran up the clock,” for instance; nonsensical enough to please the most exacting; but where are the good grey heads that cannot remember the time when the feet that are—well, not gouty, perhaps, but “threatened”—jumped and hopped and skipped, “All around the mulberry-tree, the mulberry-tree, the mulberry-tree,” to that inspiring measure. There are verses in this volume that will take the fancy of the children of to-day as strongly, and hold it as long. There are pretty, simple, happy, loving conceits also, and among the verses that appeal to older readers, while they are not over the heads of the little ones, are those addressed to the writer’s mother, “lost awhile,” and also a little poem whose motive is the same as the well-known “Aire d'une Mere,” with its touching refrain :—

“En attendant, sur mes genoux,
Beau général, endormez-vous”
Without a touch of sentimentality, but full of genuine feeling, is “Bobby, my Boy.” “The Maid of Rangoon” is truly poetical in its prodigal fancifulness, and the writer's plea for the admission of his puppets to live —
“in your Babyland.”
Along with the bright and merry band T
That have lived there pleasantly ever so long,
And who'll live for ever in nursery song,"

— is followed by a recapitulation of the immortal stories and rhymes, from “Red Riding Hood” to the “Ugly Duckling,” which is exceedingly clever. We have not space for an extract long enough to do justice to this catalogue in rhyme; but we must endorse one observation:—
“And little Dick Whittington (we don't care For the big one who grew up to be Lord Mayor).”
Among the prettiest verses in the volume (but the children will not like them the best) are those on “Babyland,” with their perfect presentment of the serious and convinced house-building and garden-making of children, and their pathetic touches of regretful reminiscence. The poet of the children seldom drops into moralising, but when he does, it is good moralising.

    Admittedly there is some subjective judgment in drawing up any list of great titles/terrible books, but perhaps some people’s lists might include the following  titles: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake; Valley of the Dolls; The Salmon of Doubt; and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

August Imoholtz July 30, 2011


Editor’s Note.

Alice Havers (1850 -1890) was the first wife of painter Frederick Morgan. She lived in London where in 1885 Lewis Carroll visited the family on 30th December 1885. He also met Lilian her daughter, who was ten at the time.
    Sometime after that Alice Havers drew this picture, of her daughter Lilian Morgan, singing to a canary it is signed with monogram (lower right) It is also inscribed  'To Mr. Dodgson from Lilian' on a label which is attached to the back. It was drawn in pencil, pen and grey ink and watercolour heightened with white and is 9¾ x 5 3/8 in. (24.8 x 13.6 cm.) It sold at auction for £1,250 recently.

    The last mention of Lilian in CLD’s diaries was in 1888 when he called to take her to the theatre. He doesn’t mention this drawing in his letters or in his diaries.