Baa Baa, Black Sheep


(notes edited by John Radcliffe and John McGivering)


This story was first published in The Week’s News (Allahabad) 21 December, 1888 and in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Child Stories by Rudyard Kipling, published as the sixth volume in  A.H. Wheeler & Co.’s Indian Railway Library,  Allahabad, in March 1889. Later Indian editions omitted the word ‘Child’ and appeared with slightly different covers and collations.

See David Alan Richards p. 31 for further details of publication, and Brian Mattinson’s table for musical settings. See also Martindell, p. 27 ff.)

The story is also collected in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories “in he Uniform and Pocket Editions and Volume III of the Sussex and Burwash editions.

The story

Two little Anglo-Indian children on a visit to England from India, nicknamed ‘Punch’ and ‘Judy’, aged six and three, are left with foster-parents in Southsea. There has been little warning that their father and mother are to leave them there.

he experience is rendered more traumatic by the fact that their foster-mother, a rigidly fundamentalist Christian, does not take to Punch, who she sees as an undisciplined deceitful little show-off. She encourages her teenage son to bully him. Her husband is kind to Punch, but after a time he dies. Apart from his delight in reading, Punch’s life is a misery, and he can see no way out. He has fantasies of killing ‘the woman’.

After five years the children’s mother comes to take them back, and life is happy again, but Punch’s trust in the world has been damaged for good.

‘There! Told you so,’ says Punch. ‘It’s all different now, and we are just as much Mother’s as if she had never gone.’

Not altogether, O Punch, for when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion, and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge; though it may turn darkened eyes for a while to the light, and teach Faith where no Faith was.


This account of the Southsea years is to a degree autobiographical and can be traced in Kipling’s Something of Myself (published posthumously in 1937). It is also covered in an article “Some Reminiscences of my Brother” by Mrs Fleming (Alice Kipling – sister of the author, usually known as “Trix”, and the original of ‘Judy’) in KJ 44, and in a further article by her in KJ 84, “My Brother, Rudyard Kipling”. (There is some doubt, of course, if the evidence of the very young Trix can be wholly relied upon, since she was only three years of age when she was left with the Holloways.)

This story should also be read in parallel with chapter 1 of The Light that Failed (published in Lippincott’s Magazine for January 1901 and in book form the same year), which tells of a boy and a girl – not related – who are boarded out in somewhat similar circumstances.

Although it was normal practice at that time for Anglo-Indian children to be sent ‘home’ to be educated once they reached school age, it seems obvious to present day readers that little ‘Punch’ and ‘Judy’ were badly treated by their parents – seemingly abandoned to the custody of unpleasant people without any explanation.

There has, though, been much speculation since as to how far the story can be taken literally as an account of what actually happened to the young Kipling and his sister. Writing in The Athenæum for December 1890, Kipling explained at length that all the tales in Wee Willie Winkie were commendable, except “Baa Baa, Black Sheep”, which was “not true to life”. [cited by Angus Wilson on pages 107 and 120]. One is conscious, though, that Kipling’s parents, who must surely have found the implications of the story very hurtful, were still alive at that time, and that in his disavowal Kipling may have been seeking to spare their feelings. His account some 45 years later in Something of Myself (pages 4-17) bears out many of the details of his sufferings in what he called ‘The House of Desolation’.


Critical comments

Kipling’s biographers and critics have inevitably given a great deal of attention to this story. Charles Carrington, his first published biographer, covers the Southsea years on pages 12 to 20, and contributed an important article to the Kipling Journal for June, 1972 (182/7) entitled “‘Baa Baa, Black Sheep’ – Fact or Fiction ?” in which he examines the various scanty and conflicting accounts of this period. One of the best of the many other examinations of this sad affair is that of Rupert Croft-Cook (Rudyard Kipling, Home and Van Thal, London 1948, page 25).
Birkenhead (pp. 15 ff ) takes a very matter-of-fact view of this dreadful episode in the lives of the young Kipling and his sister, which is also reflected in the upbringing of Dick and Maisie in Chapter 1 of The Light that Failed. Both pairs of children are boarded with ignorant and bigoted women, reminiscent of the Colonel‘s wife in “Watches of the Night” (Plain Tales from the Hills). Birkenhead goes on, however (p.27);

“… it would be unjust to ignore the fact that Rudyard probably gave Mrs. Holloway frequent cause for irritation, and that many of his punishments may well have been richly deserved. He was clumsy, ill-mannered and undisciplined … noisy, argumentative and abnormally slow to learn to read and write.

See also Gilmour pp. 9 ff. for further information on this period and Seymour-Smith (pp.18 ff.) who takes a somewhat unsympathetic view of the whole affair, implying that this era is the origin of the “revenge” themes that crop up here and there in Kipling’s work. He does not quite see eye to eye with Dr Tompkins (pp. 8, 119, 156 and 158) but between them they have probably got somewhere near the truth – so far as anybody can at this distance in time.

See also Mary Hamer’s essay
“Kipling and Dreams”

A postscript

It is not clear why Kipling wrote this fragment of autobiography and published it as a work of fiction. Perhaps he was constantly aware of this unpleasant period in his life and needed to get it out of his system. As Ricketts (page 117) maintains, this might have afforded him some therapeutic release but also enabled him to get back at his parents for apparently abandoning him and his sister. This does, though, seem to be belied by his affectionate remarks about the aftermath in Something of Myself:

That was a joyous home-coming. For – consider – I had returned to a Father and a Mother of whom I had seen but little since my sixth year … But the Mother proved more delightful than all my imaginings or memories. My Father was not only a mine of knowledge and help, but a humorous, tolerant, and expert fellow-craftsman. {page 39)

After leaving Lorne Lodge the children spent nine months with Mrs Kipling on a round of visits to friends and relations followed by the holiday at Golding’s Hill, the farm in Essex. Their mother then came down with shingles and the children went to 227 Brompton Road in London where they were boarded with an ex-butler and his wife, which seems to have been a great improvement on Southsea. (See Ricketts (page 30), Birkenhead (page 30), and Something of Myself, page 17).

For an interesting examination of this period see Roger Lancelyn Green’s Kipling and the Children. There is also an excellent account by Marghanita Laski. See also Betty Miller’s essay on “Kipling’s First Novel” in Gross, with photographs of the family.

Kipling and his sister are not known to have discussed their time at Southsea. Birkenhead (page 27) maintains that the publication of this story in 1888 without advance warning was a dreadful shock to his parents. It may well be, however, he goes on , “that the strict regime cured the boy of some of his unpleasant traits and gave him a resilience that stood him well in later years.”

See also Trix on “Some Chilhood Memories” in KJ380/23, Mike Kiplinmg on the Holloways in KJ 367/8, and Janice Lingley’s letter about Sir Thomas Holloway in KJ 382/56


[J.R./J. McG.]

©John Radcliffe and McGivering 2004 All rights reserved