Friday, 7 October 2016

We like to have an old horse about the place

I was born when the working horse was already an anachronism, but there were still plenty of reminders of what had been. My grandparents still had a stable, part of a long wooden building with a hen house, aviary and pig sty. It’s long gone, and is now under a housing estate, but when my sister and I were little we spent hour after hour playing with the completely imaginary animals, collecting imaginary eggs and mucking out the imaginary horse. We weren’t quite so keen on the imaginary pig, possibly because the pig sty was dark, gloomy and distinctly spidery.

Those buildings were a tangible connection to a way of life that had gone. Now the buildings have followed the way of the animals, family stories are the only connection to them: the cockerel that attacked my mother, the pony that pulled the cart, and the wartime pig.

None of the people reading this, I suspect, have any experience of what it is like to live in a world where there are working horses round every corner. If I want to see a horse, I have to get in my car and drive. I went looking for stories of what it was like when horses still tramped the streets, and found some wonderful things, like this brilliantly pithy description of horses and boys in Aberdeen:

 Jees, when a Clydesdale started pissing on the cobbles ye had tae move quick. Yet I never heard one fart ever.  The cartie driver would often give you lift and let you climb up to his rickety seat for a wee hurl o’er the chatterin cassies…. The shires were great feathered footed, gentle beasts who were housed overnight in magnificent terraced stables with ramps in Virginia Street near the Bannerman Bridge, and some mature shires had full military moustaches and would eat yer 'piece' gladly.  When the cartie driver went to dinner so did the horse tossing his nosebag up and doon tae get a crunchful and relieving himself in the aforesaid manner and also shedding a pile of well rounded manure that we could use as grenades against our enemies when they had dried but slightly.

Heavy horses. Not pissing. The Horse, J K Brunel Esq

I never realised the potential of horse muck to be used as a weapon, and I am sad about that. The use of pedestrian horse as Derby winner, I was right on top of, however. I was not alone. Tommy Weston, champion flat race jockey in 1926, worked as a chain boy at Dewsbury Station when he was 14. A chain boy was responsible for waiting at the bottom of a steep hill with a horse, ready to hitch it on to a railway wagon to help the horse pulling it up the hill. Once at the top, the horse would be unhitched, and led back to the bottom of the hill to wait for the next animal that needed help.

Tommy used to ride the horse back to the stables (Dewsbury was obviously more forgiving of this than other stables – it was a sackable offence at some stables for the chain boy to ride the horse). When he rode back, Tommy was no longer Tommy, chain boy, but a jockey, riding against his hero, champion jockey Steve Donoghue.

‘We used to win many a Derby together. Crouched over his neck, furiously waving my whip and digging my heels into his broad sides, we clattered along the streets at a terrific five miles an hour. Time after time I just managed to beat Steve Donoghue by a short head as we came ‘dashing’ up to the finishing line – the stable gate.'

Tommy Weston, having moved on from chain horses, riding at the Pitmen’s Derby
(now the Northumberland Plate), 1927.

Getting mugged by a horse keen on sharing your food was something that used to be familiar to every city dweller. The Yorkshire Evening Post, in an article written in May 1940, gave a wonderful description of what it was like to walk down a street where horses were working.

‘Shortage of petrol has put many railway horses back on the street deliveries again, and once more shoppers in Coney Street, York, have to run the gauntlet of inquisitive heads and nuzzling noses. Once more there is equine blackmail extracted in the form of sugar from the assistants at the shops where the lorries call, though it must be more difficult to provide the blackmail in these days of sugar-rationing. Still, it is forthcoming.’

The writer went on to describe one particular horse, Billie, a magnificent black, well known in York for his habit of ‘disregarding all laws about the proper place for horses. He invariably got his forefeet on to the footpath, and thought nothing of nosing into shop doorways for his lump of sugar if it was not immediately forthcoming.’

‘People would soon notice if you weren’t there,’ said British Pathé in their film about the life of an everyday working horse.

And they did, too. The Bedfordshire Times and Independent wrote in 1954 about a horse called Jack who had worked at Bedford Station, and had now retired. He had been bought by the ILPH, and was now working at Bromham Hospital, which had its own farm. The comments of Mr Reg Benson, the hospital farm manager who took the horse on, sum up the connection between man and horse that many still felt, despite the fact numbers of working horses were in steep decline when the article was written.

‘We like to have an old horse about the place. It doesn’t cost much to feed, and a farm isn’t the same without one. I know a farmer near here who would gladly take one on just for the sake of having a horse on his farm, even if he didn’t work him more than one day a month.’

But even wanting an old horse about the place was not enough to maintain the horse in anything like the position it had enjoyed pre-war. Stark practicality won out, and now the overwhelming majority of horses in Britain are leisure animals. They are private animals, not public.

~ 0 ~

* The Pitmen's (or Pitman's) Derby is a race that's still run. The Northumberland Plate still takes place, as it did in 1927, at Newcastle racecourse at Gosforth Park. The race was originally run on a Wednesday, and coincided with the annual holiday week at the local coalmines. Its popular name, the Pitmen's Derby, reflected the major importance of the coalmining industry in the area, and the popularity of the meeting with its workers. The annual mine holiday week was abolished in 1949, after the mining industry was nationalised in 1947. Presumably to maximise a different audience, the race was moved to a Saturday in 1952, Tommy Weston won the race shown in the clip, riding the horse Border Minstrel.

Bedfordshire Times and Standard, February 19, 1954
The Dewsbury Gazette, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 4 September 1952 (My Racing Life, Tommy Weston, reviewed)
The Doric Column, website,
Yorkshire Evening Post, May 4, 1940

Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Fall of the Railway Horse

There are no horses working in the shunting and goods yards of British railways now: the last one retired in 1967. That horse was the last of a phenomenon that had lasted over 100 years. 

At its height, in 1913, there were 27,826 railway-owned cartage and shunting horses in the UK, a number Bryan Holden in his The Long Haul describes as declining to 9,077 by 1945. This decline had effects that were noticed by even the higher echelons of society. Riding Magazine, whose readership were not generally troubled by lack of money, noted with concern in its July 1951 edition that the number of railway horses on parade at the 55th Annual Show of the London Cart Horse Parade Society at Regent’s Park had dropped from 61 to 14.

The decline, as with the agricultural industry, was driven by the replacement of horses with motorised transport. This was not a process that happened immediately: it took 40 years. The Second World War, and the rationing of petrol meant a temporary halt to the reduction in horse numbers, but it was only temporary. After the war ended, the push to mechanise gathered pace.

Horse-drawn parcel vans, Euston, 1925. © National Railway Museum and SSPL

Before the war, the motorisation lobby had waged what Holden called ‘a relentless war of words against horse transport’. He quoted the district goods manager of the GWR in Birmingham telling the West Midland Traffic Commissioners in 1936 that Birmingham City Council was strongly behind the motorisation drive, saying that ‘before long it would be necessary to compel railway companies to take horses off the central streets.’

The horse’s disadvantages when compared with mechanised alternatives were described in a Manchester Guardian article of 1952. The Road Transport Division of British Railways had set up an experiment in 1952, where 100 drivers used electric horses rather than the real sort. Hull was one of the stations that took part, with 12 of the new machines (the YE 4102). Charlie Pulford was one driver who took part, with the machine taking the place of his horse, Tiny. Tiny was allowed one, and only one, advantage:

‘Looking at it from the driver’s point of view, Charlie Pulford thinks that the only advantage Tiny had was that he knew his own name and would come when you whistled, whereas YE 4102 does not, and will not.’

The article sang the praises of the electric horse. You didn’t have to stable it, groom it, or feed it, or use farriers and harness makers. The only maintenance the author appeared to think the YE 4102 needed was a quick wash with the hosepipe, which showed a touching faith in the machine’s reliability. Mr A A Harrison, an executive officer of British Railways argued that the electric horses saved the country petrol, cut the use of manpower from 30-60% (not I would have thought a winning argument, but the Manchester Guardian does not comment on it) and recharged during the evening, therefore not interfering with the demands of industry.

The Manchester Guardian did not shy away from one final advantage of the electric horse: it didn’t involve you in a moral conundrum when the time came to pension it off.

‘…one railwayman observed ‘at least with the electric horses when it comes time for them to be pensioned off, there will not be one group trying to put them out to pasture, and another trying to eat them.’’

The prospect of going to slaughter was a real one. The number of horses in Britain fell drastically in the post war years. In the Blue Cross’s 1952 annual report, Mr E Keith Robinson said that 719,500 farm horses had been slaughtered since 1939, and estimated that the equine population had reduced by 1.5 million over the previous 14 years. He did, however, single out the British Railways Executive for praise, as it had agreed to sell as many of its redundant horses to the League as it could afford to buy.

Charlie at Newmarket, 1967 © National Railway Museum and SSP
The public it appeared, had a special affection for the railway horse. For many people in towns, the agricultural horse was a distant creature, not often seen, but the railway horse was different. It delivered goods to their workplaces. It delivered parcels to their door. They fed Tom, or Ben, or Kitty, as they stopped on their routes. They were part of everyday life.

Local newspapers printed story after story describing vigorous local campaigns to save the railway horses of their towns and cities. Our Dumb Friends’ League set up a lease and lend scheme. They, with the public’s help, would buy railway horses, and then rehome them, with regular inspections to ensure the horses’ welfare.

On 29 January 1954, the Northampton Mercury reported the story of an anonymous local businessman (described as ‘the owner of a very small business at the end of a back street’) who had heard that the nine horses at the town's Castle Station were to be replaced with lorries, and might end up in the slaughterhouse. He contacted the Blue Cross and Our Dumb Friends’ League and together they started a campaign to raise the £540 to buy the horses.

Tiny and Darkie inspect a mechanical horse, 29 January 1954. Image © Johnston Press plc  
By February 16, the target had been reached.

In August, the Mercury printed a heart-wrenching description of the last days of Northampton’s railway horses, and their journey to a farm in King’s Sutton. It’s ironic that horses who spent their entire lives transporting things were terrified of being transported themselves.

‘After years of work at smoky Castle Station, this was a new experience for Joe and Ben. They munched the thick grass, and then, realising they had more space than they had ever seen before in their lives, they kicked up their heels and galloped off together in sunshine.

Happy though they were, they were not too keen to leave Castle Station, early in the day. It took fifteen minutes to load Ben into the Blue Cross horse ambulance in which they travelled, and twice as long to coax an extremely reluctant Joe.

So reluctant was Joe to leave that once he broke away and ran back to his stables, shivering with nervousness.’

A reluctant Joe being persuaded to leave Castle Station. Image © Johnston Press plc 

This must have been extraordinarily difficult for Harry Hawtin, the stable foreman who was ‘losing two old and trusted friends’. What happened to Harry is not related, and one can only hope he was deployed elsewhere on the railways, there being few public collections to help redundant railwaymen.

Being horsy had no bearing on people’s willingness to save the horses. Mrs Ann Newton’s interest in railway horses was sparked when she gave an ice cream to a piebald railway horse in Leeds who then called every day for a tit-bit. When he was sent to auction in Manchester, Mrs Newton bought him, and from that point, devoted herself to working with the International League for the Protection of Horses to save the railway horses of Leeds, as well as campaigning for the ponies and donkeys shipped for slaughter from Ireland.

Ann Newton was a distinctive figure at the horse sales. No tweedy woman she, in 1952 the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer described her thus:

‘The tough horse dealers and their hangers-on in a Manchester auction yard are now used to seeing the spruce figure of Mrs Newton, always looking as if she had come straight from a London fashion show, elbowing her way through the crowd to bid for a horse against stiff competition.

She never ‘dresses down’ to go to the auctions—sometimes she wears an even more daring hat than usual. She is an incongruous figure in the gloomy shed, filled with frightened horses and with shouting and cracking whips.

Ann Newton raised enough money to save several of the Manchester horses, and many others throughout the North.

The public’s enthusiasm for saving the horses did not always meet with unmixed joy from railway staff. A fund had been started in 1952 to save the redundant horses in Rochdale, and the Manchester Guardian reported one railway man as being ‘fed up with shoving hundreds of people, including children, round the stables.’

Hundreds of people visiting railway stables was an occupation that had obvious time limits. The very last railway horses worked at Newmarket Railway Station (a handsome building alas now demolished). The last of them all, Charlie, retired on 21 Feb 1967, after shunting his own horsebox onto the train which was taking him away from Newmarket Station. He went to Clare Hall, Ston Easton, where his working companion, Butch, had already gone.

Charlie achieved some celebrity as the last working railway horse, and British Pathé filmed him a few years before he retired.

The railway horses of Britain felt their way into the public consciousness in a way their mechanised replacements could not. However inconvenient and overly labour-intensive the horse came to be seen, the opportunity they gave the public to connect with another living being, to interact with an animal that was pleased to see you even if it was just because you gave it an ice cream, led to furious fights to save them.   


Our, S. C. (1952, Oct 22). RAILWAYS TRADE "TINY" FOR AN ELECTRIC HORSE. The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959) Retrieved from

1, 500, 000 FEWER HORSES. (1952, Nov 03). The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959) Retrieved from

Riding Magazine, August 1951, pg 313

Northampton Mercury - Friday 29 January 1954, Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Copyright Northampton Mercury - Friday 13 August 1954, Image © Johnston Press plc. Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Yorkshire Evening Post - Thursday 14 August 1952, Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

FUND GATHERS £180 TO SAVE HORSES. (1952, Jun 28). The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959) Retrieved from

Monday, 8 August 2016

The pony book in WWII - part two

This is part two of the talk I did at the Bristol children's books conference. You can find part one, which looks at pre-war pony books, and those books that generally didn't deal with war, here.

For pony book authors, there is a pretty sharp division by sex which appears to affect whether or not they wrote about the direct effects of the war. All those books that do were written by women, mostly writing about what life was like on the Home Front. They had their own war experiences: Primrose Cumming worked for a year on a farm. One day, a bomber crashed in the field of sheep she was tending. She survived, and used her experience in her book Owl’s Castle Farm (1942). She later joined the ATS and served for the remainder of the war in an anti-aircraft battery. Shirley Faulkner-Horne was married to a pilot who fought in the Battle of Britain.

Primrose Cumming’s Silver Eagle Carries On (1940) and Owl’s Castle Farm, Shirley Faulkner-Horne’s Riding with the Kindles (1941) and Parachute Silk (1944), Joanna Cannan’s More Ponies for Jean (1944), and Alice Molony’s Lion’s Crouch (1944) all dealt directly with the war and its effects. To a greater or lesser extent, they wrote books in which the horse plays several different roles. In its most concrete role, it helps people earn their living. It is necessary. But the horse also has an effect on morale: it provides a reminder of a world that was gone, and a hope for post-war world, as well as a distraction from the upheaval that affected people’s lives. These stories also documented, to some extent, what was happening on the Home Front, allowing readers to share experiences they might not have themselves, or provide validation of the ones they did.

Some books also tackled contentious issues, such as whether it was right for people to go on with riding as a leisure activity, and a distraction, at all.

Silver Eagle Carries On provides a vivid picture of the outbreak of war. It is the sequel to The Silver Eagle Riding School, in which three sisters set up a riding school after the family money is lost in the post-war years. Silver Eagle Carries On opens conventionally enough, with two of the sisters and their partner, Virginia, on a riding tour through the countryside with their clients. The remaining sister, Josephine, is in America with her show jumper, Anna, and the others buy a copy of the Illustrated paper, to see if Josephine and Anna are featured. They flip the pages over frantically to the back to find the piece on Josephine, entirely missing the headlines saying that Germany has marched into Poland until they notice the horrified faces of their fellow riders.
‘Headlines stared back at them from the paper: “Evacuees leaving London.” “Black-out in force.” “Army in readiness.”
War is declared two days later. The tour is called off, and immediately the girls are brought up against the realities of their situation. They cannot get home by train (most horses were transported around the country by rail at that time) as all trains have been commandeered to move troops. The cattle truck driver they manage to find to drive them home tells them to make the most of it, as petrol will soon be rationed. When they reach home, they already have two evacuees from London, Delphinium and Norman. Josephine and her horse Anna are on their way back from America and are in the middle of the Atlantic, so there is the constant fear of their ship being attacked.

Evacuees from Deptford at a Pembrokeshire farm
© IWM (D 997)
Very soon, prices of fodder rocket, providing the sisters with a staggering rise in their feed bill. This was a real and present problem for many horse owners. Pre-war, much grain for horse food had been imported and the dangers to shipping meant that Britain was thrown back on what it could grow for itself; and humans, farm animals and working horses came first. The picture below shows Snowball, a horse who delivered goods from the railway, in 1943. You can see how very underfed the horse looks: working horses had previously been allowed two nosebags of food while working but were now down to one.

© IWM (D 16841)

The difficulty of feeding horses is a theme throughout those books that dealt with the war. At the back of this was a real fear for the very survival of people’s horses. At the beginning of the war there had been wretched scenes of mass putting down of cats and dogs in order to preserve food stocks. This was not restricted to small animals. In its Winter, 1941 issue, the Editor of Riding published an appeal.
‘As we go to press we have received from the Minister of Agriculture an appeal which will go straight to the heart of every reader of RIDING. It asks all those who own horses and ponies “to consider seriously whether it is still necessary to keep them.” The Minister has in mind particularly those animals that are either too old for work or ‘that are ridden only occasionally for enjoyment.’ Deprived already of rationed feeding stuffs, many have been turned out to grass. Now the grass they eat in summer and the hay in winter, are both urgently needed for animals doing essential work.’
The piece goes on to make it plain that elderly animals should indeed be considered for equine heaven, and recommends that its readers make this difficult decision. Of riding animals it says:
‘…in deciding their fate it is not always easy to draw a line between necessity and desire, or even between immediate necessity and future necessity.’
The Minister had nothing against animals doing a useful job of work, but quite what was a useful job of work was open to interpretation.

Nevertheless, horses were kept going. The film below shows racehorses in Epsom during the war. There was no racing there during the war, but the horses were still trained and looked after. It's interesting that much of the work was done by youngsters.

The fodder situation lends particular poignancy to the situation in Joanna Cannan’s More Ponies for Jean, published in 1944 but based on events at the beginning of the war. As the Pullein-Thompson sisters recount in their autobiographical Fair Girls and Grey Horses, (1996), Joanna Cannan plundered an event in her daughters’ lives that either she or her husband, Captain Pullein-Thompson (the sisters' memory is unclear), had precipitated, as inspiration for her third Jean book. As the fodder shortage tightened its grip, the Pullein-Thompsons were told that either their ponies paid their way, or they would have to go. Quite where they would have to go is not made explicit, but the Pullein-Thompsons, and every other horse owner, knew the answer to that one.

They duly started a riding school, and put in a truly astonishing degree of hard physical work to keep their ponies fed. Joanna Cannan, as Josephine put it, ‘shamelessly collected copy from their experiences’ for the Jean book. Jean, like the Pullein-Thompsons, starts a riding school after she is also told one of her ponies must go now fodder is so expensive.

Not only did horse owners have to contend with the difficulty of feeding their horses, but also the belief expressed by some at the beginning of the war that horse and pony owning was a luxury The attitude that Primrose Cumming’s Josephine expresses, once she is safely back in England, was common:
“My dear, don’t you realise there is a war on? We can’t go on just the same, even if a few selfish people do try to pretend it makes no difference. Of course we’ll close the school down. What I really meant was what war work are you going to take up?”
This was an attitude the equine press was well aware of, and the appeal of the horse as refreshment and relief for those returning on leave was something they stressed. Primrose Cumming takes up the cry too: Virginia asks Josephine if she means that everything that caters for amusement and comfort; such as publishers and cinemas should be closed down so everyone is making ‘plain foods, woollen underwear and munitions?’ and Josephine's sister, Mary, suggests they keep going to keep up morale — they can do their bit by letting people home on leave ride at reduced rates. 

Even makers of riding wear stressed the restorative effects of war-time riding.
Silver Eagle does indeed find more clients: wives of men whose offices have been relocated from London, pupils from an evacuated girls’ school, and a pony to break to harness so its owner can cope with petrol rationing. Despite the privations of war, the riding school manages to survive, and the book ends on a note of hope, declaring ‘Nothing seems to be so dire that the Silver Eagle Riding School cannot survive it.’

Hopeful though the book’s end is, the closeness of death overhung it, even if it was rarely acknowledged. Experience of that real loss in pony books of the period is rare. The most overt experience of death I have found occurs in Alice Molony’s Lion’s Crouch (1944). Heroine Mary has a beloved bull terrier called Happysnapper, who loves to play fetch. 


The former harbour master, a Nazi sympathiser, plans to show the Luftwaffe the way to a Cornish airbase by lighting up an oil slick along the creek. The slick will be ignited by a timed bomb that is already floating along the river. This time, says the harbour master, who has tangled with Happysnapper before when the dog managed to catch something of his he wasn’t supposed to have, ‘Your dog will not win.’
‘Oh, but he will,’ I said, and thank God there was no time to hesitate. ‘Go on Snapper, fetch it. Good dog. Good-bye.’
The harbour master and his cronies are captured, but Happysnapper has paid the ultimate price.

And of course in Mary Treadgold’s We Couldn’t Leave Dinah (1941), probably the most nuanced portrayal of ponies and children during the war, the children lose their home, their ponies and everything they have ever known.

She took the same start point as many authors before and since: the golden beginnings of summer holidays, filled with the promise of ponies, gymkhanas and a summer with the pony club —ponies as a hobby; a glorious distraction during the holidays. Her heroine, Caroline Templeton, says:
'You couldn’t really believe in awful things like Hitler when you were out in sun and wind and sea-spray and with people as absolutely marvellous as the Pony Club.'
But Mary Treadgold was only too aware of what life on the Home Front meant: she wrote We Couldn’t Leave Dinah in a London air raid shelter.

And so Caroline’s glorious, sunlit world is shattered. She and her family have full-scale enemy occupation to contend with when their home, Clerinel, a fictional Channel Island, is invaded. Caroline tries hard to hang on to everything that the ponies symbolised: a lack of care, of having responsibility only for your pony and for enjoying yourself.

The Pony Club dream—the pony as hobby and distraction— fades utterly when Caroline and Mick are, in the confusion and panic of the evacuation, left behind. Mary Treadgold shows conventional pony owning as the luxury it is. The focus switches from ponies as the central point of a privileged existence, to them as working animals, a necessity, useful in getting done what has to be done.

In their time spent hiding on the island, the ponies are used to carry what Caroline and Mick need when they hide in a cave before being able to escape the island; and as transport―to move around the island more quickly when they are attempting to find out the Nazi’s true invasion plans. 

The ponies carry baggage - We Couldn't Leave Dinah
Both children quickly gain some perspective; despite the title, it is not the pony Dinah who is central to the story. Not only does Caroline accept the fact Dinah has to be left behind, she hands her over to the German girl, Nannerl, daughter of the German commander who has taken over the Templeton’s house. The ponies become, in fact, the way in which the Templetons and Nannerl connect. Their shared love of the horse is a common language, no matter who is the invader or the invaded. Nannerl does not see a daughter of the invaded, someone whom she must grind down, and hand over to her father: she sees a girl she would have liked to play with, and in the Pony Club, something she and Caroline could have done together. When Nannerl helps both Templetons escape, Caroline is able to take the extraordinary step of regarding Nannerl as more than just an enemy. She makes her an honorary member of the Pony Club. It’s a tiny thing, in the face of all that Nannerl is doing for them, but it moves beyond simple thanks, and beyond ideas of nationalism, to building a connection, with something that has no nation—the horse.

I would argue that the pony books published during World War II move beyond the depiction of the horse purely as a leisure animal, particularly now the ability of children to rescue horses from a hard working life and transport them to a happy, well-fed existence was severely limited. Pony books reflected the new reality of wartime, where leisure now took on meanings other than simple distraction, providing a much-need break from the everyday hardness and bleakness of war. The horse and pony were a distraction, but also a symbol of something that could unite people across classes and countries: something we all need, in whatever form it comes.


Friday, 5 August 2016

The pony book in World War II: distraction, hobby or necessity?

Last week I spoke at the Topsy-Turvy conference at Bristol. Its theme was children's book series, and hobbies. I spoke on the hobbies element, and how the advent of war changed the way horses and riding were portrayed in children's literature at the time. This is (pretty much; I've cut it a bit) the text of what I said. It's split into two parts. If you want to skip straight to part two, it's here.

Having a horse or pony is a complicated hobby. A horse is not like a stamp collection: something that you can put away in a drawer when you are bored with it. It demands a huge input of physical labour and attention (unless, of course, you have someone to do the work for you). And although now almost all horses are leisure animals, that was emphatically not the case before World War II, which itself changed the relationship of horse and man, reeling it back to a time when the horse was, for many, their only hope of transport and help with labour.

That is not a relationship that was necessarily shown in pre-war pony literature.  The pony book, which had always had those elements of distraction and escape common to much children’s literature, maintained that during the war. The very nature of leisure and what it meant was brought into much sharper perspective, even as some questioned whether leisure was appropriate at all during war. And for some, the horse was indeed a necessity in a way which it had not been before the war.

The pony on the cover is butcher's pony Jingo.
The pony is a rare saint.
In the pre-war period there were thousands of working horses, in towns and cities, and in the countryside. Horses hauled goods from railway goods yards. They ploughed fields and performed any number of other agricultural tasks. Seeing a horse would have been an everyday event even for the child who lived in the middle of the city. For the majority of children, this would have been the sum total of their equine experience, as opportunities for less wealthy children to ride were limited unless your family happened to own a horse for its business, such as Jingo, the pony who pulled the butcher’s cart in Primrose Cumming’s The Wednesday Pony (1939), or Miss Ada in Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet (1935), another butcher’s pony. But even then, you only got to ride when the pony was not needed for other things. The video below was shot for the RSPCA, and gives you a good idea of the variety of pre-war working horses and ponies.

Despite the efforts of Primrose Cumming, the everyday horse world where horses were central to the way things worked was not one that was generally reflected in the pre-war pony book. Riding as a hobby had become progressively more popular in the inter-war years: Golden Gorse, in her 1936 preface to her non-fiction The Young Rider, wrote that when the book was published in 1928:

‘At that time one frequently met people who said ‘What is the good of teaching children to ride, the days of the horse are over!’ No one would say that now. … Five children seem to be learning to ride today for one who was learning seven years ago.’

But those five children had enough money to keep horses and ponies as a hobby, and it was that world most pony books of the time portrayed, where the function of the horse was to amuse the human. If you have a mental picture of a pony book gymkhana, it probably looks a lot like the one in the next video.

If a pony did appear in a pony book pulling a cart, it was generally because it had fallen down the equine social scale and was in need of rescue and returning to its rightful place as a leisure animal.

That is not to say that the pony did not symbolise other things in the pre-war pony book. For Jean, heroine of Joanna Cannan’s A Pony for Jean, published in 1936, her pony Cavalier is to her a means of achieving self-confidence and marking her position in the world. She gains respect from her cousins, and indeed herself, for her achievements in turning Cavalier from a pony who is called The Toastrack because he is so thin to one who wins prizes at the local gymkhana.

A Pony for Jean
Cavalier is much more than just a hobby—looking after any pony involves hard physical work, and work that you generally have to keep up with, day in, and day out. The pony as a focus for meaningful work is something that Joanna Cannan is particularly keen on: doing all the work for your pony takes the pony beyond being the hobby of a leisured class into something that generates self-respect and independence.

The shift in focus that A Pony for Jean heralded, away from the pony biography to stories that focussed on the human characters was one that was maintained, and in some cases even emphasised, by the war.

When looking at books in the war period it is obvious that any analysis of the books that appeared is to some extent skewed by the fact that once war was declared, there were very rapid effects on writing and publishing. Authors and illustrators were called up, or did other war work that allowed little time for writing. Paper restrictions drastically reduced the amount available for printing. Books were physically destroyed in large numbers when the area around St Paul’s, in London, was destroyed in the Blitz.

But books were still both written and published. The pony-mad child could still access literature about ponies, some of which carried on galloping through the sunlit fields of the pony-filled idyll, and some of which met the war head on.

During 1939–1945, I am aware of 39 published pony stories. By pony stories I mean a book with substantial horse content whether the horse be a wild one who would never be ridden or a perfectly schooled gymkhana pony—pony book readers in my experience simply requiring the presence of the horse in some form rather than a specific plotline. Most of these books were, as you would expect, published in 1939. In that year, 12 books were published; in 1940, 9; in 1941, 4; in 1942 and 1943, one each; 8 in 1944 and in 1945, 4. As a comparison, from 1942–1945, Enid Blyton had over 80 titles published.

Of these horse stories, 10 were equine biographies, and 23 involved children and ponies, with the remaining titles being spread over matters as disparate as donkeys and a racing story. Of those books nine make some mention of the war: one, Kate Seredy’s The Singing Tree (1939) is about World War I, one (V E Bannisdale's Back to the Hills, 1940) mentions the war in a preface, and seven have World War II making some contribution towards the plot.

V E Bannisdale: Back to the Hills
Those statistics do not tell the whole story, particularly with regard to the equine biography, which was a notable victim of the war. Of the 10 equine biographies published, only two were published after 1940. Perhaps there was little appetite for a story that neither presented the pony as a fun-filled escape, nor one that met the war head on and described what many children were actually experiencing.  Perhaps books which relied for their plot on rescuing the pony from an ill-fed life pulling a cart were hopelessly out of touch with a wartime reality where fodder was scarce and many equines, however glamorous their pre-war lives, learned to pull carts.

A 1939 pony book with a pony in need of rescue
The equine biography only reappeared in in 1944 with Joanna Cannan’s Hamish, a Picture Puffin whose appearance is better explained in the context of the rise of that particular imprint than as a resurgence of the pony telling its own story.

There is, however, one interesting exception, Daphne Winstone’s Flame, which was published in 1945. Daphne was 12 when she wrote Flame, and was confined to bed for 18 months. To amuse herself, she wrote a story about a pony called Flame. Daphne does not ignore the war at all.

When war was declared, in 1939, Flame is in a riding school. Daphne describes the wireless being on, with every day the stablemen stand round listening to the news: ‘on everyone’s lips,’ she says, ‘is that one terrible word: WAR!’ By October, five of the horses have been sold, two grooms called up, and a stable boy has joined up. Bad feeding contributes to Flame’s sinking further into equine misery, but he is rescued in 1942, when his former owner, now a Pilot Officer, finds him when on leave.

Flame - frontis
There is of course no requirement that you mention contemporary political events, and several of the pony stories published in the period carried on as if war had not broken out. These books provided access to a world where problems were temporary and easily solved; where sheer enjoyment was allowed—a distraction, and an escape to a world where there was always hope.  Marjorie Mary Oliver’s Ponies and Caravans, published in 1941, takes its readers into a world where its characters, penned up in a smoky London suburb, long for the freedom of the countryside, which they duly get, with plenty of caravans and ponies. (There is of course an uncomfortable parallel here with the many evacuees who did get what Oliver’s characters longed for at the time, but for whom it was not a transformative experience).

MM Oliver's Ponies and Caravans
Some books perhaps were written as much for their authors’ benefit as their readers. For both John Ivester Lloyd, and Brian Fairfax-Lucy, I suspect that writing pony stories provided essential light relief. Their wartime books make no mention of the war at all. This is entirely understandable bearing in mind that both served in the war. John Ivester Lloyd served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and, as an acting Lieutenant-Commander, was awarded the DSC on 8th June 1945. His People of the Valley (1943) is a holiday story in which its teenage hero confounds a gang stealing farm livestock. Brian Fairfax-Lucy, who was wounded during World War I, and served as a Flight Lieutenant between 1940 and 1942, wrote Horses in the Valley (1941), a holiday story, and The Horse from India (1944), a racing adventure. 


Thursday, 16 June 2016

Railway Horses 1 - Railway Women and Horses

Railways are not, I have to admit, something in which I have a huge interest. I have never train spotted, unless you count the anxious peering up the line of the commuter, so it's been new territory for me, investigating the horse and its interaction with the railway.

All this was sparked off when I was going through my collection of 1930s Riding magazines, and came across an article on the Willesden Horse Sanatorium, which was where horses who worked on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway went if they were ill enough to need more than a couple of days off.

The thing that struck me when I read the article was that nowhere, at any point, did the author (Col CEG Hope – later editor of Pony Magazine) mention what the horses actually did. There was simply no need to, because every reader would have known without having to be told. Horses were a part of everyday life in the 1930s, to a degree that was quite astonishing to someone researching it in the 21st century.

In 1937, the London, Midland and Scottish railway was the largest private owner of horses in the country. They owned 8,500 horses, and in London alone, they had 2,000. All these horses had to live somewhere, and there were large stables attached to the major railway stations in London, and smaller ones elsewhere. The horses were used to shunt carriages and wagons about, and to deliver goods that arrived at the railways, a role they maintained in lessening numbers until the 1960s, when the last railway horse retired.

London, Midland & Scottish Railway owned horse drawn vehicle, 1939

Much of the history of railways is the history of men, but from the outset, women worked on the railways. As with so many other jobs, it was wartime when women came into their own. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, 25,000 women were employed on the railways. By 1944, they numbered 114,000.

A few worked with the railway horses. Helena Wojtczak’s Railway Women (Hastings Press, 2005) describes the role women had on the railways, and you can find the text of some of her interviews on her excellent website dealing with railway women during the war. In the transcript of her interview with Grace Moran-Healy, who became a horse van driver during the Second World War, you are awed by the privation that Grace and her children endured quite cheerfully, her sheer courage, and the love she had for the horses she worked with.

Grace was, very unusually for the time, divorced. With three children to support on her own, all of them living in one room in Manchester, it was vital she found work. Grace saw an advertisement for van lads at Manchester station, went along, told the supervisor she wasn’t scared of horses (which wasn’t entirely true), and started work the next Monday.

Working as a van lad, or boy, was the first step towards becoming a van driver. The van lad started their day by collecting the horse from its stable and harnessing it, then leading it to the goods yard to be harnessed to the van. Once the round was under way, it was the van lad who was responsible for taking packages off the cart and delivering them. In time, many van lads progressed to being a driver. It was a tough job. Grace said:

‘The horses, snorting and stamping in their stalls – looked so big and formidable to my 5'2". I thought what have I done? But what the heck. The die was cast, so I had a few weeks to learn to drive and handle a horse, and learn the round which was a town round from Piccadilly and environs. So I operated as his [the head driver’s] van lad whilst I learned the job. I hauled the boxes and parcels up stairs and on to loading bays – whilst trying to remember the shops and firms and where to go to find them – and began to develop arm and calf muscles as I clambered up and down on the back board to unload the goods – or load and stack those that had to be collected.’

Grace's landlady was not sympathetic to Grace's predicament. When Grace picked up her children, and told them she'd got the job, the children gave her a very muted cheer, in case the noise offended the landlady. It made no difference. Grace and her family were evicted.  No one was willing to rent a room to a single woman with children, but Grace managed to find digs in Sheffield, got a transfer to Sheffield station, and began work there. She was the only female driver, and she was landed with a new horse that none of the male drivers wanted to tackle. The mare was rather better bred than the usual railway horse, and had suffered badly from shock when her former stables were bombed. Jill, as Grace called her, was not an easy drive, but Grace loved the mare nevertheless. Even without wartime dangers, driving could be hazardous. On a particularly icy morning, Jill slipped and fell.

‘Just opposite was a brewery and men dashed out to surround the horse, and pedestrians flocked round in a crowd also. A policeman appeared and pushed through, shouting, 'Where's the driver?' I was enveloped in the crowd, so I started jumping up and down to attract his attention, shouting, ‘Here I am – I'm here.’ He made way for me to get to the horse's head and I knelt to pacify her. As I hadn't the strength to free her from the harness, the men strained and pulled to undo the straps and eventually released her and coaxed her up. My poor Jill was distressed and trembling, but I managed to soothe her; so eventually I could adjust the harness again. They all thought I was a lad till the policeman ordered them to stand clear so I could continue on the round, when they sent up a cheer of encouragement – bless them.’
As with so many other women who worked during the war, Grace would have liked to stay on, but when the male drivers were demobbed and returned, she was made redundant.

Other women were more fortunate. Edith Weston was taken on at Snow Hill Station in Birmingham during the war by the Great Western Railway, and there she, and a few other women, stayed on after the war ended. Her story emerged when I read Bryan Holden’s The Long Haul – The Life and Times of the Railway Horse (1985). His chapter on horses and men at work includes the story of Colin Jacks, who began work as a van boy in 1948 at Snow Hill Station, Birmingham. Fascinating though his story of learning to work with horses when you’ve never had anything to do with them is, the most interesting part of it to me is the fact that Colin was put in the charge of Miss Edith Weston, a driver. She had joined the cartage department during the Second World War, and had stayed on afterwards.

She was well-enough respected to be put in charge of new staff, rightly so in Colin’s opinion:
‘She was a lady in the truest sense, so kind and helpful. I was very naïve in my early youth… And she steered me from coarser fellows and I never used swear words until I went into the army!’
Lilian Carpenter and Vera Perkins had also joined the railways during the war. They worked for the London, Midland and Scottish company, and were the subjects of a photo essay in 1943 by Ministry of Information Photo Division photographer Richard Stone, showing a day in the life of a van girl during the Second World War.

It was an early start. At eight o'clock, Lilian started work by harnessing up Snowball.

© IWM (D 16819)
To get the horses from one area of the station to another, there was an extensive series of horse tunnels (which are still there). Lilian had to take Snowball through the tunnel connecting the stables to the loading bay at the start of the day. Snowball apparently made the journey back on his own (which is a wonderful image – hundreds of horses trooping back through the tunnels on their way back to their stables. Presumably they weren't as keen to make the journey to work on their own).

© IWM (D 16821)
The horse would then be attached to the van, which was already loaded and waiting for the horse and driver.

© IWM (D 16820)

The first delivery of the day was in the West End. Lilian and her colleague, Vera Perkins, had little chance to forget about the war. Their route was lined with bomb damaged buildings and semi cleared bombsites.

© IWM (D 16830)

There was more than one load to be delivered, and this photograph shows Snowball drinking from a horse trough in Bloomsbury after they'd picked up their second load.

© IWM (D 16833)

It wasn't just human food that was rationed. Pre-war, much fodder was shipped in from outside the country, but when the raids on shipping meant that the Channel was too dangerous to navigate for all but absolutely essential supplies, animal food supplies were severely affected. It is why the pony book authors the Pullein-Thompson sisters started their riding school – with shortage came a steep rise in prices, and they were told the only way they could keep their ponies was if they made them pay.

Although food supplies to essential working animals were to some extent protected, by 1943, when this photograph was taken, rations for the railway horses had been cut down from two nosebags a day to one. As is plain from the photograph, for Snowball it was not enough.

© IWM (D 16841)

© IWM (D 16842)
Their post-lunch delivery was to St Paul's Churchyard. Snowball, you can see, did not need to be held while the deliveries were being made.

© IWM (D 16840)

The day ended with Snowball taking himself off to his stable, and Lilian returning home to her son, Clarence. He was named after his soldier father, who had not yet met his son.

© IWM (D 16849)
I haven't, as yet, been able to find out what happened to Lilian and Vera, or trace any women apart from Edith Weston who worked with railway horses after the Second World War. I'm sure they must have been there, even if in vanishingly small numbers.

What emerges from Grace's account is the sheer pleasure she took in her work, and in this creature she'd not had much to do with before, the horse. What I've particularly enjoyed in researching this is seeing women taking a full part in an area of the horse world not counted as their traditional preserve. There's a 1930s railway poster which shows the view of women and horses that certainly pertained at the time, if it doesn't still today – a leisured hack for someone with enough money to afford both clothes and horse, but at the same time the poster was published, something much more interesting was going on.



Friday, 10 June 2016

Horse Tales - Cambridge Conference 3: Meg Rosoff and K M Peyton

Huge, huge thanks to Victoria Eveleigh whose memory banks are in an infinitely better state than my own, because she remembered well, everything, and much of what you read here came from her. 


In the final event of the day, Meg Rosoff interviewed K M Peyton. They have known each other for some years. Meg was talking to David Fickling about how much she enjoyed KM Peyton's books, and said wasn't it a pity that she was dead. 'She's not dead,' was the reply. 'Would you like to meet her?'

They met, and have stayed in touch ever since.

Kathy had written several books before her English teacher suggested to her parents that they send one off to a publisher. That was Sabre, Horse of the Sea, published in 1948. Despite having written about horses since early childhood (Sabre was by no means the first book she wrote) Kathy hadn't ridden much. This did not stop her having a stable-full of imaginary horses and ponies she documented in notebooks, and reading every instructional book she could find.

Of course, she read pony books too. The Ponies of Bunts (MM Oliver) and Silver Snaffles (Primrose Cumming) were big favourites. (At this point there was the sort of pleased shuffling among the audience that means they agree). Kathy did meet Primrose Cumming, the author of Silver Snaffles, whom she described as charming, and the Pullein-Thompsons, who were terrifying. Charming, but terrifying.

With the proceeds from Sabre, riding lessons were an option. Kathy didn't have a horse of her own until some time later, though there were ponies for her daughters. One of them was the model for Fly, the unbroken piece of trouble Ruth buys in Fly-by-Night. The pony nearly broke them, but went on to do very well. Kathy bought her own horse many years later from a sale as a failed show jumper, and she turned out to be an amazing hunter. Kathy ended up injured because the horse stumbled through no fault of its own. Cue more murmurs of agreement from the audience - because we all know it is never the horse's fault.

After her horse died, she didn't replace her, but she did tell us that if someone were prepared to deliver a ready-tacked up horse to the door, like the Queen, she'd certainly consider riding again.

After Kathy married, she and her husband wrote books together, generally on sailing. The Flambards series were her earliest stories to feature ponies, and they made an immediate impact. The first three books of the series were nominated for the Carnegie award, with Edge of the Cloud winning it in 1969. The series had a hugely popular television adaptation. As was often the way with actors, said Kathy, most of the actors said they could ride when they couldn't just to get the part. She was impressed with how very quickly they learned to ride. Christine McKenna, who played Christina had to learn to ride side-saddle. It was the only way she could ride and so she would bring her side-saddle with her if she was ever invited to ride.

The Team (sequel to Fly-by-Night) was also nominated for the Carnegie award. Meg said how daring it was of KMP to mention Ruth having a period in this book — Ruth has the sort of nightmare period that fells you completely, and she can't compete, but stays in the horsebox, curled up in agony. Kathy said in the same matter-of-fact way she dealt with it in the book that she was sure most of the women in the room could remember an occasion when their period had ruined something important — it was just a fact of life.

It wasn't just periods which made an impact on readers: the whole series did, particularly the main male characters in the books, Jonathan and Peter. Kathy said that in her experience, people either liked Jonathan or Peter, at which point Victoria Eveleigh turned to me and said 'Jonathan', and I said 'Peter'. So that's alright then. You can form orderly queues behind us. 

Probably the uber-Peyton hero is Patrick Pennington, who is definitely dangerous to know. He is a hugely talented pianist, and it is to him that Ruth's passion for the horse transfers itself. She was not alone. Victoria said:
'I told her [KMP] I was still hopelessly in love with Patrick Pennington, and with lovely twinkly eyes she said, "I am too!"'
Patrick Pennington had no parallel in real life, but Kathy used some real life incidents and characters in her books. There were horsy mothers who'd been every bit as focussed as Jonathan Meredith's mother on the horses and the competition, rather than their child. She mentioned a Pony Club mother she knew whose child had fallen off and been sent to hospital, but who carried on jump judging after seeing the child off on the ambulance. Another real life character whose foibles were recycled was a man who'd reached the point many of us recognise when a dinner party has gone on too long. He fired off a shotgun to get his guests to go home, an incident Kathy used in Late To Smile.

Kathy was asked if she had a favourite amongst her books. Several of her stories feature racing, and one, Dear Fred, is one of her favourites. It tells the tragic story of Fred Archer, a jockey in the Victorian era who became champion jockey 13 times, and who shot himself at the age of 29 after the death of his wife. Should anyone be interested, she has a film script for it at home.

KMP has not stopped writing. Wild Lily has just been published, and she is working on her next, which will be a book for adults.

After the talk finished, there was time for questions, and to have books signed (everywhere people were clutching KMP titles they'd had for years). Victoria was one of those who got to chat to Kathy afterwards. If you haven't read Marion's Angels, look away now, because there is a massive spoiler coming. Victoria said:

'She told me that she wrote two endings to Marion's Angels. In the first she killed off Pat Pennington (he drowned) so Ruth could live happily ever after with Geoff and Marion, but then she couldn't bear to kill Pat so she wrote a different ending (thank goodness — I'd have been traumatised forever!).’

I think we all finished the day feeling immensely privileged to have heard two such excellent authors in conversation.


If you missed my earlier pieces on Horse Tales (which was held at Homerton College, which might be a piece of information I’ve not mentioned until now), the other pieces are:

Horse Tales 1: Round table and morning sessions
Horse Tales 2: Afternoon sessions
What I said