It’s a romantic, if worrying, picture: the mother, desperate to give birth in her native Highlands, trundling by slow train north in the last stages of her pregnancy. She feels a few twinges as she travels further north and as the hours pass it becomes all too horribly obvious that these pains are not going to go away, and she is in labour. Eventually, as the train nears Hebden Bridge, she knows she has to get off the train or give birth on it. She is not going to have this baby in the Highlands. Hebden Bridge it is then. Hebden Bridge is still an attractive town, but it’s not the Highlands. It is, however, where Ruby Constance Annie Ashby was born, on 28th July 1899.
Was her mother on the way to the Highlands, as Ruby claimed? She obviously found the idea of a Highland ancestry tremendously attractive. Much of her “biography”, The Children at the Shop is given over to lyrical descriptions of visits to her Scottish grandfather and aunt at Aberford House in the Highlands, although the ancestral home vanishes from view at the end of the book. Her grandfather dies, and the house goes up in flames. Ruby also mentions a Highland ancestry and a childhood spent in Inverness (Jill and the Perfect Pony, 1966). In my previous article, I wrote that Ruby’s childhood, unless she’d been living apart from her parents, was spent nowhere further north than Elswick, near Newcastle. Perhaps the Highland ancestry lurked further back.
Ruby’s mother was indeed born in Aberford, but it was Aberford in Leeds, and Ruby did spend time with her grandparents, but in Bradford, which is where she and her mother were in the 1901 census. However, just because you were born in Leeds, it does not mean that there is not Scottish ancestry further back. I delved back as far as I could, and found solid North. Ruby’s mother was born Ann Elizabeth Spencer, in 1864, to Benjamin Spencer (b 1836, Wortley, Leeds), a school master, and Alice Spencer, born in Manchester. Any Highland connection was more than a century distant if it existed on her mother's side: Ruby's great-grandfather, Abraham Spencer (Benjamin’s father) was a “cloth maker woollen journeyman”, born in 1806, in Bradford. Abraham’s wife Ann was born in 1811, in Leeds, and the next censuses see the family moving around the north: Bradford (1851), Tadcaster (1861), Bradford (1871), and to a different Bradford address in 1891. There’s no trace of the family in the 1881 census, and it’s tempting to think it’s because they’d all gone up to Scotland. Tempting, but not particularly likely.
Ruby was born in Hebden Bridge not because her mother was on her way there, but because that is where the family were living. Her parents, David Ashby and Ann Spencer, were married on 12th November 1895 at the White Abbey Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, in Manningham, Bradford. At the time, David Ashby was a Methodist minister serving in Crook, in County Durham. The next year, he moved to Hebden Bridge, where Ruby was born. In 1901, there’s no mention of David in the census (according to the Methodist church, he started ministry in Clacton on Sea, in Essex, in 1901, so perhaps he was away there.) Ruby and her mother were then at her grandfather’s house, 33, Carlisle Terrace in Bradford.
I did find a couple of photographs of this: it’s another solid Victorian terrace. With the wonders of Google streetview, you can walk up and down the street where Ruby lived.
What is perhaps more interesting than what is fact and what is fiction is why Ruby Ferguson told her publishers The Children at the Shop was her biography. Her publishers describe it on the front of the dustjacket as “her charming autobiography of childhood,” They say it has “both nostalgic attraction and the ring of truth,” thereby leading the unsuspecting reader to think that fact is precisely what they are getting (and people still do talk about it in terms of it being true. What else are they to think, if that is what the publisher says on the dustjacket?) Hilary Clare describes it as having “an authentic ring of truth about it”. And it does. If you read the book, it's utterly convincing.
Maybe the truth behind all this lies in the following exchange Ruby includes in the book. She is watching the departure of a battalion to India, and gets into conversation with another child.
She asked, “Do you belong here?”
“Here at the Shop? Oh yes.”
“What’s your father in?”
“He’s a chaplain.”
“Oh. He isn’t in anything.”
I could have killed her.
Ruby spent her childhood either as an onlooker at the distinct and different world that is military life, or as a distant part, with a father who might have had some informal involvement with the Army as a chaplain. Perhaps she was made to feel her distance. Children are prone to allying themselves with their parents’ rank, and perhaps Ruby felt keenly her own comparative lack of status. In later life, the family returned to the north, where Ruby went to Bradford Girls’ Grammar School, and then on to St Hilda’s, Oxford in 1919. Did the grammar school educated daughter of a Methodist minister feel herself on the fringes of acceptable society again? So much so that she reinvented her early life not just once in order to portray something altogether more conventional and establishment?
It is Ruby’s total dropping of all references to Methodism that I find most puzzling about Children at the Shop. She was a staunch Methodist all her life. She met her husband, Samuel Ferguson, it was thought, at a conference at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, at which she was speaking.
Maybe it was the romance of it all that attracted Ruby; the spectacle and tradition of the Anglican church rather than plainer Methodism, and the misty Highlands rather than Bradford and the less attractive Victorian reaches of Woolwich. I would love to know what her husband made of Children at the Shop.
Maybe she simply told, as Alison Haymonds suggests, a better story than reality. But in none of her books do I ever see Ruby as someone who looked back at the past with regret, or shame. Ruby’s most successful creation, Jill, starts off as an outsider, but she’s not put off by it. She makes herself a central part of the society she was living in. Perhaps Ruby did the same: by the end of her life, she’d become a central part of the Jersey society she lived in after her marriage; no longer the outsider she’d perhaps once felt herself. Whatever the Children at the Shop was: an idyll she wished she’d had, complete fiction, or an extended joke at the expense of those she knew who expected a certain kind of background in their friends, we’ll probably never know. It is, however, what its publishers said it was: utterly charming.
Read my earlier pieces on Ruby Ferguson: