I wonder how many people read the blurb about the author that appears on many dustjackets? If you have a collection of Ruby Ferguson’s books, and had made a habit of reading the dustjackets, you’d very soon have ended up confused. They’re contradictory, to say the least. Many of the biographical snippets she flung out in dustjacket blurbs need to be taken with a pinch of salt; and most of all those in her “autobiography”, Children at the Shop. Ruby Ferguson’s life as portrayed by her is best described as a romance built on scraps of fact, which when one’s living is earned as a writer, is perhaps fair enough.
There are not many sources for Ruby’s life: the most easily accessible are the dustjackets of some of her books, and the “autobiography” Children at the Shop. It doesn’t take long before you spot inconsistencies: on the dustjackets of Apricot Sky (1952), Ruby claimed descent from a long line of Norfolk farmers; on Jill and the Perfect Pony (1956), a Highland ancestry and a childhood spent in Inverness. The picture in The Children at the Shop (1967) is different again.
It is the story of a child called Ruby Ashby (Ruby Ferguson’s maiden name) growing up with a father who was an Army chaplain in Woolwich, home of the Woolwich Royal Academy and the Woolwich Arsenal. It’s billed by the publishers on the dustjacket as a “charming autobiography of childhood”. However, Hilary Clare and Alison Haymonds have between them found out that what at first sight appears autobiographical is in fact mostly fiction. Hilary Clare described the book thus in her article on Ruby's background:
“ although it is a first-person narrative with an authentic ring of truth about it (the ‘Shop’ in question, for those who have not read the book, is Woolwich Royal Academy) it becomes clear after only a little research that it does not tell the whole story, and further investigation proves it to be fiction. Details of birth and parentage are not given, and though it is a superb account of a childhood in a military atmosphere, with Scottish interludes, the material is treated in a novelistic rather than an historical way, and in fact it does seem to have been pure imagination, complicated by the fact that the narrator-heroine’s name is the same as the author’s.”
I therefore didn’t expect much truth from the book, but was intrigued to see if any of the geographical detail, at least, rang true. Woolwich is an area I know. A good part of my twenties and thirties were spent living in South East London, just up the river from Woolwich. I spent much time ploughing up and down the railway line on which Woolwich lies. The moment I read Ruby Ferguson’s opening chapter, in which she describes a journey she nearly made along that railway line to revisit childhood haunts, it had a note of authenticity. (Ruby took the wise decision not to revisit childhood. “What has Time ever changed but for the worse?” she said: alas all too true in the case of Woolwich. By the 1960s much of the Woolwich she had known had been torn down, although military Woolwich had survived.)
As I carried on reading, I recognised more than just the railway journey: the military buildings Ruby described were familiar. The Woolwich Ruby described was the one I had walked through and driven past. It seemed to me that she had either visited it while she was writing the book (in view of the fact she lived in Jersey, and by the time she wrote the book, was ill with the cancer that killed her this seemed unlikely) or did indeed have the vivid memories lent by a childhood spent there.
Could she possibly have lived there? One major advantage I had in my hunt for information over previous investigators of Ruby’s background was the release of the census of 1911. The 1901 census has the infant Ruby, then aged 1, living with her mother at her grandfather’s house, 33, Carlisle Terrace in Bradford. In the census of 1911, Ruby is reported as living with her mother and father in 73, Plumstead Common Road, Woolwich. So she was there. No wonder the descriptions of Woolwich life sounded authentic. She did indeed spend some of her childhood in Woolwich.
So could it be true that Ruby’s father was, as described in the book, an Army chaplain, based at the Garrison church? Investigations with the Methodist Church confirmed that Ruby’s father, David Ashby, had been a Methodist minister in the Woolwich area from 1909-1912. I haven’t been able to pin down exactly which church. The house in which Ruby lived, is close to the Trinity Wesleyan Methodist Church, which was built in 1863. Perhaps this is the church of which David Ashby was minister. It is some way distant from the Army buildings, and definitely a fair hike from the Garrison church. David Ashby was not Chaplain to the Army, though he might have had some informal contact with them as a Methodist minister. I haven’t been able to find any evidence, but that’s not to say some arrangement didn't exist.
It looks as if Ruby has taken her childhood, and made it a rather more romantic, and certainly grander affair than the reality of solid, if socially unexciting, red brick Edwardian London. 73, Plumstead Common Road is not the red brick gabled affair overlooking the Barracks described by Ruby as her childhood home: it is a small, flat fronted, mid Victorian terraced house. It definitely does not overlook the Barracks. David Ashby, and by extension the Ashby family, were not in quite the social position they would have been had David Ashby been Chaplain.
Part two to follow soon
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Free to use images of Woolwich seem to be thin on the ground (next time I go I must take my camera). Here's a link which shows the old Garrison Church, destroyed in the Second World War.
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