Having found that there was at least an element of truth in Ruby Ferguson’s Children at the Shop, I was now bitten by the bug of family research. If Ruby had indeed lived in Woolwich, how much more of what she said in Children at the Shop was true?
According to the book, her father was of Danish stock. She describes a visit to her grand Danish grandmother in The Children at the Shop:
“a psychologist would say that my blurred memories of the visit to Denmark were due to an unconscious desire to forget it. I know that I suffered quite a lot and was rather subdued for days, then managed to get over it, though I found it impossible to like my grandmother and I don’t think she liked me either.”
Although the autocratic grandmother is a splendid creation, if she existed, she lived in Sydenham. In this case, it is the dustjacket of Ruby’s Apricot Sky which is nearer the truth, with its description of her father coming from a long line of Norfolk farmers. Both David Ashby’s parents came from Norfolk, though whether either came from farming stock I have not been able to tell. If either did, they’d long left it behind them by the time Ruby was born. David Ashby, her father, was born in Lewisham, London, in 1866, the son of William Ashby, a fishmonger living in Sydenham, and Harriett Ashby. William was a man of considerable acumen: born in 1820, in the census of 1851 he is working as a groom in Sydenham Hill: by 1881 he is living in number 3, Sydenham Hill, London, in what must have been a very large house (the house is no longer there, but if it is anything like those remaining in the area, it was a substantial Victorian edifice). The household was large and bustling: the Ashbys had many children; possibly as many as thirteen. In the census of 1881, William and his wife Harriet are living at the Sydenham house with four children including David, as well as a servant, a lodger, a boarder, and three visitors staying overnight. In this census, David is described as a fish salesman’s assistant, presumably working for his father. David entered the Methodist ministry in 1990, when he was 24, having according to his obituary in The [Methodist] Minutes for Conference 1946, “experienced a definite conversion.”
The obituaries in the Minutes (those that I’ve read, which I admit is a limited number) don’t admit to much in the way of failings in their subjects, but David Ashby appears to have been an admirable man: outgoing and likeable. He is described as “genial in disposition”, and one who “won the affection of his colleagues. In the homes of the poor he was a sympathetic and generous friend. He was no recluse and enjoyed a full and richly varied life.” He worked principally in northern circuits (the Methodist equivalent of the Anglican parish): when Ruby was born, he was working in Clacton-on-Sea, and then moved every three years or so. Ruby must have known that feeling of insecurity familiar to any army or clergy child forced to move with a parent’s job, never able to put down roots. During Ruby’s childhood, the family’s homes were in:
1906 Newcastle-on-Tyne (Elswick)
1909 Woolwich, London
1912 Bradford (Great Horton)
1915 Bradford (Shipley)
1919 Bolton (Farnworth)
It’s perhaps not surprising that Ruby invented family backgrounds of aristocratic or romantic solidity. Her claim on the dustjacket of Jill and the Perfect Pony (1966) to have had a childhood in Inverness, that she was “of Highland ancestry, and although she was born in Yorkshire, much of her young life was spent in Inverness” - is somewhat removed from the truth. The list of David Ashby’s appointments as a minister show that the furthest north the family got was Elswick in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I haven’t found any evidence to suggest that Ruby was spirited off elsewhere away from her family, and if she was, to whom?
In The Children of the Shop, the Highland element comes from Ruby’s mother. Was this, I wondered, where the attraction of the Highlands came from?
Pictures: view of William Ashby's Forest Hill Fish & Poultry Market in Dartmouth Road. It's now a Winkworth's estate agents.
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Part three to follow soon
My book, Heroines on Horseback, is out now.