Thursday, 14 November 2013

Children and Ponies in World War II

I've been doing a lot of research recently into the lot of the domestic rider in World War II. There is a long term point to this, as I'm writing a story about it, but all that lovely research gives me an almost endless parade of excuses for not writing the story (16k so far, in case you're wondering) because I really need to know facts for this. And there are endless things I can find out to add local colour.

I have a virtually complete run of Riding Magazine from its start in 1936 up until the early 1960s, and it is fascinating to read them from the point of view of someone who was born well after the events they describe. I have the benefit of knowing that, despite the editor's fervent hopes, war would not come to an end early in 1940, or the next year, or for some years after. I knew rationing was on the way; that finding horses fodder would be increasingly difficult; that petrol rationing would give the driving pony a boost.

What is really interesting is seeing how the children who read Riding Magazine experienced the war. As far as I'm aware, these magazines offer pretty much the only expression of how the pony loving child experienced riding and pony-owning during the war. There were no dedicated children's horse or pony magazines in the 1930s. All the pony loving child had was the children's section in Riding Magazine. It certainly met a need. Virtually every letter has its child author commending the editor on publishing the magazine, and telling him how much they enjoyed it, and how much they looked forward to it every month. It's tempting to speculate on what happened to the critical letters. Perhaps they simply didn't appear. Perhaps the children flung in soft soap in an effort to get published.

The children's section hit a successful formula pretty much straight off, and stuck with it. Each month there was a story - Golden Gorse's The Young Horsebreakers, with illustrations by Anne Bullen,was serialised in the magazine before its publication. There were monthly competitions, one of which a young Diana Pullein-Thompson won. Her task had been to write a commentary on any article in Riding Magazine. She won, but her piece was never given the promised publication. It had demolished, quite thoroughly, one of the horsey experts of the day, and the editorial team perhaps felt it politic to suppress the criticism.

Owl's Castle Farm, Primrose Cumming, 1942

A regular, and hugely popular feature of the children's section, was the Children's Letter Box. It is one of those things you need to be passionately pony-mad to get anything out of. There's not a great deal of variation in the letters in the early days. Almost every letter is from a child writing in about its pony, or ponies, or the pony they ride at riding school, occasionally accompanied by a photograph.

War was declared in September 1939, and is mentioned in the main editorial of the adult section, with the pious hope that horses will continue to provide much needed relief from stress for those in the armed forces. It goes un-noticed in the Children's Letter Box. Child after child continues to write in. In the Letter Box of December 1939, June Wildes (age 9) of Vermont has a pony called Misty, and rides on the dirt roads of Vermont. 14 year old Peggy Roberts' uncle has lent her his black pony Trixie. Even Peggy's eyes of love can't make the photographed Trixie, with her slab head and thick neck, appear attractive. The photograph "does not show her off at all well, she looks a lot better really."  There is an Exmoor pony called Ladybird, who climbs up the steps to the house for her titbit, and Clean Sweep, who's been shipped out to his owner in Bombay, clearing a fence at the open jumping.

The correspondents appear a solid cross section of middle England and the Empire, but one of the longest letters, from 15 year old Jean Wyndham, is from a child who can't ride, and who spends her holidays at different holiday homes because her parents are abroad, but who seems remarkably cheerful despite it all. One of her holiday homes sounds tantalising: they kept horses, but Jean couldn't afford to ride them. Jean makes up for her lack of riding with sharp observation. Here she is talking about a pony called Memories:
"It was the most amazing whinny I have ever heard. It started with astonishment and hurt feelings, it went on to indignation and disappointment, then to rage and jealousy, and ended with a mix-up of the whole lot!"
By October 1939, Poland had surrendered to the Germans, and British troops were in France. By December, u-boats had mined the Thames estuary, and the Soviets had invaded Finland. Meat rationing had begun in Britain, but British children seem to be carrying on their equine life pretty much as normal. Lady Hickman, District Commissioner of the Albrighton Hunt branch of the Pony Club, wrote at the end of 1939 that children below the age of fifteen should be spared the realities of war, and the children of the New Forest Hunts Branch of the Pony Club certainly seemed to think so. They were a tough lot, those thirties children. They held a mock hunt on December 28, 1939. It snowed, and by the time the riders reached Wilverley Corner, all traces of the trail were covered by snow. However, the 28 members who turned up “seemed to enjoy the novelty of hunting in a snow storm, and anyhow had something to talk about when they got home.” Major P P Curtis provided hot drinks and eats at his house in Burley “much appreciated by those who had to ride as much as 10 miles home in the snow.”

The letters page continued to reflect a life lived as normal. The first hint of change came from a letter surely written by the child's mother. It is nominally from Colin Lewis, aged 4, of London SW3, and appeared in the January 1940 edition. Colin may well of course have been as fluent a correspondent as his letter suggests, but I've written this sort of letter for my infants. I know the form (I've even done it for the dog). It's surely Colin's Mummie's view of the war that's being shown here, with the desperate gloss being put on Colin's imminent evacuation:

"Now the war is here, I am going away to a boarding school in the West, but Mummie has packed all my RIDING books for company, as they are such nice friends to me, and she is going to send it to me every month."

It's a heart-wrenching letter, because little Colin at the time of writing probably had no idea of the reality of what was about to happen to him, and the company of Riding magazines was going to be a pretty poor substitute for his Mummie. Poor Mummie too, sending her very young child off, with the promise of ponies in magazines to keep him company.

The rest of the letters in the January edition, and almost all of them in the February edition, show children who were carrying on as before. There is one glaring exception. Laure De Noailles, fifteen at the time, and daughter of Marie-Laure de Noaille, whom Wikipedia describes as "one of the 20th century's most daring and influential patrons of the arts" lived at Fontainbleu. France, like Britain, had a programme through which the Army bought up horses for use during the war. Laure sent in a photograph of her grey mare, Panda.
"She was grey, five years old, and with a lovely action. Unfortunately, she and my father’s hunter were taken last month by the army. My polo pony, Flora, and skewbald pony, Herlequine, were too small for the army, also my sister’s little pony, so we luckily still have them.
Laure ended her letter with the obligatory compliments to Riding.  Laure, and her parents and sister, survived the war. Whether Panda, the hunter, Flora, Herlequine and her sister's little pony did, I doubt. 


Photographs: I'd love to illustrate this with photographs from the magazine, but copyright laws prohibit it, as the taker of the photographs is known. I've put in a war-time pony story instead.

2 comments:

Fiona Moate said...

I have some from the very late 1930s. I often wondered what happened to some of the people & horses after war was declared, how many of the children didn't survive the war years.
There was a Polish man out hunting in one of the "picture news" sections. Wonder what became of him?

Jane Badger said...

Yes, I wonder too. Some people, like the French family, were very easy to trace. For others I suspect it will be a lot trickier. It does all make for fascinating research.