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. 



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