The pony book in WWII - part two

This is part two of the talk I did at the Bristol children's books conference. You can find part one, which looks at pre-war pony books, and those books that generally didn't deal with war, here.

For pony book authors, there is a pretty sharp division by sex which appears to affect whether or not they wrote about the direct effects of the war. All those books that do were written by women, mostly writing about what life was like on the Home Front. They had their own war experiences: Primrose Cumming worked for a year on a farm. One day, a bomber crashed in the field of sheep she was tending. She survived, and used her experience in her book Owl’s Castle Farm (1942). She later joined the ATS and served for the remainder of the war in an anti-aircraft battery. Shirley Faulkner-Horne was married to a pilot who fought in the Battle of Britain.

Primrose Cumming’s Silver Eagle Carries On (1940) and Owl’s Castle Farm, Shirley Faulkner-Horne’s Riding with the Kindles (1941) and Parachute Silk (1944), Joanna Cannan’s More Ponies for Jean (1944), and Alice Molony’s Lion’s Crouch (1944) all dealt directly with the war and its effects. To a greater or lesser extent, they wrote books in which the horse plays several different roles. In its most concrete role, it helps people earn their living. It is necessary. But the horse also has an effect on morale: it provides a reminder of a world that was gone, and a hope for post-war world, as well as a distraction from the upheaval that affected people’s lives. These stories also documented, to some extent, what was happening on the Home Front, allowing readers to share experiences they might not have themselves, or provide validation of the ones they did.

Some books also tackled contentious issues, such as whether it was right for people to go on with riding as a leisure activity, and a distraction, at all.

Silver Eagle Carries On provides a vivid picture of the outbreak of war. It is the sequel to The Silver Eagle Riding School, in which three sisters set up a riding school after the family money is lost in the post-war years. Silver Eagle Carries On opens conventionally enough, with two of the sisters and their partner, Virginia, on a riding tour through the countryside with their clients. The remaining sister, Josephine, is in America with her show jumper, Anna, and the others buy a copy of the Illustrated paper, to see if Josephine and Anna are featured. They flip the pages over frantically to the back to find the piece on Josephine, entirely missing the headlines saying that Germany has marched into Poland until they notice the horrified faces of their fellow riders.
‘Headlines stared back at them from the paper: “Evacuees leaving London.” “Black-out in force.” “Army in readiness.”
War is declared two days later. The tour is called off, and immediately the girls are brought up against the realities of their situation. They cannot get home by train (most horses were transported around the country by rail at that time) as all trains have been commandeered to move troops. The cattle truck driver they manage to find to drive them home tells them to make the most of it, as petrol will soon be rationed. When they reach home, they already have two evacuees from London, Delphinium and Norman. Josephine and her horse Anna are on their way back from America and are in the middle of the Atlantic, so there is the constant fear of their ship being attacked.

Evacuees from Deptford at a Pembrokeshire farm
© IWM (D 997)
Very soon, prices of fodder rocket, providing the sisters with a staggering rise in their feed bill. This was a real and present problem for many horse owners. Pre-war, much grain for horse food had been imported and the dangers to shipping meant that Britain was thrown back on what it could grow for itself; and humans, farm animals and working horses came first. The picture below shows Snowball, a horse who delivered goods from the railway, in 1943. You can see how very underfed the horse looks: working horses had previously been allowed two nosebags of food while working but were now down to one.

© IWM (D 16841)

The difficulty of feeding horses is a theme throughout those books that dealt with the war. At the back of this was a real fear for the very survival of people’s horses. At the beginning of the war there had been wretched scenes of mass putting down of cats and dogs in order to preserve food stocks. This was not restricted to small animals. In its Winter, 1941 issue, the Editor of Riding published an appeal.
‘As we go to press we have received from the Minister of Agriculture an appeal which will go straight to the heart of every reader of RIDING. It asks all those who own horses and ponies “to consider seriously whether it is still necessary to keep them.” The Minister has in mind particularly those animals that are either too old for work or ‘that are ridden only occasionally for enjoyment.’ Deprived already of rationed feeding stuffs, many have been turned out to grass. Now the grass they eat in summer and the hay in winter, are both urgently needed for animals doing essential work.’
The piece goes on to make it plain that elderly animals should indeed be considered for equine heaven, and recommends that its readers make this difficult decision. Of riding animals it says:
‘…in deciding their fate it is not always easy to draw a line between necessity and desire, or even between immediate necessity and future necessity.’
The Minister had nothing against animals doing a useful job of work, but quite what was a useful job of work was open to interpretation.

Nevertheless, horses were kept going. The film below shows racehorses in Epsom during the war. There was no racing there during the war, but the horses were still trained and looked after. It's interesting that much of the work was done by youngsters.

The fodder situation lends particular poignancy to the situation in Joanna Cannan’s More Ponies for Jean, published in 1944 but based on events at the beginning of the war. As the Pullein-Thompson sisters recount in their autobiographical Fair Girls and Grey Horses, (1996), Joanna Cannan plundered an event in her daughters’ lives that either she or her husband, Captain Pullein-Thompson (the sisters' memory is unclear), had precipitated, as inspiration for her third Jean book. As the fodder shortage tightened its grip, the Pullein-Thompsons were told that either their ponies paid their way, or they would have to go. Quite where they would have to go is not made explicit, but the Pullein-Thompsons, and every other horse owner, knew the answer to that one.

They duly started a riding school, and put in a truly astonishing degree of hard physical work to keep their ponies fed. Joanna Cannan, as Josephine put it, ‘shamelessly collected copy from their experiences’ for the Jean book. Jean, like the Pullein-Thompsons, starts a riding school after she is also told one of her ponies must go now fodder is so expensive.

Not only did horse owners have to contend with the difficulty of feeding their horses, but also the belief expressed by some at the beginning of the war that horse and pony owning was a luxury The attitude that Primrose Cumming’s Josephine expresses, once she is safely back in England, was common:
“My dear, don’t you realise there is a war on? We can’t go on just the same, even if a few selfish people do try to pretend it makes no difference. Of course we’ll close the school down. What I really meant was what war work are you going to take up?”
This was an attitude the equine press was well aware of, and the appeal of the horse as refreshment and relief for those returning on leave was something they stressed. Primrose Cumming takes up the cry too: Virginia asks Josephine if she means that everything that caters for amusement and comfort; such as publishers and cinemas should be closed down so everyone is making ‘plain foods, woollen underwear and munitions?’ and Josephine's sister, Mary, suggests they keep going to keep up morale — they can do their bit by letting people home on leave ride at reduced rates. 

Even makers of riding wear stressed the restorative effects of war-time riding.
Silver Eagle does indeed find more clients: wives of men whose offices have been relocated from London, pupils from an evacuated girls’ school, and a pony to break to harness so its owner can cope with petrol rationing. Despite the privations of war, the riding school manages to survive, and the book ends on a note of hope, declaring ‘Nothing seems to be so dire that the Silver Eagle Riding School cannot survive it.’

Hopeful though the book’s end is, the closeness of death overhung it, even if it was rarely acknowledged. Experience of that real loss in pony books of the period is rare. The most overt experience of death I have found occurs in Alice Molony’s Lion’s Crouch (1944). Heroine Mary has a beloved bull terrier called Happysnapper, who loves to play fetch. 


The former harbour master, a Nazi sympathiser, plans to show the Luftwaffe the way to a Cornish airbase by lighting up an oil slick along the creek. The slick will be ignited by a timed bomb that is already floating along the river. This time, says the harbour master, who has tangled with Happysnapper before when the dog managed to catch something of his he wasn’t supposed to have, ‘Your dog will not win.’
‘Oh, but he will,’ I said, and thank God there was no time to hesitate. ‘Go on Snapper, fetch it. Good dog. Good-bye.’
The harbour master and his cronies are captured, but Happysnapper has paid the ultimate price.

And of course in Mary Treadgold’s We Couldn’t Leave Dinah (1941), probably the most nuanced portrayal of ponies and children during the war, the children lose their home, their ponies and everything they have ever known.

She took the same start point as many authors before and since: the golden beginnings of summer holidays, filled with the promise of ponies, gymkhanas and a summer with the pony club —ponies as a hobby; a glorious distraction during the holidays. Her heroine, Caroline Templeton, says:
'You couldn’t really believe in awful things like Hitler when you were out in sun and wind and sea-spray and with people as absolutely marvellous as the Pony Club.'
But Mary Treadgold was only too aware of what life on the Home Front meant: she wrote We Couldn’t Leave Dinah in a London air raid shelter.

And so Caroline’s glorious, sunlit world is shattered. She and her family have full-scale enemy occupation to contend with when their home, Clerinel, a fictional Channel Island, is invaded. Caroline tries hard to hang on to everything that the ponies symbolised: a lack of care, of having responsibility only for your pony and for enjoying yourself.

The Pony Club dream—the pony as hobby and distraction— fades utterly when Caroline and Mick are, in the confusion and panic of the evacuation, left behind. Mary Treadgold shows conventional pony owning as the luxury it is. The focus switches from ponies as the central point of a privileged existence, to them as working animals, a necessity, useful in getting done what has to be done.

In their time spent hiding on the island, the ponies are used to carry what Caroline and Mick need when they hide in a cave before being able to escape the island; and as transport―to move around the island more quickly when they are attempting to find out the Nazi’s true invasion plans. 

The ponies carry baggage - We Couldn't Leave Dinah
Both children quickly gain some perspective; despite the title, it is not the pony Dinah who is central to the story. Not only does Caroline accept the fact Dinah has to be left behind, she hands her over to the German girl, Nannerl, daughter of the German commander who has taken over the Templeton’s house. The ponies become, in fact, the way in which the Templetons and Nannerl connect. Their shared love of the horse is a common language, no matter who is the invader or the invaded. Nannerl does not see a daughter of the invaded, someone whom she must grind down, and hand over to her father: she sees a girl she would have liked to play with, and in the Pony Club, something she and Caroline could have done together. When Nannerl helps both Templetons escape, Caroline is able to take the extraordinary step of regarding Nannerl as more than just an enemy. She makes her an honorary member of the Pony Club. It’s a tiny thing, in the face of all that Nannerl is doing for them, but it moves beyond simple thanks, and beyond ideas of nationalism, to building a connection, with something that has no nation—the horse.

I would argue that the pony books published during World War II move beyond the depiction of the horse purely as a leisure animal, particularly now the ability of children to rescue horses from a hard working life and transport them to a happy, well-fed existence was severely limited. Pony books reflected the new reality of wartime, where leisure now took on meanings other than simple distraction, providing a much-need break from the everyday hardness and bleakness of war. The horse and pony were a distraction, but also a symbol of something that could unite people across classes and countries: something we all need, in whatever form it comes.



SarahB said…
I really enjoyed reading this. It has made me want to dig out various books again and re-read them.
Jane Badger said…
Thank you! It was an education reading them all again in chronological order. Gave me a whole new perspective.

Popular posts from this blog

Dick Sparrow - 40 Horse Hitch, and Neil Dimmock's 46 Percherons

The Way Things Were: Pony Magazine in the 1960s

Lauren Brooke: Heartland