And then … pony books in the 1940s

After Joanna Cannan introduced her heroine Jean to the world in A Pony for Jean (1936), she opened the gate to a fresh wave of stories. Ann Stafford wrote a fine holiday adventure in Five Proud Riders (1937), with young authors Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock contributing decent examples of ponies and holidays in their Oxus series in the late 1930s (The Far-Distant Oxus, 1937, Escape to Persia, 1938, Oxus in Summer, 1939).

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, children’s books were hit in several ways. Authors were otherwise occupied, doing war work. There was a paper shortage, leading to fewer books being published, and the introduction of the War Economy standard, with poorer quality paper and short print runs. (Ironically, these books are still surviving quite happily over 70 years later; many in considerably better shape than books produced a decade ago.) Books were lost when London was bombed.  Moyra Charlton’s Echoing Horn (1939) had most of its print run destroyed: the manuscript and illustrations of Michael Lyne’s Hunting Here and There was lost altogether.

Some authors tackled the war head on. Primrose Cumming’s Owls Castle Farm (1940) reflected her own war work on a farm. Her Silver Eagle Carries On (1942) saw the Chantrys struggling to keep their riding school going in war conditions. They fight even to keep their horses (horses were still requisitioned at the beginning of the war) and tackle petrol restrictions by teaching ponies to pull carts.

Mary Treadgold contributed Carnegie-medal-winning We Couldn’t Leave Dinah (1941)written when she was sheltering from bombs in London. Caroline and Mick live on the fictional Channel Island of Clerinel. It is invaded by the Nazis, but in the confusion and desperate scramble of escape, the children are left behind. At a stroke, their comfortable, pony-filled life is destroyed and they are cast into a horribly uncertain existence. They no longer know who to trust, and have much to learn about how humanity tackles war. Mary Treadgold has important things to say about preconceptions and prejudice, as well as about the position ponies play in our lives. In wartime, ponies do what they had done for centuries before: ensure survival. But they also represent life beyond war. Mary Treadgold looked at that in No Ponies (1946)which takes place in post-war France.

Not all authors wanted to tackle the war head on: an entirely understandable reaction to the long drawn out agonies of wartime. Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s first solo novel, Six Ponies, appeared in 1946, but was written when she was away on war work. It does not mention the war. She told me:

“I decided to leave the War out of the book. I was fifteen when it started, and after four years it began to look as though we would win and everything would change. No bombs, no blackouts, no rationing of food and clothes. Men would come home and organise things again. Pony Clubs would restart. There would be petrol for cars. So I tried to place Six Ponies in the future, but really it was set in the England of the 1930s.”

The Pullein-Thompsons started their domination of the pony book world after the end of the war. As well as Josephine’s Six Ponies, Diana’s I Wanted a Pony appeared in 1946, with Christine’s first solo book, We Rode to the Sea, being published in 1948. The Pullein-Thompsons took the instructional story on from the thinly-disguised instructional manual it had been under authors like B L Kearley, and made it part of a world that was instantly attractive and recognisable to the pony lover.

New pony book authors entered the scene, amongst them two major figures. Monica Edwards started off her publishing career conventionally enough with two pony books: Wish for a Pony and No Mistaking Corker, in 1947. Monica did not long remain in the safe pony book field. She soon took her Romney Marsh and Punchbowl series off in other directions, in which ponies were important, but secondary to her extraordinarily vivid characters. K M Peyton, under her maiden name Kathleen Herald, wrote three books whose at times extraordinary passion set her on the path she was to fulfil in the 1960s.

Pony book series kicked off with the first Jill book. Ruby Ferguson wrote Jill’s Gymkhana in 1949, ushering in a heroine whose charm has lasted until today. Jill, Black Boy and Rapide’s early adventures have been republished this century. Jill’s world, although in many ways a “beautiful, golden dream,” reflected its post-war times. Although edited out of later editions, Jill mentions rationing; cigarettes are still in short supply, and her teacher Martin we assume was injured in the war.

The old style of pony book still limped on. The equine autobiography did not die overnight: Allen Seaby was still producing his native pony tales, and other, new authors appeared, prepared to carry on the tale the pony told itself. Equestrian journalist Pamela MacGregor Morris contributed a couple of decent examples with Topper (1947) and High Honours, but she soon looked elsewhere for inspiration.

The post-war period saw the pony book really take off, with an explosion of titles in the 1950s. More on that soon. If you can’t wait, you can read all about that (and much, much more) in my book, Heroines on Horseback.


7 responses to “And then … pony books in the 1940s”

  1. Susan Fish avatar
    Susan Fish

    Dear Jane Badger and all ladies of a “certain age” whose early lives revolved around horses and ponies.
    These last few months have given me time to reminisce about my pony-mad childhood and, at 64¾, I have at last had time to have a bit of a sort out e.g. put all the P-T books in date and sister order. My favourite has to be Riding with the Lyntons – I felt I had a connection with Lesley. I have also re-read Plain Jane by Mary Colville and have given it to my 89 year old mother to read once more – utter joy (and a few tears).
    Jane – during this time I have frequently referred to my “bible” – in other words Heroines on Horseback. This has been invaluable in helping me re-organise things and of course is highly entertaining and oh how I agree about your comments on Lt Col Hope – heavy going!
    I have recently re-acquired a number of books and annuals from Abebooks’ site – they are marvellous and totally reliable. Many of these old favourites are so familiar and it was as if I last read the Pony Club annuals of 1966/67/68 a few months ago rather than all those years ago. I have also re-acquired many of the old Pony Magazine annuals, Paul Hamlyn’s Horses, Horses, Horses and Judith Campbell’s World of Horses and World of Ponies.
    Here’s where I’m hoping someone out there may be able to help. At the back of my poor old brain I can clearly see a picture (black & white I think) of a beautiful pony with a long mane, staring at the camera with the caption “Handsome is as Handsome Does”. I cannot find this anywhere despite going through every possibility so far but I’m wondering if it was in one of the old Pony Magazine annuals that I haven’t tracked down yet.
    If anyone can help I would be so grateful!

  2. Jillian Albrecht avatar
    Jillian Albrecht

    Hi Susan Fish, there was a “Batsford Book of Horses”, which was a companion to the “Batsford Book of Cats”, by Grace Pond. I had thought it was published in the 1960s. Each page featured a picture of a horse or pony, and I particularly remember the horse on the page with the caption, “Handsome is as Handsome does”, because I didn’t really understand what the expression meant. This may be the book you were thinking of.
    The only copy I can find online is by Dorian Williams, published in 1971, which seems much later than I remember. By then I was 17, definitely much older than when I received the book. I remember the name quite clearly because it was the first horse book I was given as a gift.

    1. Jillian Albrecht avatar
      Jillian Albrecht

      I have found it! Lurking high on one of our bookshelves. The book was published by B. T. Batsford Ltd. London, and was called HORSES in Colour. The introduction was by Dorian Williams. The book was first published in 1959. Page 41 shows a dun horse with a white blaze and salt and pepper mane, with the caption: “Handsome is as handsome does. I may be no particular beauty and certainly no-one has troubled about giving me any beauty treatment, but like all half-breeds I’m honest and hardworking, and if you’ll let me know what you want e to do, I’ll get on with it. I can send a photo if you like.

  3. Jane avatar

    Hurrah! I’m delighted you’ve found it. Yes, if you could bear to send a photo of it that would be lovely. The book does ring a vague bell, and I’m wondering if I had it from our local library.

  4. Erika avatar

    I am hunting for a British pony book where there was a pony club involved in gymkhanas. The teacher wore a scarf to cover a scar on her face. And unless I am confusing it with another book from a similar series there was an animal from India I think a mongoose, called Riki tiki tavi, useful for capturing snakes. Book or books date from 40s to 50s. Postwar most likely or not mentioned. Any idea who the authors might be?

    1. Jane Badger avatar
      Jane Badger

      Not straight off! I’ll ask on my social media.

      1. Jane Badger avatar
        Jane Badger

        Hello – after doing some consulting, the feeling is that there are indeed two books there. The one with Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is The Maltese Cat, by Rudyard Kipling. The book with the instructor who wears a scarf could be Riding Days in Hooks Hollow, by Marjorie Mary Oliver. I’ll see if I can put a link to the book here:

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