Josephine Pullein-Thompson – an Interview

Josephine Pullein-Thompson 1924–2014

I was lucky enough to meet Josephine Pullein-Thompson in 2007, and this interview was the result.

Full bibliography

The telephone call

Talking to an author whose works you have loved for years is something of a strange experience. The first time I talked to Josephine Pullein-Thompson, I was involved in the start up of Fidra Books, and was trying to trace the copyright of Joanna Cannan’s children’s books. I had written to Cavalier Paperbacks, run by Christine Pullein-Thompson’s daughter, Charlotte, and was waiting for a reply.

One evening shortly afterwards, the telephone went. I answered it, and heard ‘Josephine Pullein-Thompson here,’ which stunned me into (temporary) silence. Having read, and re-read her books so much that they had become a major part of my inner life as a child, it was a shock when that imaginary life suddenly faced reality. It must be a reaction to which Josephine is well-used.

Having managed to stammer out how very much I loved her books, and remember myself enough to talk about the details of the prospective contract for Joanna Cannan’s books, I put the phone down. I then had some very school-girly conversations with Vanessa of Fidra, and my sister, owner of the other half of the family pony book collection. I knew they would both understand.

Meeting Josephine

I didn’t actually meet Josephine until December 2007, when I asked her if she’d mind being interviewed for my website. She suggested I come for lunch, which, as you can imagine, I was quite pleased about.

I was asked by a friend if I thought I’d manage to ask her anything or whether I’d be tongue-tied. JPT isn’t the sort of person who would render you speechless: she was physically much smaller than I thought she’d be (but how very handy for sorting out bolshy ponies); friendly, and very interested in what you do. She must be an excellent aunt to have. I did ask if any of the family were likely to follow in the Pullein-Thompson footsteps: there is no one at the moment. Several of the family write, but non-fiction. She does however have hopes of the younger generation.

Josephine had asked me before I went if there was anything I didn’t like to eat: alarmingly little, but I failed to mention boiled eggs, which we had (stuffed) to start with, and which I made a pretty feeble attempt at. Josephine commented on this, and said she’d only ever met two other people who didn’t like them. I asked who they were: one was apparently a very boring Lord.

She is however not the sort of person to make you feel uneasy because you don’t like boiled eggs, or judged: you don’t feel you have to come up to her standards conversationally, and she is very approachable. After lunch I ended up balancing on a ladder getting books down from a tall cupboard for her, carrying on the conversation about her books as I did so!


Josephine was awarded the Golden Pen by PEN the night before I visited her, and was quietly proud of this. She had 90% of the vote, and now has a Golden Pen, which is awarded for a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature. To put this in context, previous winners include Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and last year, Michael Holroyd.

Josephine has been involved with PEN for many years, and was its president between 1994 to 1997. PEN was started in 1921 by Amy Dawson Scott, initially to promote literature as a means of greater understanding between cultures.  It now campaigns on behalf of persecuted writers, tries to ‘build bridges between authors and people’ and campaigns to raise awareness of freedom of expression.

early days

We met in Josephine’s terraced house in London, where she  has been for a good 30 years now. Her sitting room is calm, green and lined with books—an excellent way in which to arrange a room—and there we sat and talked about her books.

Pony books were a different beast for Josephine than they were for later generations. Until her mother [Joanna Cannan] introduced pony books written from the point of view of the child with A Pony for Jean in 1936, pony books were mainly tales told by the pony.

I read Black Beauty eight times; I read Moorland Mousie and I liked Nibs [by Ethel Nokes], and Mottistone’s My Horse Warrior. I loved Victorian books with deathbed scenes. The twins liked pirates. I used to like Nat Gould, who was a very lowbrow racing novelist. I used to buy his cheap paperbacks from the local newsagent. At sixteen I was passionate about the novels of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope and then I discovered social history, which is still one of my interests.

Pony books became increasingly popular from the 1930s, as did riding. I asked Josephine why she thought this was.

I think Princess Elizabeth had much to do with this. She helped to change the type of person who wanted to ride. And children who didn’t ride at all still loved ponies, and had them in their imaginations. Girls have to love something and at that age loving a pony is better than loving a pop star. We found that some of our girl pupils had no particular ambition to be good riders; they really preferred looking after ponies, but the boys all had to ride well quickly or they gave up.

being in a pony book

The Pullein-Thompson’s father would read Joanna’s newly published children’s books aloud to them. It could be embarrassing to hear about mishaps and adventures that had happened to you at least a year earlier, and, by the age of twelve, Josephine thought them rather young for her. She was beginning to take an interest in her mother’s novels for adults, reading each day’s typing when Joanna had finished work.

Mama and I did not agree about people. Mama thought people were stuck with being horrid; I thought they could improve. I read Vickie Baum’s novels and took an interest in psychology. PC Wren’s The Snake and the Sword made a big impression on me. The man was frightened of grass snakes, and everyone despised him for it but in the end he was shut up in a hut with a snake, survived and overcame his terror. This I admired.

One always hopes people will change. Some of my books were written in opposition to Mama’s views. When young, I believed in nurture rather than nature, but when the family babies began to arrive and I saw the strength of their characters, I rather changed my mind!’

Six Ponies

After her first book, It Began with Picotee, written with her sisters Christine and Diana, Josephine’s first solo novel was Six Ponies, which is one of my own favourites, and the start of the Noel and Henry series. It is the story of a Pony Club, the West Barsetshire, their instructor, Major Holbrooke, and the six New Forest ponies the Pony Club has to break in. The children in it range from the wealthy June and Susan, to Noel, who only manages to ride when she can borrow a pony: but it does not matter how much money they have when they come to break in one of the New Forest Ponies.

Much of Six Ponies was written on the roof of the telephone exchange in Reading during the war, where Josephine was a telephone engineer. She served first at the Army Remount Depot but had to leave after she became ill, though while she was there, Rosemary Robertson, who illustrated Picotee, became a friend.

Six Ponies and Six Cushions

The inspiration for Six Ponies came from what sounds a rather unlikely source: Charlotte M Yonge’s The Six Cushions, published in 1867.

Mama collected the books of Charlotte M Yonge, and I bought Six Cushions for her from a secondhand book stall. It was interesting because of its characters. I wanted a broad canvas for my first solo book, not a first person story, and this writer managed to tell you so much about six girls and their families by describing their trials and successes in making six cushions. It seemed to me the six people breaking in ponies would make a much more exciting story. And I could also explore their families.

Although Six Ponies was written in war time, it doesn’t mention the war at all, and I asked Josephine about this.

No, 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 Noel and Henry series

Six Ponies was the start of the Noel and Henry series, which ended with Pony Club Camp. This book is that most rare of creatures in its era: a pony book with romance, although it’s very lightly drawn, and even ‘the kiss’ between Noel and Henry isn’t definite: I like to think they did. Pony Club Camp was Josephine’s most popular book.

I had the most fan mail ever after ‘the kiss’, with people begging ‘please, please, can they get married!’  I had to write a lot of letters explaining what happened next: Henry went into the Army. He joined a cavalry regiment and was stationed in Germany. There he rode in dressage competitions and fell in love with a German dressage rider. When Noel heard about it she was very shaken. Then, his miitary service over, he came back. By this time Noel had had several boy friends, but they got together again and eventually married.

I’ve always thought John and Susan, two other characters from the series, would make a good couple, and Josephine said yes, they could well have got married. People did in Pony Club—in the one of which she was district commissioner there were five or so marriages!

Perfection is the keynote. Perhaps the Barsetshire Pony Club was like this.
All change

Pony Club Camp was not however Josephine’s personal favourite. She said: ‘My favourite book was All Change, which I wrote in Dorset.’ All Change is another book which explores families, but this one has added tensions. The Conway family are faced with the possible loss of their father’s job, and therefore their home after the estate of which he is manager is bought by a City financier.

The story is about two different worlds adapting to each other, and is another of my favourites. My Armada paperback has been read far more times than it was designed for. I like the children’s independence, and the way their view of life changes. I like their ham-fisted attempts to deal with the Jersey cow, their resourcefulness when dealing with the bull, and most of all, now that I am older and can really appreciate it, the way they can admit they were wrong.

Josephine’s books are very often about characters who change: and not always for the better. John Manners, who appears in the Noel and Henry series, changes from a boy who cannot control his temper and is even cruel at times, to a reliable and capable boy. Christopher Minton, on the other hand, evolves from a rather charming incompetence to single-minded competitiveness.

All Change and Pony Club Camp both caused ups and downs with Josephine’s publishers. Ernest Benn, who published All Change, objected to the word ‘bloody’ as a swear word. There is also an unpleasant character in the book who calls someone ‘a Jew boy’. This was important to the story, but there was uproar. Josephine did however, after much arguing, get both past her publishers. Interestingly Benn objected to ‘bloody’, but not ‘Jew boy’, whereas Armada, who published the paperback, didn’t like ‘Jew boy’, but let ‘bloody’ pass.

The big controversy

The biggest fuss came with ‘the kiss’ in Pony Club Camp, after which Josephine was told not to write any more of the series. She said:

This liking for a series about Peter Pan characters was common in publishing at that time whereas I saw them as real children and took pleasure in knowing them as they grew up.

Pony Club Camp was published in 1957, but 20 years later, publishers’ views had not changed. Josephine wrote another series, the Moor books, which featured two sisters, Frances and Louisa Burnett. Hodder & Stoughton told her she must not make the main characters any older, and so the Moor books had to start again in effect with a younger set of characters in the last two books.

The characters and background for the Moors books came from Josephine’s time helping with the Pony Club on Bodmin Moor.

The background for the Moor books came from my visits to the Pony Club there, but not the characters. They will look for themselves in vain!

the inspiration for the characters

The sisters’ time running a riding school provided a rich source of characters, both human and equine.

There was a Mrs Cresswell—we had a very similar parent, and there was a sort of Christopher. The over-competitive can be very trying. As some of our characters were based on pupils, we had to watch not to call someone by their invented name, and then as time passed the invented character became better known to you than the real one.

Major Holbrooke however was an invention. Interestingly, Josephine didn’t ever want him drawn (and he isn’t ever, which hadn’t occurred to me before). He wasn’t described as such either.

This was because [when] reading a novel by Trollope called Phineas Finn, I fell in love with Phineas until 50 pages into the book Trollope describes his beard. Beards were completely out of fashion at that time, so it was a big turn off. I felt incapable of describing Major Holbrooke so that he would appeal to every reader, so I decided to let them imagine him for themselves.

Like most readers, I expect, I have a vivid picture of the Major despite the lack of description. My Major is tall, lean, with a similarly tall and lean wife. I told Josephine this, and she laughed, smiled and said no more, so I still don’t know if my picture matches hers, or indeed what her picture is.

Boys ride too

Josephine’s books have a fairly equal number of male and female characters, which is one explanation for why boys liked her books too. At a talk she did at a comprehensive she was introduced to a boy of 13 who had read Show Jumping Secret nine times. These talks provided the inspiration for some of her characters. At one school she was introduced to an Indian boy at a school talk, and he became the character Hanif or Harry in Pony Club Cup.

Ideas for stories came from many different sources.

A friend told me the story of two families living together. I said ‘Can I have that please?’ and made it horsey. I just knew I could write it.

That book became The No-Good Pony.

Ponies in the books

Interestingly, although the sisters had ponies called Rocket and Northwind, neither of the ponies called this in Six Ponies were based on them. Rose Bay, whom they bred and whom Josephine described as ‘very over inspired’, was the inspiration for Adonis in Prince Among Ponies.

She said: ‘I was in the loosebox when he was foaled, and later broke and schooled him and rode him in one day events.’ In the initial drawings for Prince Among Ponies, Adonis looked like a cob and the drawings had to be sent back. Josephine felt that no illustrator ever read the books properly—none of the illustrations for her books were completely right, in her opinion.

The last pony book

Josephine’s last pony book was A Job with Horses (1994). This was written as part of J A Allen’s Junior Fiction SeriesCaroline Akrill, a well-known pony book author in her own right, was chief executive of J A Allen, and started a project to produce pony books. A Job With Horses is the story of a girl making her own way in the world for the first time.

In the best JPT tradition, she changes how she approaches life, or at least her family, over the course of the book. As I have always known this book as a pony book, its title has never seemed odd, but A Job With Horses was actually a working title for the book. J A Allen stuck with that title, with the result that many people assumed it was a technical book and not a story.

Fair Girls and Grey Horses

After this came the autobiographical Fair Girls and Grey Horses. Published in 1999, 50 years after Six Ponies, it was written by all three sisters and is a fascinating account of their childhood.

I did of course ask what everyone will want to know—is Josephine writing still? She is not in the best of health, with only 10% heart function now, but she is writing a short history of PEN. I don’t think there will be any more pony stories, but looking at what we have of hers, I don’t think we can be disappointed. She has written some of the best.

December 2007