Biography

Cumming, Primrose

Primrose Cumming (1915-2004) was one of the best pony book writers. Her writing career spanned over 30years, and produced some of the best examples of the genre, combining fine observation of human and equine with a certain wry humour.

The very best pony book writers have ponies whose characters are as vivid as their humans’, rather than existing simply as vehicles to allow their riders to compete in the next gymkhana. Primrose Cumming was an extremely astute observer of ponies: Tattles in Silver Snaffles is brilliantly observed: by turns tetchy and patient, he is the archetypal family pony who has long-sufferingly taught generations of children to ride; Jingo in The Wednesday Pony is utterly genuine, and Smug, the evil pony in Silver Eagle Carries On must be an inspiration to budding Kippers everywhere: “Smug, of course, had no intention of jumping anything, but she held upon the right course until the last second, when she adroitly stepped to one side.”

Primrose Cumming was equally good at human characters: the Silver Eagle Riding School series has Josephine, the brilliant, but genuinely irritating middle sister, alternately a torment and an inspiration to her elder sister Mary. The Wednesday Pony sees Cumming giving a wry look at owners who simply don’t realise what they have. The heroes have a thoroughly genuine, honest sort of pony right under their nose, but spend hours wishing he were a show hack, a racehorse or simply a Dream Pony before realising that they would have to go a very long way before finding a better pony than the one they have.

The sheer variety of stories that Primrose Cumming wrote is impressive: from the most imaginative of the talking-horse genre (Silver Snaffles) to a picture of the lives of a heavy horse family down the ages, she rarely trod the same ground twice. Her books are mostly reasonably easy to find: Rivals to Silver Eagle and The Deep Sea Horse are the most difficult by quite some way, but Fidra Books reprinted Silver Snaffles in 2007, thus delighting the legions of pony book lovers unable to meet the astronomic cost the originals had reached.

A Life
Primrose Cumming was the youngest of a family of two girls and a boy, and was born on the Isle of Thanet, Kent, during the First World War. She was always a country girl but rather than ponies, one of her earliest loves was fishing. She fished on the River Rother (the family had moved to Sandhurst, on the borders of Kent and Sussex, which area provided the settings for many of her stories), and once when she was about 10, her catch nearly pulled her in. She was, she said “the heroine of the day when we landed that huge eel.” One of her first attempts at earning her living came when she was 12 and decided to be a poultry farmer. Alas she couldn’t bring herself to sell the birds when they were too old to lay, so the business was retired and the birds became pets.

Her education came from a governess, who recognised her flair for writing. Primrose’s first story, about the travelling adventures of an ant, was published in Nursery World. She said: “I found it tremendously exciting writing about the country things I knew, and being paid for it - even if I did collect piles of rejection slips, too!”

The first book Primrose published was Doney (Country Life 1934), which reflected her love of ponies. She was, she said, “so keen on riding at this time, that I used to steal out early in the morning and ride the farmers’ horses in the fields. Then I wrote a book about my friend’s pony, Doney, and sold it. With the money, I bought Black Jack - who was rather too spirited for a beginner. When I took him hunting, he broke his bridle and off I came - in front of the whole field. At last we got on better terms and we both made our names by jumping everything in his path. To feed Black Jack, I wrote more books about country life, drawing on my own knowledge and experience. I had several published by the time I was 21.”

The published dates of Primrose Cummings’ books make it likely that these were Spider Dog (1935), and perhaps Silver Snaffles, which presumably was accepted for publication by the time she was 21: it was published in 1936, when she was 22.

The pre-war years saw Primrose Cummings’ most prolific period. She wrote The Silver Eagle Riding School in 1938. This was the first book of the only series she wrote, and was followed by Rachel of Romney, a story about a lamb, published in 1939. Also in 1939 came The Wednesday Pony and Ben: The Story of A Cart-Horse. The Chestnut Filly was published in 1940, and was followed by the second of the Silver Eagle series, Silver Eagle Carries On. This accurately reflected what happened to horses in World War Two: although the horse was no longer used directly in war, animals were still compulsorily purchased as cavalry troopers. Josephine Pullein-Thompson told me she had known people who had shot their hunters rather than have them taken: Mary, Josephine and Virginia of the Silver Eagle Riding School do not do this - Virginia spirits the Army vet off in a trap pulled by Smug, who can be relied on to behave badly. The vet “went pale grey and moaned like a creature in pain when Smug galloped away down Barlett’s Hill with us.” Of course, the girls get their way, and the horses remain.

Primrose Cumming’s own experiences of World War II were a little different. She worked for a year on a farm: one day a bomber crashed in the same field as the sheep she was looking after, but she survived, and her experience on the farm led directly to her next book: Owl’s Castle Farm. Later she joined the ATS and served for the remainder of the war in an anti-aircraft battery. Between air-raids, she wrote The Great Horses. This is the only one of her books of that period that is not set firmly in her own experience: perhaps a reaction against the relentlessness of war, it is an historical book, tracing the experiences of a line of heavy horses.

After the war, she had a temporary job as under-matron in a boys’ school. This was not a success, as she saw the boys’ side rather more easily than the masters’! She returned to her family home in East Sussex, and decided to stick to writing and gardening. Horses were by no means her only interest: she was an expert flower arranger, and exhibited at local flower shows and Chelsea. The books she published after that were based less on her own experiences, although she did say that a book about her next horse, Black Domino, helped to start the interest in pony trekking. (This book I think is Four Rode Home). Another horse, Bridget, a brown mare from Ireland, provided her share of material for books. Primrose Cumming wrote the third, and last part of the Silver Eagle story in 1954: Rivals To Silver Eagle. Her books after this were published by Dent, and moved away somewhat from her previous books, although they did perhaps reflect her love of travel. She trekked: not only on horseback, but on camel and elephant. Penny and Pegasus (1969), her last novel, is set mostly in Greece: possibly the only English pony book with such a setting, and Foal of the Fjords in Norway.

Primrose Cumming died in 2004. She had stopped writing full length novels in the 1960s, feeling that she was becoming out of touch with modern youth, in which she did herself a dis-service: most of her books are read just as avidly as they were, and Silver Snaffles still weaves its spell today.

An obituary of Primrose Cumming
Primrose Cumming 1915-2004
”I found it difficult at first to reconcile the mental picture I had formed of her through her books with her appearance in actuality; she was tiny physically, quite unassuming about her own achievement and much more interested in other people than in talking about herself. She lived practically all her life in her old family home in Sandhurst on the Kent/Sussex border, which provided the background for nearly all her books. She stopped writing in the 1960s, when she felt she was growing out of touch with modern youth. She was a writer, however, who deserved - and achieved - lasting recognition and I know a number of readers who would claim, as I do, that Silver Snaffles is one of the most imaginative and appealing pony stories ever written. Primrose herself was highly amused, one day in her later life, when her neighbour at a dinner party remarked, “I used to have a story called Silver Snaffles as a child, but I’m afraid I can’t remember who wrote it.” “Well, actually, I did,” confessed Primrose, whereupon her neighbour, she told me, almost fell off her chair.”

Source
Folly, Spring 2005, No 44. Jenny Balston (1948-2006). Folly now has its own website, which is well worth a look.

An interesting snippet from Liz Filleul: “I was just reading about Primrose Cumming on an internet forum, and apparently she penned the comic-strip serial Bella Barlow (about a gymnast constantly thwarted in her attempts to become Britain's Nadia Comaneci thanks to her mean aunt and uncle) for Tammy in the early 1980s. Briony Coote (who writes about old girls' comics) says bylines appeared in Tammy in the early 1980s, with Primrose Cumming's name appearing on the Bella stories.” I haven’t been able to confirm whether this is the same Primrose Cumming we all know and love, but it doesn’t seem likely that they are different authors. It’s probable that the Bella series was one of those Primrose “mugged up”!

Finding the books
Silver Snaffles as a hardback with dustjacket is now reasonably easy to find; Deep Sea Horse and Rivals to Silver Eagle are all expensive now. The Wednesday Pony, The Chestnut Filly, Silver Eagle Riding School, Ben, Rachel of Romney, Silver Eagle Carries On, Trouble at Trimbles, The Great Horses, The Mystery Trek, Foal of the Fjords, No Place for Ponies,, Four Rode Home, The Flying Horseman and Penny and Pegasus are all reasonably easy to find and not generally expensive. The paperbacks: Four Rode Home and Silver Snaffles are easy to find, Silver Snaffles still being in print.

Links and sources
Many thanks to Kay Whalley, who very kindly gave me an early Judy Annual from which comes much of this biographical information. (Judy (1963?): The Fascinating Story of a Writer. .... Primrose Cumming - Growing Up) and to Vanessa Robertson of Fidra Books.
Thanks to Dawn Harrison, Susan Bourgeau, Shirley Green, Claire Noble, Alison Rushby, Nicola Hudson and Amanda Dolby for pictures.

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