Ponies, ponies, ponies


Many thanks to Hilary Clare for allowing me to put her article up on the net, and to Sue Sims, editor of Folly, in which the article originally appeared, for permission to reprint it here. Hilary Clare and Sue Sims are authors of The Encyclopaedia of Girls’ School Stories - an excellent book, well worth getting hold of if you can, though it is now, sadly, out of print. Hilary has written on Anne Bullen and Violet Needham for Girls Gone By, and Sue, besides being one of the props and mainstays of Folly is an expert on the girl’s school story, and on the sublime Antonia Forest.

When I was researching my book, Heroines on Horseback, I had access to papers not available to either Hilary or Alison Haymonds: principally the census returns of 1910. These show that Ruby did live in Woolwich in her early life, but show that David Ashby was the son of a Sydenham butcher, and that neither he nor Ann Spencer had any Highland ancestry; at least as far back as I could trace.

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Ruby Ferguson is undoubtedly best known as the author of the Jill series of pony books for girls, originally published between 1949 and 1960 Some readers will also know her A Paintbox for Pauline (1953), written in the same style, and many perhaps will be familiar with her ‘autobiography’, Children at the Shop (1967). Of her adult fiction, the best known is probably the appallingly sentimental Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary (1937), but she was in fact the author of at least twenty novels.

‘Autobiography’ I have called Children at the Shop, and punctuated it deliberately, for although it is a first-person narrative with an authentic ring of truth about it (the ‘Shop’ in question, for those who have not read the book, is Woolwich Royal Academy) it becomes clear after only a little research that it does not tell the whole story, and further investigation proves it to be fiction. Details of birth and parentage are not given, and though it is a superb account of a childhood in a military atmosphere, with Scottish interludes, the material is treated in a novelistic rather than an historical way, and in fact it does seem to have been pure imagination, complicated by the fact that the narrator-heroine’s name is the same as the author’s. It ends with the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, and the unstated implication is that the author’s dearly-loved elder brother, and perhaps also her younger cousin, will die in the conflict. If there was to be a continuation, as we would have hoped, it was axed by Ruby Ferguson’s own death in 1966. But I can hardly stress too strongly that virtually all of The Children at the Shop is fiction.

I managed to find something about Ruby Ferguson, but much more can be learned from Alison Haymonds’ excellent article on her in Children’s Book History Society Newsletter no 69, for April 2001.  As this is not readily available I am shamelessly making use of it here, but it must be made clear that the credit is due to Alison for having made contact with the Ferguson family and so discovering the truth behind Jill and The Children at the Shop and Ruby Ferguson.

She was born at Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire on 28 July 1899 - according to Children at the Shop while her Highlander mother was en route to Scotland for her confinement but actually, it seems, because that is where her parents were living. Her father was the Rev. David Ashby, a Wesleyan Methodist minister, whose career has not been fully uncovered. According to Children at the Shop he was of Danish origin, and his surname was originally Asbjerg, of which Ashby would clearly be an Anglicization, but an alternative version has him springing from “a long line of Norfolk farmers” (1) - this seems more likely. As her mother’s maiden name was Ann Elizabeth Spencer one also wonders about the Highland ancestry on that side. In the 1901 Census, when the infant Ruby was staying with her mother with her maternal grandfather, there is no trace of the Rev. David Ashby, and Ann Ashby’s father was Benjamin Spencer, a retired school-master of 64, born in Bradford. It is perhaps possible that it was Ann’s mother who provided the Highland ancestry, but so far there is little trace of it. And where was Ruby’s father in 1901? Out of the country, by the look of it - can there be anything in the Danish allegation?

Be that as it may, and it remains a puzzle, by 1919 the family was living near Bolton, Lancashire: in that year Ruby Constance Ashby went up to St. Hilda’s College, Oxford. Her education is recorded as being at the Girls’ Grammar School, Bradford, so presumably the family had only moved to Bolton fairly recently. Her academic career seems to have proceeded routinely, culminating in the gaining of a 3rd class Honours degree in English in June 1922. Secretarial training “at home” followed, after which she did “private coaching from Pendleton High School”, and, it is fair to assume, began to write. Later in life she said that “her jobs in her early days included teaching and political organisation, both of which she ‘heartily disliked’ and only used as a means for literary expression.” She later recorded her involvement with “journalistic, political, and publishing work,” which certainly involved being chief reader for Hodder & Stoughton, who were to be her chief publishers, though “her first break came when the editor of the Manchester City News took a series of her short detective stories”. (2). In 1929 she was private secretary to Alderman Mallison, of Cressbrook Hall, Derbyshire, and from 1937 to 1947 edited the Woman’s Page of British Weekly. For some of this period she was certainly living at various addresses in Manchester, and is said to have been on the staff of the Manchester Guardian, and to have worked as a reader for Hodder & Stoughton. By 1934 she appears to have moved to London.

On 1st March that year she married Samuel Ferguson, an electrical engineer, a widower with two grown-up sons; she was to have no children of her own but established good relations with Bobbie and Alan Ferguson. By 1947 Samuel was chairman of various companies making electrical accessories; Ruby seems to have acted as a director and secretary of at least one of them, despite the continuation of her literary work, which Sam supported. In the 1948-9 edition of The Author’s and Writer’s Who’s Who she was living at Aldersyde, Wilmslow, Cheshire, and listed her recreations as “travel, country life, hotel keeping”; her ‘special subjects' were “English History & Literature, Country Home Management”. In the St. Hilda College Register of 1948 her ‘war work’ was listed as the British Red Cross Society. She also continued to be an active member of the Methodist church.

She published no novels between 1937 and 1944, but after that they continued to come at fairly regular intervals, dovetailing in with the Jill books. These were enormously successful, and were written for the four daughters of Bobbie Ferguson, Ruby’s step-grand-daughters - the eldest three of whom apparently appear in the books as the bouncing April, May and June Cholly-Sawcutt! The two younger girls were particularly keen riders, competing at Olympia and in three-day-eventing.

In 1952 the Fergusons moved to Jersey, where they had been holidaying, apparently for the tax benefits as well as because they (or perhaps Sam) were attracted to island life. Despite an allegation that she hated the sea, Ruby in fact does seem to have liked Jersey, and continued to lead a full life, writing, playing the piano, painting, playing bridge and being involved in the hotels her husband was now owning. Sadly she developed breast cancer and died on 11 November 1966; Samuel died three years later. Both are buried in St Brelade’s churchyard.

One last point. Most of Ruby Ferguson’s adult novels are nothing out of the ordinary, and the ones I have read mostly specialise in a fair amount of gloom and doom. But look out for Apricot Sky, which is a glorious romp through the summer of a West Highland family and contains some children who might be straight out of the Jill saga.

(1) blurb on paperback edition of Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary (1959)

(2) blurb on Apricot Sky (1952)

As Ruby C Ashby
1926 The Moorland Man

1927 The Tale of Rowan Christie

1928 Beauty Bewitched

1931 Death on Tiptoe

1932 Plot Against a Widow

1933 He Arrived at Dusk

1934 Out Went the Taper

As Ruby Ferguson (adult novels)

1937 Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary

1944 The Moment of Truth

1946 Our Dreaming Done

1948 Winter’s Grace

1951 Turn Again Home

1952 Apricot Sky

1954 The Leopard’s Coast

1956 For Every Favour

1957 Doves in my Fig-Tree

1957 The Cousins of Colonel Ivy

1962 The Wakeful Guest

1965 A Woman with a Secret

1967 Children at the Shop

Ruby Ferguson (1899-1966)