Pullein-Thompson, Diana (writer)

Reference: MS 5095 and MS 5443Date: c.1950-2006

Between them, the Pullein-Thompson sisters wrote more than 150 books, selling some 10 million copies worldwide. Unlike many other writers’ of children’s pony books, their lively stories, full of pony-mad children, memorable equine characters and sound equestrian advice, bore the stamp of reality because they mirrored the girls’ own lives.

Diana was born in Wimbledon on 1 October 1925, 20 minutes before her twin, Christine. However, the twins and their older sister Josephine grew up in the Oxfordshire village of Peppard. Their mother, Joanna Cannan, was a prolific novelist who was also credited with inventing pony stories for children, beginning with A Pony for Jean (1936). Their father, Captain Harold “Cappy” Pullein-Thompson, who had been a schoolteacher, was seriously wounded in the First World War and was awarded the Military Cross. A frustrated writer, he took on various jobs including selling refrigerators and board games, and later ran the Public Schools Employment Bureau. The Pullein-Thompsons also had a son, Denis, who became a successful dramatist and playwright and went on to collaborate with Christopher Fry.

A few days after war broke out, the girls, then aged 15 and 14, were allowed to abandon their sketchy formal education and start their own riding stables at their home, The Grove. At the same time the sisters, who had been writing since they were six, began their first pony story, a joint effort, It Began with Picotee, written in 1941 and delivered a narrative from the rider’s perspective rather than horse’s (as had been the Victorian tradition with equestrian fiction). It was published in 1946.

Diana was nine when her story, The Life of a Carthorse, appeared in the family’s magazine, and at 14, she began work on her first book, I Wanted a Pony, which was eventually published in 1946, the first of more than 30 books. For more than a dozen years, the three sisters lived the life described in their stories, riding and breaking in ponies, teaching children how to ride, at The Grove and at a second riding school in Wolvercote, and pouring out a stream of popular books.

When the Oxfordshire stables closed in 1952, the girls’ mother refused to let them continue to pay for their upkeep. Diana and Christine decided to ease the financial burden on their father and obtained jobs as professional riders in America. Diana, however, was refused a visa when an X-ray revealed TB and for six months she and her mother, who had also been diagnosed with the disease, were bedbound at home. In November 1952, Diana was sent to Switzerland under an NHS scheme and between long bouts of lying on a balcony of a Davos sanatorium, she wrote Horses at Home (1954).

On her return, she applied for a job with the literary agent Rosica Colin, who handled such authors as Enid Blyton and Alan Sillitoe. She remained with the literary agent for 18-months after which she left to concentrate on her writing, financing herself by working part-time.

Her love of horses and adventurous spirit remained intact and in 1956 she rode from John o’ Groats to Land’s End on her grey mare Favorita, completing the journey in 42 days, resting one day out of every seven. To her regret, she did not get a book out of the experience but years later its influence could be seen in her last pony story, The Long Ride Home (1996).

In 1959, she married Dennis Farr, an art historian and assistant keeper at the Tate Gallery. He later became director of the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery and in 1980 was appointed Director of the Courtauld Institute Galleries. They shared a passion for riding (Farr was secretary of the Civil Service Riding Club). After their marriage, however, their frequent moves, including stints in Washington and Glasgow, and the birth of their two children curtailed Diana’s writing for long periods, making her the least prolific of the sisters.

Diana was a doughty campaigner. In 1959, she was invited by AP Herbert to join his Public Lending Right Committee and she spoke and wrote on the subject. She was a founder member of the Children’s Writers Group of the Society of Authors and founded and ran the Save the Mere campaign to stop the development of Olton Mere in Solihull.

She collaborated with her sisters on the Black Beauty Trilogy (1975-79) and on an evocative memoir, Fair Girls and Grey Horses (1996), in which they recalled their eccentric upbringing. As well as her children’s books, Diana wrote three books for adults under her married name, Diana Farr, including Prime Ministers’ Consorts: Five at Ten (1985), a well-researched but discreet book whose subjects ranged from Lady Dorothy Macmillan to Denis Thatcher, and a novel, Choosing (1988).

Diana Pullein-Thompson, died on 21 October 2015.

The papers in the Diana Pullein-Thompson collection include draft manuscripts for published and unpublished works; diaries; press cuttings; correspondence; photographs; publications; publishers’ catalogues and financial records.

The Special Collections Library holds around 200 copies of works published by the Pullein-Thompson sisters. The collection is not catalogued but a handlist is available at Special Collections. Please contact us for more information.

Source of biographical information: The Telegraph. (2015). Diana Pullein-Thompson, Author. [online].

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