Pullein-Thompson, Josephine (writer)

Reference: MS 5120Date: c.1920-2003

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.

Josephine Mary Wedderburn Pullein-Thompson was born 3 April 1924. Josephine and her younger twin sisters, Diana and Christine, 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, 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, the same year Josephine wrote Six Ponies on her own (having given up her initial ambition to become a vet).

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. Josephine’s prose style – in books such as One Day Event (1954), The Trick Jumpers (1958) and The No-Good Pony (1981) – was firmly fixed in the school of Enid Blyton.

From early titles, such as Plenty of Ponies (1949) and Six Ponies (1955), to later books such as Pony Club Challenge (1984) and A Job With Horses (1994), the gentle narratives of stately homes, plucky children and riding cups rarely veered from a tried and tested course. However, with All Change (1972), Josephine Pullein-Thompson touched on subjects such as recession and the demise of the agricultural way of life.

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.

Josephine wrote several non-fiction books on riding and the book A Place With Two Faces (1972), a gothic horror story under the pseudonym of Josephine Mann, and also wrote the adult mystery books Gin and Murder (1959), Murder Strikes Pink (1963) and They Died In The Spring (1960).

In addition to pursuing her own writing career, she was a champion of many other writers’ ambitions – most prominently by working with PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists), the organisation which looks after authors’ affairs and promotes freedom of expression, she was the general secretary (1976-93) and then president of PEN International.

She was awarded the MBE in 1984 and was, for many years, a vice president of the Woodland Hunt Branch of the Pony Club, based in the Henley on Thames area.

Josephine Pullein-Thompson died on 19 June 2014.

The papers in the Josephine Pullein-Thompson collection include draft manuscripts for published and unpublished works; correspondence; photographs; press cuttings; publications; contracts; family history; theatre and sports programmes.

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. (2014). Josephine Pullein-Thompson. [online].

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