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Primrose Cumming

Primrose Cumming (1915-2004) was one of the best pony book writers. Her writing career spanned over 30 years, 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.

Silver Snaffles
Blackie, London, 1937
“Gingham” edition, Blackie 1960, 160 pp

Knight, London, pb, Knight, 1976, 125 pp
Fidra, Edinburgh, pb, 2007

Character list

For more info on Silver Snaffles, click here

Bibliography - Pony Books Only

Doney - a Borderland Tale of Ponies and Young People
Country Life, London, 1934, 204 pp, illus Allen W Seaby

Country Life Junior Library, London, 1934 (also marked as first edition); smaller edn. 204 pp

Set around Northiam, this is the story of the pony Doney. He is owned by Janet, and this is the
story of their life together. Doney is a typical pony: not necessarily that keen on work, and this
is a lovely portrait of him, and of the countryside where he lives.

Spider Dog
Country Life, London, 1936, 167 pp,  illus Barbara Turner
Country Life Junior Library, London, 1936 (and also marked as first edition)

Dixter is the “Spider Dog”, a spaniel, so called because of the spidery
markings on his head. He is rescued from a watery grave, and is then bought
by Deb and Richard. He is a dog with plenty of character, and gives them lots
of adventures until he turns into a spaniel hero.

The Silver Eagle Riding School
A & C Black London, 1938, 216 pp, illus Cecil Trew

Reprinted A& C Black, 1941, 1945, 1948, 1952, 216 pp

Mary, Josephine and Doctor are sisters whose father has died. In an effort
to keep their horses and their home, they decide, in the face of much
opposition, to open a riding school.

The Wednesday Pony
Blackie, London, 1939, 190 pp,  illus Stanley Lloyd
Blackie, London, 1959, “gingham” cover, 190 pp

Jingo, the butcher’s pony, pulls a cart every day apart from Wednesday
afternoon, and that is when Tabby and Martin can ride him. Alas, they do not
appreciate Jingo, who is a charming and characterful beast, as they dream of a
show pony. When they come across one though, matters change.

The Chestnut Filly
Blackie, London,1940, 190 pp, illus Stanley Lloyd:
Blackie, London, 1959, 190 pp, with “gingham” cover

Randal buys a chestnut filly, Amber Light, who is supposed to be unmanageable,
and he, his friend Noel and the gardener Moses, between them manage to
break the filly in, despite the opposition of Randal’s parents and school. Randal
declares he can train the filly so well that she could work in a film, and then sets
out to prove it.

Ben: The Story of A Cart-Horse
Dent, London, 1939, 94 pp, illus with photographs by Harold Burdekin

This is a simple story about Ben the carthorse, and his everyday life on the
farm, afer his legs can no longer cope with his life as a London dray horse.
It’s illustrated with many black and white photos, and is a lovely portrait of a
way of farming now long gone.

Rachel of Romney
Country Life, London, 1939, 180 pp, illus Nina Scott Langley

Charles Scribner & Sons, New York, 1939 (right)

This is actually a story about a lamb, not a pony. Rachel is a Romney Marsh

lamb, found by David and Alice, whose father runs a rather unsuccessful

chicken farm on the marsh. Rachel is a sheep with attitude, and is in a way
responsible for finding Roman treasure and sorting out the family finances.

Silver Eagle Carries On
A & C Black, London, 1940, 196 pp, illus Cecil G Trew
Reprinted several times

War has broken out; Josephine is determined to do war work, and the girls have
to struggle to survive an attempt to requisition their horses, as well as all the other
difficulties of running a business in wartime, not least among them being the mare


Owls Castle Farm
A & C Black, London, 1942, 120 pp, illus Veronica Baker

It is war time, and Sheelah and Brian are well aware that they’re not yet doing anything to help.
Brian wants to join the Air Force, even though he’s under age. Sheelah finds herself sorting
potatoes on Owls Castle Farm after the previous land girl left. Owls Castle Farm is in a bit of a
state after the previous owner neglected it,so she offers to stay on and improve the farm.

Four Rode Home

Dent, London, 1951, 252 pp, illus Maurice Tulloch
Dent Pennant series, London, 1964, 252 pp
Knight, paperback, 1969

Four friends decide to ride from the New Forest back home to
Kent. They lose themselves, and their ponies, one of whom gets
swapped on the way, but they make it home in the end.

The Great Horses
Dent, London, 1946, 224 pp, illus Lionel Edwards

Colour frontis; 15 full page b/w illustrations, numerous text illustrations.

This is the story of a line of Great Horses, starting with a Norman War Horse, and moving on through
a Great Horse fighting as cavalry, and eventually to Major, a foal born on a Sussex farm, who works
hauling timber in the woods.

Trouble At Trimbles
Country Life, London, 1949, 143 pp, illus Geoffrey Whittam

Mr Brinton works at an office five days a week, and so he and his children,
Peter and Tilly, only visit their farm at weekends. This means that the foreman
who runs the farm has full scope to get up to no good, and it takes a long
while before Peter and Tilly manage to expose what has been going on.
Not a lot of pony action (there is a Suffolk Punch) but a good, exciting family

For copyright
reasons I don’t show pictures by Lionel Edwards

Rivals To Silver Eagle
A & C Black, London, 1954, 197 pp, illus Eve Gosset

This is the third, and last of the Silver Eagle stories. Josephine has married Colin, and a new riding
school has opened up at Childon Corner. Doctor decides the way to see off this threat is to train
other people’s horses to point-to-point. The new school is owned by the rather ineffectual Peter Burke,
but it is run by Mr Osgood, who has been suspended from showing. Osgood is determined to see
off the challenge from the Silver Eagle girls by fair means or foul.

No Place For Ponies (USA: The Mystery Pony)
Dent, London, 1954, 216 pp, illus Maurice Tulloch
Criterion, USA, 1957, cover W Lawrence Hoffman, illus Tulloch
Dent Pennant series, 1963, cover Terence Freeman, 216 pp.

The Dare family have to leave their farm, and live at a guest
house run by an elderly relation, Aunt Milly. A guest house, she
says, is no place for ponies. But Toni and Jane manage to

persuade her to take Snipe and Lawrence. They find that living

conditions for the ponies are not ideal, and settling down to life
in a guest house is very difficult indeed.

The Deep-Sea Horse
Dent, London, 1956, 94 pp, illus Mary Shillabeer

Claud is a thoroughbred colt who feels very inferior because
he has no tail. One day he hears the mermaids singing, and
leaps off the cliff to join them. They admire his four legs
tremendously (after all, they are very used to tails), and
Claud settles down to an under the sea existence.

The Mystery Trek
Dent, London, 1964, 189 pp, illus Sheila Rose
Children’s Book Club, London, 1965

Susan‘s elder sister Leonie is deeply depressed after the death of her horse, and
at first refuses to come trekking with Susan. When they turn up to the trek and it
turns out that there is no one to lead it, Leonie is persuaded to set aside her
resolve never to ride again. Slowly, over the course of the trek, she comes to life
again, and they solve several mysteries along the way.

Flying Horseman
Dent, London, 1959, 191 pp, illus Sheila Rose

Dent Pennant series, London, 1964, 191 pp

J M Dent & Sons, 1967, special Australian edn, pb, 191 pp

Left: 1st edn. Right - Dent Pennant edn.

Far right: undated variant printing.

Second row: J M Dent & Sons, 1967
Special Australian edition

Morgan Knight was all set to go into the Royal Air Force, having been mad about planes for years,
but then, during his last year at school, he caught polio, and was left with a slight limp. This is
enough to destroy his hopes of being a pilot, and so his father arranges for him to go as a working
pupil to the Croxleys’ Fruit Farm. There is an airfield near to the farm, which is an attraction for
Morgan, unlike the fact that Sara Crowley is a well known junior show jumper. He ends up learning
to ride, and this does have unexpected side effects.

Foal of the Fjords
Dent, London, 1966, 167 pp, illus Wendy Marchant

Children’s Book Club edition, London, 1967

Set in Norway, this is the story of Lucky, who is born to be a farm horse. He turns
out to be as lucky as his name, as he manages to survive yew poisoning as well
as saving the children when they go too close to a blasting operation.

Penny and Pegasus
Dent, London, 1969, illus Mary Gernat

Penny is looking forward to a summer with the Pony Club and her pony, but instead of being on the
Pony Club Team, she has to go on holiday to Greece. Once there however, she finds a pony:
Pegasus, whom she rescues from ill treatment. The big problem, of course, is what will happen to
Pegasus when Penny has go to back home.

Short Stories (and poems)

Primrose Cumming was one of the most regular contributors to the
Pony Club Annual, but she wrote plenty of other short stories too. I’ve listed
the ones I know about in chronological order, as far as is possible.

Delivery’s Day with the Hounds
Oxford Annual for Children, 1934

The Three Ds and the Vicarage Fete
The Children’s Golden Treasure Book for 1937

Raggedy Ann
Sunbeam Annual 1937, Amalgamated Press, 1937

Too Much Background for Tupper
Riding Magazine, June 1938, illus Cavesson

Donkey Sarah
Riding Magazine, December 1938, illus Cavesson

Outgrown Pony
Riding Magazine, February 1939, (poem)

Story title unknown

Blackie’s Children's Annual, 37th Year, Blackie & Son Ltd, London, 1940

 I Refused the Brush

Pony Magazine, January 1953, illus Joan Wanklyn

Contrasts - a poem, Percy’s Pony Annual,1953, illus Cavesson

Operation Acorn, Pony Club Annual, 1966, illus John Board
Nathan is determined to save Acorn from being sold at the Autumn Sale.

A Matter of Background, Pony Club Annual, 1968, Janet Johnstone
Veronica and Harriet are embarrassed by their non-horsey parents, but they turn out to
have their strengths.

Bridle Path or War Path, Pony Club Annual, 1970, illus Janet Johnstone
The Pony Club have to report on all the local bridle paths.

Firefly’s Foal, Pony Club Annual, 1972, illus Sally Webb
Firefly’s foal has a chequered career.

A Pony Shared, Pony Club Annual, 1974, illus Lesley Bruce
Geraldine and Jane share a pony.

The Fermoy Affair, Pony Club Annual, 1975, illus Ellen Gilbert
The Appletons move house.

One Eventful Day, Pony Club Annual, 1977
The Pony Club has to field a team for the Dereham Trials, even if it means
including Badger.

A Man’s World, Pony Club Annual, 1979, illus Carolyn Dinan
A story you would think would press the idea of girls being as good as boys, but
I’m not quite sure that’s what it does.

Purnell Treasury of Horse and Pony Stories
Purnell, 1979
Stories written by Primrose Cummings, Dorothy Baldock and Sally Haylor. Alas Purnell
didn’t see fit to attribute the stories to an author.

The Holly Tree Horse
All Sorts of Stories, Blackie & Son Ltd, London, undated


Silver Eagle

The Silver Eagle Riding School

Silver Eagle Carries On

Rivals to Silver Eagle