LOOKING BACK: Prodigy wrote her first book at the age of four

A photograph of Daisy Ashford as a young girl in the late Victorian era
A photograph of Daisy Ashford as a young girl in the late Victorian era

While out for a walk around my home town of Lewes over the Christmas holiday I came across a commemorative plaque on a building called Southdown House in St Anne’s Crescent near County Hall, writes David Arnold.

The plaque recorded that Daisy Ashford wrote a book titled “The Young Visiters” in the house when she was just nine years old in 1890.

The unusual spelling of “Visiters” caught my eye and I thought it was perhaps a grammatical error as the more customary presentation is “Visitors”. Intrigued by this and by the fact that Daisy had written a clearly notable book at such a young age, I decided to find out more.

Daisy Ashford was born in Surrey on 7th April 1881. Her full name was Margaret Mary Julia Ashford. She was largely educated at home with her younger sisters Maria and Angela.

I’m not quite sure why Margaret took on the pen name Daisy but what is clear is that from an astonishingly young age the lass displayed a remarkable talent for story-telling; when she was just four years old she dictated to her father her very first tale, “The Life of Father McSwiney”. Nearly a century would elapse before it was finally published!

The family moved to the house in St Anne’s Crescent in 1889. It was here that the child prodigy wrote in her own handwriting what would in time become her most notable work, “The Young Visiters”. The subject matter concerned the upper echelons of society in late 19th Century Victorian England and features middle-aged Alfred Salteena and his efforts to be accepted as a respectable gentleman. Daisy also produced a number of other works including a play, “A Woman’s Crime” and a short novel called “The Hangman’s Daughter”. In later life Daisy considered the latter to be her best book.

So what happened following this amazing burst of creative writing? Not much at all. None of her work found a publisher. Indeed it would be 1919 before “The Young Visiters” finally made it into print and became an “overnight sensation”. Meanwhile I will return to the young Daisy Ashford’s life story prior to that date.

In 1896 the family moved out of St Anne’s Crescent to a house in the Wallands district of Lewes.

The teenage Daisy now simply ceased creative writing. In 1904 the family moved again, this time to Bexhill.

She was a grown woman by then and found herself work as a secretary in London. Later, during the Great War, she ran a canteen in Dover serving military personnel.

In 1919 Daisy Ashford presented her handwritten manuscript “The Young Visiters” to Chatto and Windus.

Duly impressed with her work the publishers proposed reproducing the novella complete with her juvenile spelling and punctuation left intact. One change was made to the book’s title; Daisy had written the word “Viseters” but for publication it was amended to “Visiters”.

Another clever move was to enlist author J. M. Barrie to write a preface. Barrie, of course, was famous for creating the character Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. Upon publication “The Young Visiters” was an instant success both in this country and in America.

Several hundred thousand copies were sold and there were many reprints.

There was some press speculation that maybe most of “The Young Visiters” was the work of Barrie.

One critic even asserted that “the book’s merits were too great to have been achieved by a child”. Barrie vehemently denied the claim saying that Ashford’s work highlighted “how closely, whether comprehending or not, children observed the adult world”.

Other journalists sought to make telling connections between Ashford the adult and Ashford the child and questioned why she never pursued an adult writing career. Quoted in the “Chicago Tribune” in July 1919 she disarmingly responded: “I’m afraid my literary genius – such as it was – lapsed with my schooldays.”

In 1920 a collection of short novels by Ashford went on sale. That same year she married James Devlin and the couple took on the running of a hotel in Norfolk. She died in 1972.

Incredibly, Daisy Ashford’s own favourite work, “The Hangman’s Daughter”, did not appear in print until 1983. It was published together her very first effort “The Life of Father McSwiney.”

I subsequently discovered that Lewes was home to another notable woman writer who was also an accomplished illustrator. Eve Garnett lived for many years in a lovely 18th Century cottage in the top half of steep and cobbled Keere Street.

Eve Garnett was born in Worcestershire in 1900. She went to the Chelsea Polytechnic School of Art and attended the Royal Academy. Her illustrative work was considered good enough to be exhibited in the Tate Gallery.

In 1927 she was commissioned to illustrate the eminent suffragist Evelyn Sharp’s book “The London Child”. It was a cathartic experience for Garnett that left her “appalled by conditions prevailing in the poorer quarters of the world’s richest city”.

She determined to strive against the capital’s endemic poverty and squalor.

First manifestation of her struggle was the creation of a huge 40-foot mural at the Children’s House in Bow. Then in 1938 she completed a book of drawings with commentary titled “Is It Well With The Child?”.

Next she both wrote and illustrated a storybook for children that dealt with the social conditions of the English working class.

“The Family From One End Street” tells the story of the Ruggles who live in the centre of Otwell-on-the-Ouse, a fictional place that is most likely a reflection of her hometown of Lewes.

Josiah Ruggles works for the local council as a dustman and his wife Rosie takes in washing.

Life is hard as they have seven children to raise but all in all they are a happy family.

Several publishers rejected the book on the grounds that it was too gritty for young readers. Eve persevered and finally got it into print in 1937.

The book went on to win the Carnegie Medal from the Library Association and was hailed as the year’s outstanding children’s book by a British author. Quite an honour considering her rivals for the award included Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”.

Eve’s book has remained in print to the present day. She penned two “One End Street” sequels.

She was also an accomplished traveller and was particularly attracted to northern latitudes.

Her explorations took her into the Arctic Circle on as many as 16 occasions. She had an intense fascination for the 18th Century Norwegian explorer and missionary Hans Egede and made many visits to Norway where she studied his life and work. Egede led several expeditions to Greenland in fruitless search of descendants of Viking settlers thought to be living there.

From her research Eve gathered enough information to write a radio play, “The Doll’s House in the Arctic”, and the 1968 book “To Greenland’s Icy Mountains”.

Eve Garnett died in a nursing home in Lewes in 1991.

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