Flora Thompson's trilogy Lark Rise to Candleford is one of the best-loved books about the English countryside. First published half a century ago, it tells of the dramatic changes seen in a tiny Oxfordshire hamlet in the late-Victorian era. For hundreds of years, 'knowing your place' in the hierarchy had kept farm workers in poverty. Life was hard but families were close, friends were valued and neighbours were respected.
Flora left school without having shown any literary inclinations and it wasn't until she found herself in the alien territory of what is now a bustling suburb of a cosmopolitan Dorset town that the first signs of her talent began to emerge. Indeed, to anybody who has been entranced by Flora's affectionate memories, the Bournemouth suburbs of Winton and Moordown might as well be from another planet. But Flora, then a young housewife, found a treasury of books of all kinds in Winton Library and she taught herself how to write prize-winning essays and short stories.
Flora Jane Timms was born on 5th December 1876 at Juniper Hill, a tiny hamlet of poor thatched cottages near Cottisford in Oxfordshire. Her parents, Emma and Albert, had married in July the previous year. Albert worked as a farm labourer, earning notoriously bad wages, and Emma struggled to feed and clothe Flora, who was the eldest, her two brothers and one sister. Their lives, and those of their friends and neighbours in 'Lark Rise' and 'Candleford', are lovingly chronicled in her books but, before Flora was able to sit down and prepare the typescripts, she had become a much-loved grandmother herself.
Straight from school, Flora started work as a clerk at Fringford (Candleford) Post Office. Then, with an adventurous spirit unusual for a country girl at the turn of the century, she found herself working for the Post Office in London. She wasn't particularly happy there, but she found solace in nearby Kew Gardens where the woodland and the lakes reminded her of home, even if the formal gardens didn't.
Soon [see Note 1] she met John, brother of George Thompson, a colleague of Flora's from the Central Telegraph Office. John, or Jack as he was called, worked for the Post Office as well as a clerk and telegraphist in Bournemouth. In no time at all, Jack and Flora were married in Twickenham Parish Church. Flora would have been pleased to be marrying in the church where the poet Alexander Pope is buried, but she would have preferred to marry at Cottisford so that her parents could have been with her. They simply couldn't afford the fare to London.
The newlyweds moved to Sedgley Road, Winton, part of a brand-new development on the very edge of Bournemouth. The native country that was being engulfed by Flora's new estate is remembered in the street names where she lived. Heathwood Road, Fernside Road, Glenmoor Road, Woodend Road, Greenwood Road, Withermoor Road and Firs Glen Road all speak of heather moors and pine woods.
Flora hated the constant building work that was going on around her, with new houses and shopping parades springing up everywhere, but she had to stay at home because the Post Office didn't employ married women in those days. Jack carried on with his job at the Main Post Office and Flora walked, as often as she could, to Talbot Village estate where the pine woods, the heath and the village atmosphere reminded her of her childhood home. The pleasantly-matured village had been laid out 40 years earlier by the wealthy Talbot sisters. Four hundred acres of common land were enclosed but 150 acres were kept for common use. There was a church, a thriving school with 100 pupils, and 19 Gothic-style cottages with an acre of garden each where pigs could be kept.
In early-autumn 1903, their first child, Winifred Grace, was born and the proud parents took her to St John's, a new church for the neighbouring suburb of Moordown, for the christening. Jack's career with the Post Office meant the family's future was quite secure, yet Flora was not content with the suburban life of matching suites and aspidistras in the hall. Feeling the odd-one-out in a highly conventional society, she preferred old furniture and wild flowers. Her isolation made her dream of her days in Juniper Hill but she didn't feel confident enough to commit her memories to paper. Later, she wrote: 'With a house to run single-handed, with children being born and nursed, my literary dreams faded for a while. But I still read a good deal. For the first time in my life, I had access to a good public library and slipped in, like a duck slipping into water, and read almost everything.'
Briefly in 1909, Flora managed a visit to her old home to see her brother
Edwin one last time before he emigrated to Canada. She was expecting her second
child, Henry Basil, but she still undertook the 100-mile journey by train and
pony-and-trap, taking little Winifred with her to meet her grandparents at last.
In later life, Winifred often recalled the visit, with a great deal of affection.
In 1909, with the family expanding, the Thompsons moved to a bigger house in Edgehill Road, Winton. They called their new home 'Grayshott Cottage' after the Post Office cottage in Cottisford [see Note 2]. Shortly after Henry was born, Flora took her first faltering steps towards becoming a world-famous author. In 1910, she started reading The Ladies' Companion, a magazine of stories and ideas for self-improvement for lower-middle-class women. Coincidentally, Jack had just offered to prepare the minutes of meetings of the UK Postal Clerks Association, of which he was a member. Ever helpful, Flora persuaded Jack to buy a typewriter so that she could type the minutes for him. Of course, in its unofficial moments, the typewriter prepared entries for the magazine's essay competitions.
Flora's first success came in February 1911 when the magazine published her 300-word essay on Jane Austen. She won a five-shilling book prize, but her biggest thrill was getting her first work into print at the age of 35. Over the next few months, Flora won prizes for essays on Emily Bronte, Shakespeare's heroines (she chose Juliet), Thackeray and Shakespeare himself. To crown a busy 12 months, The Ladies' Companion printed her short story The Toft Cup in January 1912. This was her first paid work and, over the next two years, Flora worked hard on her new art form. She had many more short stories printed and she was delighted to be supplementing Jack's income.
The same year, a great leap forward was inspired by a very unlikely source. After the Titanic disaster in 1912, the renowned poet and physician Ronald Macfie wrote an ode on its sinking. The Ladies' Companion readers were invited to send in criticisms of the poem and, as might now be expected, Flora won first prize. Macfie was impressed by the work and the two became friends for nearly 30 years. He visited her in Bournemouth and encouraged her talent. It appears he liked 'causes' and he saw Flora as one worth nurturing. In 1913, in a step-up from, The Ladies' Companion Flora sold a story called The Leper to The Literary Magazine.
Then came the First World War. John was too old to fight and her son Henry was too young, but her brother Edwin joined the Eastern Ontario Regiment. Sadly he died in France within three weeks of landing there. In 1915, the Thompsons moved again, to Frederica Road, another typically suburban house which they again called 'Grayshott Cottage'. Flora kept writing articles, poems and short stories for newspapers and magazines but the loss of her brother, and her approaching 40th birthday, left her feeling that the time for romantic dreams was over. She gave up writing and, when John accepted a salaried position as sub-postmaster at Liphook in Hampshire in August 1916, she was happy to leave 'suburban' Bournemouth with its memories of losing Edwin. And Liphook was within walking distance of Grayshott and the countryside she loved so much.
It was more than 20 years before Flora returned to her writing [see Note 3]. John had been promoted again to postmaster in Dartmouth, Devon in 1927 and Flora's children were both grown-up. With more time to spare, she began work on her first full-length story of her early life in Lark Rise. This was published in March 1939, just months before the start of the Second World War. But Flora managed to finish the two other stages in her trilogy, Over to Candleford which was published in 1941 and Candleford Green, published in 1943.
Then, she began work on the fourth volume Still Glides the Stream. Set in the countryside of her youth, it is a beautiful study of life in a typical English village around Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887. Sadly, Flora didn't see her latest book in print. She was taken ill in the spring of 1947 and, whilst resting in bed on 21st May, she suffered an unexpected heart-attack. She left us a delightful inheritance in Still Glides the Stream, her very personal view of a vanished way of life in the English countryside.
These notes added for this website by John Owen Smith:
Note 1: Flora left Fringford in 1897 and married John in 1903 between these dates she worked in several locations, including more than 2 years at Grayshott in Hampshire. It is not clear when or where she first met John during this period.
Note 2: Not named after Cottisford, but after Grayshott village where she worked 1898-1901.
Note 3: She was actually quite a prolific writer during her time in Liphook 1916-1928, but not much of it is generally recognised.