In 1903 a newly wed couple, John and Flora Thompson, arrived in Winton to begin their married life. 105 years later Flora's recollections of her Oxfordshire childhood became one of the BBC's most prestigious dramas, winning a large viewing audience. The drama, 'Lark Rise to Candleford', was based on Flora's books, and it was in Winton that Flora set out on her literary journey. Today we will be unveiling a plaque on one of Flora's Winton homes, to mark the connection to this remarkable woman.
The first public record we have of Flora in Winton dates from 1903, when her daughter Winifred Grace was born at on 24th October at 4 Sedgley Road. This, Flora's first home in Winton, is also now marked by a Blue Plaque.
The other record of the Thompsons being in Winton at this time comes from the Burgess Roll, which was compiled every year and showed everyone who was entitled to vote. The volume for 190405 is the first one where the family name appears, but of course only John is shown as Flora, being a woman, was not entitled to vote.
The 190506 volume shows the Thompsons' move to the neighbouring property, 6 Sedgley Road. The 190809 volume records the move to 2 Edge Hill (now Edgehill) Road.
There is another written record relating to Flora from this time as the mother of Henry Basil, born 6th October 1909.
Flora also turns up in Mate's Street Directory for 1914, although she is Mrs J.W. Thompson, rather than 'Flora', or even Mrs F.J. Thompson.
There is a similar record from 1916, when the Thompsons were at their final Winton home, in Frederica Road.
At this time the norm was for people to rent their homes; still it is unusual for people to have moved as often as the Thompsons, but the shape of Winton in the early 20th century may account for some of the moves.
Winton was a new and growing suburb in 1903 when the Thompsons first arrived. Fifty years earlier Winton did not exist at all, the land here was a mixture of pine wood and heathland, forming part of the Branksome Estate, and fifty years before that, as part of the 'Liberty of Westover', it had been the haunt of smugglers and cottagers who relied on the heath for grazing and fuel, and was dotted with prehistoric burial mounds.
As Winton grew, it expanded into this former landscape of heather, gorse and withy moor. The aptly named Withermoor Road carried the expansion westwards, creating the brand new housing estate that welcomed the Thompsons in 1903.
Sedgley Road would have been on the edge of the wilderness when Flora first lived there, but soon it was swallowed by newer homes, and the move to Edgehill Road would have taken Flora back to the edge of the wild heath. From her back windows Flora would have had views of Talbot village, the settlement created by the Talbot sisters in the 1850s for the impoverished families of neighbouring Kinson, who lived harshly penniless lives just like the characters of 'Lark Rise'.
Fortuitously a Public Library arrived in Winton in 1907. It was provided by Bournemouth Council, which had taken over the district in 1901, and was funded by the wealth of the Scottish-American steel manufacturer, Andrew Carnegie. The library's novel policy of allowing readers to choose their own books from the shelves sparked Flora's interest in writing, so she recorded some of her feelings about her life in Winton. We know that she enjoyed taking walks through the woodland to Westbourne and Talbot Village.
We also know that Flora took part in the life of Winton: her children were baptised in the local church appropriately dedicated to Saint John-in-the-Wilderness. The children would have attended the school close by the church.
The entry for Henry Basil's baptism shows that Flora had named her home Grayshott Cottage. Grayshott was the village where Flora, aged about 21 had worked in the post office. When she was living in Bournemouth Flora no longer worked for the Post Office they didn't employ married couples and John Thompson was already employed as a telegraphist, in the main Bournemouth office. The Thompsons were living a respectable life, several steps up the social ladder from some of Flora's immediate ancestors.
Flora's father was a stone mason employed by various builders, whilst her maternal grandfather was an 'ag lab' (agricultural labourer) undertaking arduous rural work. Her paternal grandmother Martha Wallington had come from a family of some wealth, but had fallen on hard times after the family was assailed by illness and death. But the family had provided a distant creative relative, of whom Flora was peripherally aware: Emma Susannah Wallington was an author and campaigner for female equality.
Flora still did not enjoy the rights of modern women, never having the right to vote whilst living in Bournemouth, and her literary ambitions were not those to which her in-laws thought a good housewife should aspire. Some of Flora's living relatives recall that the family's reaction had been 'Floss and that damned poetry!'
Although Flora did not write her famous 'Lark Rise' books here, and whilst they drew on her youthful days in Juniper Hill and Cottisford, it was in Winton, as she struggled with her duties as an Edwardian housewife, that Flora was inspired to write, and to help others to write. And it was in Winton that she won competitions for her early prose.
There have been staged productions of 'Lark Rise to Candleford' before, but the 2008 BBC TV series marks the first major filmed version of Flora Thompson's books. The BBC has been so pleased with the reception given to the first series that a second one is in production and filming is just about to start.
Travelling to Winton especially for the unveiling of our Flora Thompson Blue Plaque is Olivia Hallinan, the young star of the BBC series.
Planning Services, Bournemouth Council, April 2008