She’s acknowledged as one of the 20th century’s greatest children’s writers and her best-known book,
Adventures Of The Little Wooden Horse, has sold millions of copies around the world.
But the origins of this hugely successful story have always been shrouded in mystery. Some critics thought that Ursula Moray Williams had got her idea for the book, which follows the fortunes and mishaps of a wooden horse who sets out to save his master and himself, after reading Pinocchio.
But now it can be revealed that the Petersfield-born author actually got her inspiration much closer to home.
Journalist Colin Davison did some digging while researching a biography called Through The Magic Door: Ursula Moray Williams, Gobbolino and the Little Wooden Horse and made a fascinating discovery.
He says: ‘I discovered from letters that she had based The Little Wooden Horse on something from her early days. Then at Petersfield Museum I found its source. A picture of the bookshop Llewellyn Bradley’s Fancy Repository showed toys arrayed all along its awning.
‘I suddenly realised that her illustration of the little wooden horse was just like those in the picture.’
As children, Ursula and her sister would borrow books from the shop on Lavant Street in Petersfield. Soon after they started writing and illustrating their own stories.
Colin also found that Ursula, who was born 100 years ago, had a love of horses. Her parents couldn’t afford to buy the girls real horses, so they made a whole stable of hobby horses from broom handles, stuffed with socks and with tiddlywinks for eyes.
Colin explains: ‘I found a picture of her and her twin, Barbara, taken at Petersfield where they were riding their hobby horses. They turned up at the local hunt all dressed up. There were a lot of well to-do people there and one of the other children said about Ursula: ‘‘Those silly children think they can go hunting on their hobby horses. They think they’re real.’’’
He says Ursula turned that experience into another one of her books called The Twins And Their Ponies.
‘She went back time and time again, and used memories from her childhood.’
Born in Petersfield in 1911, Ursula wrote nearly 70 books for children until her death in 2006 - including Gobbolino, The Witch’s Cat.
She wrote and illustrated Adventures Of The Little Wooden Horse while expecting her first child and it remained in print throughout her life following its publication in 1939.
Colin, 63, believes that, as Ursula wrote her most famous book while she was pregnant, maybe she was looking back at her own experiences of being a child.
Colin also unearthed a letter Ursula wrote to one of her fans.
He says: ‘She made it clear that she first wrote about horses when she was a young girl, way before she had any books published. Then I just happened to be searching through archives and found the photograph of the bookshop.
‘Ursula and her sister were educated at home at the time. They only went to school for about a year and their walk home would involve going past that bookshop. The fact that she says she was writing stories about wooden horses at the time makes it clear where she got the idea from.’
Colin’s interest in Ursula and Adventures Of The Little Wooden Horse goes back to when his children were young.
He recalls: ‘My wife and I used to read bedtime stories to our children with the idea of getting them off to sleep.
‘When we read Ursula’s story it would practically have the opposite effect, and they would ask for another chapter, then another.
‘It has such an appealing charm, with characters who are brave and adventurous, and do the right thing when surrounded by challenges.’
Colin spent two years researching Ursula’s life, looking through public archives and discovering diaries and letters.
He explains: ‘I could slowly piece together the events in her life, but the really interesting thing was that so much of what she wrote related to her years growing up in Hampshire.’
Petersfield Museum is holding an exhibition about Ursula Moray Williams at the Flora Twort Gallery, Petersfield, until October 22. The exhibition celebrates her life and work and highlights include a wooden horse made to promote Adventures of The Little Wooden Horse in the 1930s and early editions of Ursula’s books.
The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-4pm. For more information, contact the gallery on 01730 260 756 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Colin Davison will also be giving a talk about Ursula and his book at the gallery on October 22. The talk takes place at 7.30pm and Colin will sign copies of the book. For more information, call 01730 260756.