Women Writers of Manchester: Alison Uttley 1884 – 1976
Some time ago, friend and fellow volunteer Lesley began a series of blogs about women writers of Manchester, of whom there are many, past and present. Some were Manchester born and bred: see Frances Hodgson Burnett, Dodie Smith and Mrs G Linnaeus Banks. Others lived in the Greater Manchester area such as Richmal Crompton (Bury) and Shelagh Delaney (Salford). Today I want to look at someone who lived in Manchester temporarily and is commemorated here. She also lived for a longer time near Altrincham, now within Greater Manchester.
Alice Jane Taylor, later Alison Uttley, was born in Cromford, Derbyshire at Castle Top Farm. In her autobiographical work The Country Child, Castle Top Farm becomes Windystone Hall and is described in vivid detail. While I do not know how much of the description of Windystone Hall is accurate recollection, she certainly paints an enticing picture: ‘The massive front door, so seldom used, hid in a deep stone porch covered with honeysuckle, in the centre of the building. It led into a stone flagged hall, which was lighted by narrow windows, through which the golden notes danced in straight lines, slanting to the floor…‘
A quick look at a map shows Castle Top Farm, which still exists, on a hillside above Cromford Village. It is probably less than half-a mile from Lea Hurst, the home of the Nightingale family. Elizabeth Gaskell stayed at Lea Hurst in 1854 and says: ‘I never saw such beautiful country. I did not know Derbyshire before. It is beautiful as distinct from wild or grand.’ Alison Uttley the writer, captures this beauty years later: ‘Everywhere green ribbons of lanes and paths threaded the fields and woods, joining valley to valley, tying farm to farm, creeping over the high hills and loitering by the river.‘
As a pupil at Lady Manners School Bakewell, Alice developed a love of science which gained her a scholarship to Manchester University where she read physics. In 1906, she became the University’s second female Honours Graduate. While a student, she lived in a women’s hall of residence called Ashburne Hall. Still there, located off Old Hall Road in the Victoria Park area, Ashburne Hall bears some architectural similarity to 84 Plymouth Grove. It also now displays a blue plaque commemorating Alison.
After university Alice trained in Cambridge to be a teacher, one of the few options open to her, and became a physics teacher at Fulham Secondary School for Girls. She married engineer James Uttley, whom she had met through his sister while studying in Manchester, in 1911. After marriage, as was the convention at the time, she quit her teaching job, and moved with her husband to Cheshire, where she gave birth to her son John. She lived in Bowden, Altrincham from 1924 -1938.
Her first published work, The Squirrel, the Hare and the Little Grey Rabbit (1929), was written for John, shortly after he left for boarding school. ‘Every day in our walks, in England, Wales and France, I told stories of hares and weasels, wolves and foxes, each one different and new,’ she recalled. ‘I was compelled by a strong urge to write down a tale and send it to him.‘
My own fondness for the work of Alison Uttley dates back to my own childhood when I was given a copy of The Country Child (1931). This work, the first she wrote, follows her through a calendar year, celebrating rural traditions and festivals. I had no idea where it was set when I first read it, but I loved her warm descriptions of country life, her slightly frightening solitary walks through woodlands, her love of animals and plants and her deep affection for her home life and family.
It was with some sadness I read that when she showed the manuscript to her husband, he declared it rubbish and threw it across the room, after which she locked it away for some time. James Uttley’s health had been permanently damaged by his service in the first World War, and he committed suicide in 1930, leaving Alice with the need to support herself and her son. Her writing career, born out of financial necessity, took off and she published under the name Alison Uttley. As well as her famous illustrated animal stories, her country books, beginning with The Country Child and continuing with a series of essays on country themes, were extremely popular, due to her ability to remember the smallest details of her Derbyshire childhood. She was also fascinated by dreams and fantasy, demonstrated in her book A Traveller in Time which blends dreams and historical fact. She also wrote a factual work The Stuff of Dreams.
She became a household name for her numerous stories about Little Grey Rabbit, Sam Pig and Tim Rabbit and over her lifetime she published over a hundred stories for children. For us at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, it is sad that she apparently hated comparison with Beatrix Potter, that other great creator of children’s tales about animals and granddaughter of William Gaskell’s great friend Edmund Potter. In her diaries she says that Beatrix was an illustrator who wrote words around pictures, whereas she herself was a great storyteller; her gravestone reads ‘a spinner of tales.’ If only they had met, it would have been another story and connection for us to tell.
In 1938 she moved to Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, to a house named Thackers after the manor house in A Traveller in Time. There she was a neighbour of Enid Blyton, but did not find friendship with her. Alison’s diaries reveal her as a judgemental woman, who also disliked her illustrator Margaret Tempest calling her ‘absolutely awful.’ I can’t help wondering how successful her children’s stories would have been without Margaret’s characterful illustrations.
Alison Uttley was given an honorary Litt.D by Manchester University in 1970 in recognition of her literary achievements. The University has also named one of its halls of residence Uttley House in her honour. She died in hospital on 7th May 1976 at the age of 91.
Manchester University’s John Rylands Library holds a large collection of her papers, correspondence and diaries as well as her own personal library. Many of her diaries have now been published. For more information there is an Alison Uttley Society, with a website www.alisonuttley.co.uk
Jane Mathieson, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House