Famous Derbyshire people - Alison Uttley

PUBLISHED: 00:00 21 October 2020

Alison Uttley (c) The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Alison Uttley (c) The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

public domain sourced / access rights from The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Alison Uttley was author of over 100 children’s books

Alison Uttley (1884 – 1976)

Alison Uttley was author of over 100 children’s books and is perhaps best known for her series featuring Little Grey Rabbit and Sam Pig. She is also remembered for a pioneering time-shifting novel for children, A Traveller in Time, about the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, thus forging an unlikely historical link with our other literary giant, Hilary Mantel.

Alice Jane Taylor was born at Castle Top Farm, Cromford and brought up in rural Derbyshire. She was educated at the Lea School in Holloway and Bakewell’s Lady Manners School, then a grammar school, where she developed a love of science. This led to a scholarship to Manchester University to read physics, where she began a lifetime friendship with Professor Samuel Alexander, an Australian-born British philosopher who later became the first Jewish fellow of an Oxbridge college. In 1906, Uttley became only the second woman honours graduate of the university and fittingly, in 1970, the university awarded Uttley an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in recognition of her literary work.

After leaving university, Uttley trained as a teacher in Cambridge and in 1908 took up a post as a physics teacher at Fulham Secondary School for Girls in West London. By 1910, she was living at The Old Vicarage in Knutsford, and in 1911 married James Arthur Uttley. The couple had their only child, John Corin Taylor, in 1914. Tragically, James Uttley was prone to depression and committed suicide in 1930.

From 1924 to 1938, Uttley lived in Bowdon, Cheshire, but in 1938 moved to Beaconsfield, where another highly successful children’s author, Enid Blyton was a neighbour. Uttley took an immediate dislike to her illustrious neighbour, describing her as ‘a boastful, vulgar, curled woman.’ Apparently, Uttley was not the easiest person to get on with, as she also quarrelled bitterly with her own best-known illustrator, Margaret Tempest. Uttley said she began writing to support herself and her son after she was widowed, but her first book, The Squirrel, the Hare and the Little Grey Rabbit, was published in 1929, before her husband’s death. Uttley recorded that an inspiration for her writing career was a meeting in 1927 with Professor Alexander at a painting exhibition in Altrincham, when he apparently confused her with another ex-student and asked if she was still writing.

Uttley’s first books were a series of tales about animals, including Little Grey Rabbit, the Little Red Fox, Sam Pig and Hare. She later wrote for older children and adults, particularly focusing on rural topics - notably in The Country Child (1931), a fictionalised account of her childhood experiences at her family’s Cromford farm.

Although her animal books are somewhat out of fashion now, one of her most popular works remains A Traveller in Time (1939). Based on the plot led by Anthony Babington of Dethick, near her Derbyshire family home, this romance mixes dream and historical fact in a story about a 20th century girl who is transported to the 16th century, becoming involved in a plot to free Mary, Queen of Scots from nearby Wingfield Manor.

In later life, Uttley settled in Beaconsfield, in a house named ‘Thackers’ – after the house featured in A Traveller in Time.

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