Alison Uttley celebration - July 2017

Alison Uttley, ‘spinner of tales’ and creator of the Little Grey Rabbit books for children, lived in Beaconsfield from 1938 until her death in 1976. She wrote over 100 books and became a millionaire in the post-war years from the sales of her Little Grey Rabbit and Sam Pig children's stories.

Any celebration of Alison Uttley must of course involve children. So the Society’s Alison Uttley month featured a whole raft of fun activities designed with them in mind. We worked in partnership with the staff of Bekonscot Model Village, High March School and Beaconsfield Library, all of whom threw themselves enthusiastically into the project.

Our celebrations launched on the weekend of 24-25 May 2017 with a special treasure hunt organized by Bekonscot Model Village, who cunningly hid several Little Grey Rabbit characters throughout their extensive gardens. Their treasure hunt sheet, given out to visiting children, also included a colouring competition and a quiz. The lucky winners received book prizes generously donated by Templar Publishing.

At the same time, High March School organized art and craft competitions for the town’s primary schools, with two age categories, 4–8 years and over 9’s. The younger children were asked to colour in and decorate drawings, either of Hare and Squirrel rowing a boat to a party, or Little Grey Rabbit on her way to the party, too. The older children could choose to create a party hat for Hare or a party apron for Little Grey Rabbit, using fabric, paper or card. This proved to be very popular. The first prizes were a large Treasury of Little Grey Rabbit stories, also donated by Templar Publishing, plus a Little Grey Rabbit toy. Second prizes were of smaller books.

The library was a hive of activity throughout the celebrations. They mounted a large display on Alison Uttley’s life and work, including a selection of her adult and children’s books. Also on display was a beautiful ornate table which had once belonged to the author. This was kindly loaned by Belinda Avery of High March School, who had inherited the table from her grandmother, Del Anderson, a great friend of Alison Uttley.

The library also put on a treasure hunt over a two-week period, hiding six beautifully knitted Little Grey Rabbits for little readers to find. To decide the winners, children were also asked to give the famous little rabbit a name. The prize-winning suggestions were Petal, Milly and Hoppy.

Tuesday 27 June was designated ‘Alison Uttley Day’ at the library, with a special birthday party story time for the under 5’s in the morning. The library volunteers told a fun story about an animal picnic and the 16 children who came happily waved cut out pictures of LGR and her friends whenever they were mentioned in the story.

In the afternoon, there was a craft session. More than 40 children joined in, colouring in and decorating a selection of masks featuring Alison’s famous characters, and making pop-up puppets using beakers and sticks. It was a hectic fun-filled hour, made possible with extra support from both library and Beaconsfield Society volunteers.

The afternoon came to a happy end with a prize-giving ceremony, hosted by Belinda Avery with Kari Dorme of The Beaconsfield Society, followed by a quite delicious party picnic for all the children. This was most kindly sponsored by Jungs our local Baker and Patisserie, who made special rabbit-shaped biscuits for the occasion.

On 1 July 2017 at the Fitzwilliams Centre, the Alison Uttley celebration reached its conclusion with a thoroughly engaging talk on her life and work by her biographer, Professor Denis Judd. As President of the Alison Uttley Society and editor of Alison’s letters, he did not disappoint.

It emerged at the start of Professor Judd’s talk that Alison arrived in Beaconsfield at exactly the same time as Enid Blyton, another world-famous children’s writer. Unfortunately, he confirmed, Alison took a great dislike to her fellow author, whom she called a ‘vulgar curled woman’. Relationships remained frosty!

In an hour-long talk that easily held the interest of the 65-strong audience, Professor Judd sympathetically conveyed the very human story of Alison’s public success as a children’s writer, contrasting with some dark and lonely aspects of her private life. She had been widowed early when her husband committed suicide, and turned to writing to support herself and her young son, John. He, too, suffered from mental health problems and committed suicide after his mother died.

Professor Judd brought Alison’s complex character to life. He described how she could be charming and kind to her friends and then abruptly change mood and cut them off, ending her life as a rather lonely woman despite her fame. He also discussed her over-weaning love for her son, to whom she became almost unhealthily attached.

It was clear to all that, despite her character flaws, he remained a dedicated fan of Alison’s, treating his subject with respect and generosity. He highly recommended that we read her letters and her writing for adults, which he held in high regard. His talk stimulated many questions from the audience, and discussions continued over tea.

My thanks go to all those involved in helping me put together such a worthwhile and fun children’s celebration of Alison Uttley and her Little Grey Rabbit stories. It will have done so much to raise awareness of these appealing books. I would especially like to mention Maura Buckland, Marketing Manager of Bekonscot Model Village, Belinda Avery and Linda Bissett, art teacher, from High March School, Helen Goreham, library manager at Beaconsfield Library, Templar Publishing, who donated all the Little Grey Rabbit book prizes for the children¹s competitions as well as a full set of the stories for Beaconsfield Library, and Jungs, whose Little Grey Rabbit biscuits helped to make the celebrations special. And last but not least, I would like to thank Rosemary Saunders, who knitted the utterly delightful Little Grey Rabbit toys.

Altogether, it was a very successful and enjoyable celebration of Alison Uttley.

The Society has created a colourful graphic display on Alison’s life, which remained on show over the summer, at the corner of Maxwell Road and Station Road.

Kari Dorme (Committee member and celebration organiser)