…about Grayshott’s famous postmistress, Flora Thompson?
Most people probably do know that the author Flora Thompson worked for some while in Grayshott’s Post Office. Although people took her as the postmistress, she was actually the clerk and telegraphist. The official postmaster (and wife-murderer to-be) was her employer, Walter Chapman, whose concentration on his trade of cabinetmaker caused Flora to become the daily face at the Post Office’s counter and led to her unofficial promotion in the minds of her customers.
None of those customers would have known a Flora Thompson, but a Flora Timms, since she didn’t marry until after leaving Grayshott, to John Thompson, in 1903. John was also a post office clerk/telegraphist and I sometimes wonder if the two of them spoke together in Morse code.
Flora’s best known books, the Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy, were a lightly fictionalised autobiography of her own youth in the Oxfordshire countryside, where she first took employment as a Post Office assistant upon leaving school at age 14. Her book about Grayshott – Heatherley – was completed in 1944, three years before her death, and not published until 1979.
Flora arrived in Grayshott, it is thought, in September 1898 and left in autumn 1900. Those two years had a profound effect on the rest of her life. In Heatherley, Flora describes her semi-fictitious character Laura as having been ‘a cat in a previous existence’, for she was more attached to places than people. From the moment she arrived ‘One hot September afternoon near the end of the last century a girl of about twenty walked without knowing it over the border into Hampshire’ the wild and alien scenery became deeply imprinted upon her. Having grown up amidst the gentle farmland of Oxfordshire, which was beautiful in many small ways but otherwise ‘plain and homely’, she had never before encountered the fragrance of gorse and pine, or had long views across heather-clad commons to ‘a wavy line of dim blue hills’.
Flora found making friends of her own age and temperament difficult. She hints of Grayshott as having something of a multiple personality, not a village ‘but a settlement of recent growth’, with a mixed population of shopkeepers, holidaymakers, retirees and bohemian artists, and where the original country smallholders lived in the valleys in their ‘little low houses’. Whilst she made many acquaintanceships with all of those types, she was not part of any of their worlds so it seems that few lasting personal bonds were formed. Instead, she took to long walks in the country, a suspicious pastime in a society where a young woman disappearing alone onto the heath for hours on end was cause for gossip. Upon these walks she appears to have been at her happiest, and often resentful when others insisted on offering her their company.
Of the village, in 1899 she would have seen the openings of St Luke’s and The Fox and Pelican, from which she bought her ninepenny dinners of ‘a thick cut off the joint, two or more vegetables, and a wedge of fruit tart or round of roly-poly’. She noted that of the working people, few who lived in Grayshott had been born there, most having come to the village to earn a living from the area’s growing tourist trade. George Bernard Shaw was a frequent customer at her counter; she described him as a tall man, with a forked red beard and quick, searching eyes. Arthur Conan Doyle she judged as ‘probably the most popular man in the neighbourhood’. She also wrote little character sketches of ordinary residents, such as an unpopular builder who nobody could entirely snub because ‘one half of the villagers were employed by him and the other half employed him’.
Heatherley is presented as fiction, and not everything and everyone in it are traceable to facts, but it’s nonetheless a valuable record of social history at a time of rapid change and contrasts. Grayshott was a place where Flora operated her modern telegraph machine whilst broomsquires, by then outnumbered by incomer celebrities, still fashioned besoms on their ancient homesteads in the long, narrow valleys. It was a village where the stuffy morals of late Victorian England still expected all respectable young women to wear a sailor hat, but progressive thinkers such as Shaw drew crowds to his talks on socialism, vegetarianism and disarmament.
Flora left Grayshott in the autumn of 1900, the result of her reduced workload following the opening of a new telegraph office at Hindhead. She spent short periods in Yateley and Twickenham, then until 1916 in Bournemouth, after which she settled in Liphook. It was after the Great War that she began writing in earnest, surrounded by the nature she had loved since first walking out from the sunken lane at Pitfold twenty years earlier to see her new home before her ‘set with small slender birches just turning yellow, with red-berried rowan and thickets of bracken, the heath lay steeped in sunshine’. Tennyson, Shaw and Conan Doyle may have blessed our village with their presence, but it is to Flora that we owe the most enduring and personalised images of Grayshott’s character.
Flora’s books are generally available in Grayshott at the Post Office and Pottery.
On the Trail of Flora Thompson by John Owen Smith traces the factual basis of many of Flora’s local places and people. His republication of Heatherley (1998) has footnotes on the true identity of people and places she mentions in the book.