So, who was Joan Begbie? Some New Forest folk I speak to know of her and her books, others do not. Among the historical figures of the New Forest, she is certainly less well-known locally than the likes of Heywood Sumner (1853–1940) or John Richard de Capel Wise (1831–1890).
Walking in the New Forest (published 1934)
Those steeped in a love of local New Forest history, walking and writing have, however, certainly heard of and read Joan Begbie. This is mainly through Walking in the New Forest, published in 1934 when Joan would have been 36: this is the book I am using to retrace her walks. In it, she describes her rambles (no more than 10 miles, she insists) with her two dogs across the heaths and through the woods. Joan was clearly both knowledgeable about the New Forest and a thorough researcher, though I do not believe she would have counted herself either an expert naturalist or historian. “Our love for the New Forest is much greater than our knowledge of it”, she states in the preface to Walking in the New Forest. Even so, most of her life was spent close to the New Forest and then in and around Swanage in Dorset, so she knew the lie of the land and its local and natural history. Just as importantly, her enthusiasm and love for the Forest shines throughout her writing. This is not a dry book, or one that is hard to follow: the language is full of joy, enlivened both by Joan’s entertaining descriptions and her sense of humour.
Joan is, basically, like you or I: that is, like those of us that take pleasure in walking in the New Forest, and who enjoy learning about its plants and animals, traditions and history as they go. That makes her a good walking companion, despite the almost 100 years that separate the publication of Walking in the New Forest from modern times.
Nonetheless, it is important to remember that Walking in the New Forest was written in the early to mid-1930s. At this time, Joan had lived through the First World War, but the Second World War was as yet a dark cloud looming. She would have only been able to vote since 1928. The years ahead of her – she died in 1984 – would be full of major political, societal and environmental change.
There are mentions of Joan in books – such as In Pursuit of Coney (by David Brian Plummer, pub. 2001), The Seal Summer (by Nina Warner Hooke, pub. 1964), and The Indomitable Beatie (by Ronald Morris, pub. 1985). All these books give the impression of a creative, sociable, educated and intelligent woman who loved her rural life. I wonder what she would have thought of the changes she lived through after the Second World War. The world now is different in so many ways. Yet, the direct and engaging way she writes makes you believe you could reach a hand out to her across the years and feel her grasp as firmly as if she were stood beside you.
I want to introduce you to Joan Begbie mainly through the walks and stories told in the blog posts, so you can come to know her alongside me. However, below is a short chronological biography of Joan and her family. For this, I am hugely indebted to Roger Quin, Joan’s nephew, with whom I have been enjoying a lovely email correspondence, full of tales of Joan and her warm-hearted family. Thanks are also due to Lucy London, who put me in touch with Roger. Lucy runs a website and blog commemorating female war poets (Joan’s father and elder sister Janet both wrote war poetry). Finally, my good friend and author Anne Carwardine used her excellent research skills to find biographical details and references, including in books and journal articles, to Joan and her family.
|1893||Joan’s parents, Edward Harold Begbie and Alice Gertrude Seal (both were known by their middle names), married in Cornwall. Her father (1871–1929), was a journalist, author and social reformer. His writings include war poetry, non-fiction and fiction, political satire, articles and stories, and children’s literature.|
|1897 to 1899||Janet Begbie, Joan’s elder sister, was born in 1897, followed by Joan in 1898 and Eve in 1899. All three were born in Croydon.|
|1901||The family had moved to Byfleet, Surrey, by the time of the 1901 Census. The household had three servants, including a nurse and cook.|
|1911||The 1911 Census recorded the three girls as living with their maternal aunt, Katherine Seal, in Swanage. Their parents Harold and Gertrude were staying at the Charing Cross Hotel on The Strand, in London.|
|1912||In 1912, Joan’s youngest sister, Eleanor, was born in Dorset (Eleanor is Roger Quin’s mother). Sadly, only three months later, Eve died of chloroform poisoning after a routine operation to remove her tonsils. She was only 12. In this year, the family were now living in Swanage.|
|1914||Harold Begbie travelled to New York to promote the war effort.|
|1916 to 1926||Joan spent some time studying at the Slade School of Art (now part of University College London). Her skills as an illustrator are delightfully shown in the sketches she draws in her later books Walking in the New Forest and Walking in Dorset. In the same period, Joan’s eldest sister Janet published a book of war poetry, and books for children under the name Elizabeth Croly: The Lucky Tub (1921), a book of children’s poetry; The Street that Ran Away (1921); and A Sailing We Will Go (1922). Under the same pseudonym, she also published books for older readers, including The Lure of the New Forestand Round About Monte Carlo. Janet married in 1926.|
|1929 to 1939||In 1929, Harold Begbie died. Joan and Eleanor are recorded to be living with their mother at The Red House in Ringwood in 1930, and it is from here that Joan wrote Walking in the New Forest (1934) and Walking in Dorset (1936). Positive and warm reviews of both books appeared in various newspapers across the country.|
|1939 to 1948||Still living with her mother in The Red House, Joan volunteered as an assistant billeting officer during the war (a role that involved finding accommodation for war evacuees). She also wrote two children’s books: Freelance the Pony (1947) and Sergeant the Dog (1948), which were illustrated by Frank Grey and S. Van Abbé, respectively.|
|1949 to 1953||Her mother Gertrude died at The Red House in 1949. Joan initially remained in Ringwood. In 1953 her sister, Janet, who was living in Swanage, died.|
|1956||Joan illustrated A Pocketful of Ponies by Jean Cree.|
|1964 to 1979||Joan appeared in two non-fiction books: The Seal Summer, by Nina Warner Hooke, published in 1964, and also in the 2001 book by David Brian Plummer, In Pursuit of Coney, who refers to meeting her in the 1960s. By this time, she was living in Dorset, in Worth Matravers, a village near Swanage. In 1979, she is recorded as living in Seale Cottage, Worth Matravers.|
|1984||Joan died, on 7 January, in Brooklyn Nursing Home in Bournemouth.|
|2003||Her youngest sister, Eleanor, died.|
All images on this page are © Roger Quin.