Lewisham’s famous women: Miss Read (17 April 1913 – 7 April 2012)

Miss Read was the pen name of Dora Saint, who wrote over thirty books from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s.

Dora Jessie Shafe was born on 17 April 1913 in South Norwood, London, the youngest of three daughters of Arthur Shafe and his wife Grace Read. Arthur served with the Royal Horse Artillery during the First World War. During his absence the family moved to Hither Green in south London, where Dora grew up surrounded by a close-knit extended family of maiden aunts and grandparents.

Her paternal grandfather was a builder in Deptford, and his widow lived at 267, Hither Green Lane, close to Dora’s own home. The family attended St. Swithun’s church, and Dora went to Ennersdale School.

During the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-21, Dora nearly died and her mother too became seriously ill. Her father, now working as an insurance agent, decided that the family needed country air, and in early 1921 sank his Army gratuity into a smallholding at Chelsfield in Kent, from where he continued to commute to his job in London.

Dora began school at the age of four in Chelsfield, near Orpington, Kent; and later joined her older sister at Bromley county school.

Dora was a voracious reader and, encouraged by her headmaster, who lent her books from his own collection, she soon became familiar with the works of Dickens and devoured periodicals for young people produced by Arthur Mee.

Eventually she won a scholarship to Bromley County School for Girls, where she dreamed of becoming a journalist; but her father discouraged her, saying it was no fit job for a woman, so she trained as a teacher at Homerton College, now part of Cambridge University. At this time her father was also a teacher.

Two years at Homerton were followed by a job in Middlesex, where she remained until war broke out. In 1940 she married a history teacher called Douglas Saint. After he joined the RAF, they moved to Oxfordshire.

Dora started writing after the Second World War, mainly articles for magazines such as Punch and scripts for the BBC Schools Programmes.

In 1953 Sir Robert Lust, a director of the publishing house Michael Joseph, read one of her articles in the Times Literary Supplement and suggested to her that she might have a book in her. The result was Village School which she regarded as fiction and expected to be published under her married name, Dora Saint. But Lust had other ideas. He persuaded her to present it as a non-fiction account of a school year by spinster headmistress Miss Read, her mother’s maiden name.

The name stuck and led to two more books in the series, Village Diary and Storm in the Village, being adapted alongside her first offering and turned into a successful musical, Meet Miss Read.

In 1960 she went into court service working as a magistrate in Newbury, Berkshire which she continued for 23 years. She became an MBE in 1998 and finally retired from writing aged 83. She died 10 days short of her 99th birthday.

Sources:

The Village News: The Truth Behind England’s Rural Idyll

Famous Women of Lewisham

 

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