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Kathryn Holland shares memories of her late father C. Reginald Dalby with us, and in doing so, gives us a glimpse into the life of a very fascinating man!

~ Correspondence with James Gratton January-March, 2008


C.R. Dalby with daughter, Kate , Piccadilly, London, 1952

photo courtesy Kate Holland to SiF

Kate, can you tell us what inspired your father to write Tales of Flitterwick Harbour and why he chose a maritime setting?

As a young child my father and I had several trips to a place called Sandbanks which is part of Poole Harbour.  Between there and the Isle of Purbeck, I think, there was a small car ferry which we would watch from our hotel balcony.  Perhaps this sowed the original seeds but we also had a holiday at Poole itself and I recall my parents had friends who ran a water and fuel delivery service to the yachts moored within Poole Harbour.  At that time these boats had a flag signalling system which indicated whether they needed supplies.


On the "Prudence", Poole Harbour (1950s). My mother, Iris and the Skipper's wife

photo courtesy Kate Holland to SiF

The small boat which I think was either an ancient lifeboat or tug was called Prudence and for some reason the 4 adults nicknamed me Impudence!!  I think I was quite a cheeky child so that is probably the reason!  I remember also that Prudence broke down in the middle of the harbour, an experience I found quite alarming as we were adrift for some time and fast approaching a Sunderland flying boat which was moored in the harbour.  You may know, but Poole Harbour is some 100 miles in area and is a natural harbour.

Did he base any elements of the stories (Fireworks), human characters (Tommy, Mr. Lordly, the Harbour Master) or non-human characters (Tubby, Sandy, Pride of Flitterwick) etc. on real-life people or events?

I don’t know but guess the foundation for the story was based on characters that my father came across whilst in Poole etc.  My copy of the book is in a safe deposit and I haven’t read it for many years.

Your father dedicated the book to you, as seen in the book’s dust-jacket. What were your thoughts of at the time when the book was published in 1955?

I think I was probably thrilled at having the dedication and excited by the forthcoming publication but quite honestly can’t remember how I felt.


Kate and her father featured on the dust-jacket of Tales of Flitterwick Harbour

You mentioned to me in an earlier email that your father was disappointed with how TOFH was published – especially with regards to the illustrations. Could you tell us more about what he originally had in mind? Were they to be similar to the ones he'd drawn for the Railway Series?

Inevitably artistic style invariably dictates the final illustrations, but the disappointment was more the rather crude interpretation of the original drawings.  I am sure you would agree that in comparison with the production of Thomas, TOFH is not up to standard really.

You also mentioned that you still have the original sketches that your father drew for TOFH. Is there any possibility that we may see them? Did your father also keep any prototype sketches that he drew for the Railway Series?

Thinking back, the book I have in sketch form is probably an unfinished sequel to TOFH are or were with the publishers.  There are no sketches of the Railway Series, although I have seen the original drawings/paintings which I can tell you are slightly bigger than the size of the books themselves.


This (picture above) is from father's other Flitterwick book - The Water Postman. The text of the book was written on my father's ancient Imperial Good Companion typewriter, which I still have!!  It must be 80 years old by now and one of the originals.

There is a map of the Flitterwick Harbour area printed on the inside cover papers of the book. Did your father have additional story settings in mind for subsequent volumes?

I believe there was an intended sequel to the TOFH but because of the failure of the first book, pursuing publication was dropped.

Brian Sibley noted that your father included himself (standing with the coat) and yourself holding a small dog (corgi) on a leash in one of the illustrations for Troublesome Engines: Tenders and Turntables (1950). Do you remember seeing this illustration as a child?

Yes, I do remember the Troublesome Engines book and the picture which included myself and my dog – her name was Chloe and she had been given to me when I was 4 by my father’s brother who bred Corgis. Chloe’s mother was a Crufts Champion.  Chloe was a delightful dog and a constant companion to me as a child – ordinarily she never had a leash as she was so well behaved.


Were you a follower of the Railway Series when you were younger?

I read the Railway Series manuscripts but can’t say I was a follower really.  Living with it all was perhaps a little off-putting – I can’t remember really.

Did you ever see your father working on the Railway Series illustrations?

The commission for the Railway Series often "came in" at a time which coincided with my school summer holidays.  My father had his studio at home and therefore, I would often stand at his elbow as he worked, turning the written word in pictures to which children could relate.  I don’t remember which book, but I do clearly remember the drawing being produced of the lady in bed, flapping her shawl because of the landslide – I thought it all very exciting.

Percy the Small Engine (1956) was the final volume that your father illustrated for the Railway Series. Was leaving the Railway Series a difficult decision for him?

Frankly, I don’t know specifically, but do know that Father and the Reverend didn’t get on well.  The commission to illustrate was purely a commercial one – I don’t think there was anything more to it.  The money was useful and as soon as it was received, Father would say, as far as I recall “Well, now let’s go off to France” which we did.


A rare photo of the author and artist together at a bookstore to promote the RWS (early 1950s)

Did he ever see or comment on the illustrations of his successor – John Kenney?

As to John Kenney, I really don’t know whether Father saw his work.  He did know him I think because they worked in the same profession.  Mr. Kenney was employed by a company called Slaters who used to be situated, funnily enough, in the village where I now live.  Mr. Kenney’s widow lives in the next village to us and we do speak on the telephone quite often.  She is quite frail now.  John Kenney was a fine artist, specialising in the painting of horses and as this area is famed for its fox hunting (or was before our current Government changed the rules!!) he created many excellent depictions of the Hunt.

Did your father have a favourite illustration or volume from his time with the Railway Series?

I don’t know whether my Father had a favourite illustration – he wanted to do a good job because he was a professional but I have to reiterate, the commission was only one of the many others that he had.  He was a commercial artist in a city famed at that time for printing, so he was involved in the design and production of catalogues, pamphlets, brochures etc. for local businesses.  At that time Leicester was famous for its industries.  Basically hosiery and knitwear production, the building of the machinery for that industry; boot and shoe manufacture and the machinery to make telescope lenses (Rank Taylor Hobson) etc.

I get the impression that your father enjoyed travelling. Did you ever accompany your father on his travels?

Yes, I had many, many trips with my parents and Father and I had some trips together without my Mother.  I recall in 1956 he and I took off to Europe for some weeks and we had a wonderful time.  We travelled from Leicester by train and crossed the Channel to Ostend, catching the newly commissioned Trans Europe Express from there to Munich.  The train had been in service for 3 weeks and finished its journey in Istanbul.  It was all very exciting and I clearly remember encountering a Sheikh in full regalia – I thought it all very romantic.  We travelled all over Southern Germany and Austria by bus and train, went to Koblenz which had still not been reconstructed after the devastation of the War and was a mass of bomb craters etc. I remember turning to my Father and saying “They don’t like us much do they Daddy?”.  Somehow I’d picked up on a prickly atmosphere.  I guess we were something of a novelty – a father and child travelling together, in those days, was perhaps a little unusual.

My father had a great love of the outdoors and in his youth was an enthusiastic walker both here and overseas.  As a family we walked a lot and he taught me many things about the countryside - something I have retained and still enjoy.


Left: The Dalby Family in Alassio, Italy, 1957 Right: CR Dalby in Jura, France, 1938

Photos courtesy Kate Holland to SiF

Your father served in the Royal Air Force during WWII in the then-secret MI9 unit. Did he ever share his experiences or anecdotes about his time in the service?

The RAF – oh yes!  There are many, many stories.  I have his discharge papers still, but he did not take his medals (think you had to pay for them!). My father had applied to join the Merchant Navy but was considered, at 35, to be too old.  The RAF was happy to have him.

I don’t know the precise details but do remember tales of one posting to Fraserburgh in the far north of Scotland in the middle of winter.  My father was a cold mortal, and damn near froze to death up there.  They were billeted in Nissen huts with a wood burning stove in the centre.  He told me that the wind blew so hard one night that both ends of the hut blew in and they had as much snow inside as out! There was also some story about shortages of rations and a bit of sheep rustling that went on. 


I know that he was stationed fairly locally here and one posting was to Castle Donington (which is now East Midlands International Airport) near Derby and also at RAF Cottesmore in Rutland which is still an operational station, I think for Bomber Command. He moved stations almost immediately after my birth and so had had to pay for two celebration parties – one at his earlier station and one at the new one.

He told me a lot about his work in MI9 which was Escape and Evasion really and showed me several maps printed on silk handkerchiefs which were issued to pilots in case they were shot down.  There were also compasses housed in RAF tunic buttons.  He was responsible for briefing and debriefing air crews and the creation of lecture documents etc.


RAF PT. LIEU. C. Reginald Dalby (1945)

Photo courtesy Kate Holland to SiF

Can you tell us a bit about your father’s post Railway Series work?

As I have said my father’s post-Railway Series work continued with his other clients but as the family split up and he moved away from home, I can’t elaborate really.

We understand that your father created some works of art on canvas. Could you tell us about them?

I have a house full of my father’s paintings – they are on every wall!!


Watercolour of King's Norton Church painted by C.R. Dalby in 1973

Photo courtesy Kate Holland to SiF

This is one of a series of 4 which hang in our sitting room.  It is of a local church in a village called King's Norton.  There is a degree of artistic licence, of course, but... My father did many others but I have always preferred his watercolours as the medium lends itself better to his style in my view.


Photo of King's Norton Church taken by Kate Holland 18 Feb. 2008

Photo courtesy Kate Holland to SiF

In the years after his work on the Railway Series, did the people he meet ever recognize him as the stories’ illustrator?

Yes, people did recognise him as the illustrator of the Railway Series.  He was a very well-known local character and knew many, many people.  In the 80s and after his death, someone heard something on the BBC about the Rev. Awdry and the books and rang the BBC to say “Hey, what about the illustrator?”. This resulted in my being interviewed for the local TV news programme.  On the evening of the broadcast I had dozens of phone calls from people who had seen the item.  It was my 30 seconds of fame!


My parents - Reginald and Iris Dalby in 1978

Photo courtesy Kate Holland to SiF

A bit of a mystery to the fans, but would you know why your father disliked his first given name? (Clarence)

As to Clarence I think he thought it pretentious but really don’t know.  He was always known as Reggie.

Since you’ve influenced the writing for TOFH and were included in one of the Railway Series illustrations, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Me – well how much do you want to know? I can’t draw or paint but do have a creative bent I suppose. I am married to a retired solicitor, we have no children. I worked for many years for a local children’s hosiery manufacturer as Export and Marketing Manager – sadly like so many others, the company is now closed having fallen foul of imports from the Far East and Turkey.  I’m over 60 now (ugh), enjoy the outdoors, travel and as we have a home in France, spend a lot of time there during the year.  I lived in London for some years during the Swinging 60s and had a great time – all very carefree.

Lastly, what would you like new and old fans of the Railway Series to remember your father for?

Remember him for bringing the written word to life for thousands of children, being a highly amusing and entertaining man who loved life and people and being such a great mentor to me and my best-ever friend.


A young C. Reginald Dalby with his Mother

Photo courtesy Kate Holland to SiF

We would like to express our sincerest thanks and gratitude to Kate Holland for sharing her personal memories and mementos of her father with us. We would also like to thank Nicholas Jones (Quanta Films) for helping us make contact.


This British Pathé newsreel clip "The Water Postman" was filmed in 1964 in Poole Harbour. The young lad in the clip or his predecessor may have inspired C. Reginald Dalby to pen the Flitterwick Harbour sequel mentioned in the interview.


SiF's detailed coverage of C. Reginald Dalby's Tales of Flitterwick Harbour, including character information and story summaries.

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