Elsie Jeanette Dunkerley was born in Southport, Lancashire, England, in November 1880, to an English father and a Scottish mother.
Before she was two years old the family moved to Ealing, West London, where they lived for nearly forty years. She and her sisters went to private schools and attended Ealing Congregational Church. The six Dunkerley children in order of age were: Elsie, Marjory (Maida), Roderic, Theodora (Theo), Erica and Hugo. The family lived in five different houses during their time in Ealing and moved to Worthing, Sussex, in 1922. She took the surname Oxenham as her pen name when Goblin Island was published in 1907. Her father, William Arthur Dunkerley, had used the pen-name “John Oxenham” for many years prior to this.
During the London years, Elsie Oxenham became involved in the British Camp Fire Girls movement, and qualified as a Guardian – the leader of a group of Camp Fire Girls. She ran this Camp Fire Group for some 6 years, until the move to Sussex. One of the Camp Fire members was Margaret Bayne Todd – later Margaret, Lady Simey – who appears in Abbey Girls in Town and to whom that title was dedicated. It is thought that she was the ‘original’ on whom the characters of both Jenny-Wren and Littlejan were based.
At some point during her time in London Oxenham joined the English Folk Dance Society (EFDS – it did not become the English Folk Dance and Song Society [EFDSS] until much later). She then discovered how ‘badly’ she had been doing the dances – and teaching them! – as related in The Abbey Girls Go Back to School (published 1922). Everything that the ‘Writing Person’ [her on-page persona] told Maidlin, Jen and Joy, in The New Abbey Girls (published 1923), about dancing, Grey Edward, and the Camp Fire had happened as described.
After the family had moved to Worthing, Oxenham taught folk dancing in nearby villages and schools. She tried to start another Camp Fire but that was not a success as most of the girls of the right age were already Girl Guides.
At first, the family all lived at Farncombe Road, Worthing, but after their mother died the four sisters moved out, living in pairs, Elsie with Maida, and Erica with Theo. None of the sisters married, but both brothers did. Elsie died in a local nursing Home in January 1960, a few days after Erica.