These Letters

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These letters are from my Mother’s brother Albert. He did not live long enough to become an uncle to any of his four nieces. It is these letters that I always knew of. These are the letters that I knew were stored and safeguarded, because one day someone would read them again and Albert would come back to life.

He died on 12 January 1944. He was 22 years old. My Mother was 13, an evacuee in Bournemouth. His brother, my Uncle Peter was 17 and at Cambridge University.

The three bundles of letters are from 1941, 1943 and 1944. Those loose are from 1942 – I believe – although many have incomplete dates and so could be from other years. I look at this pile of letters and wonder where do I begin.

I think on how their contents are all I shall ever experience of him. The Letters as a whole entity are all I shall ever know of my Mabey relatives passed away, yet Albert’s letters have a particular poignancy. His death was the tragedy of my Mother’s family. She rarely talked of him but the silences of grief were still palpable in my young childhood.

I have two letters left from 1939, which I will publish in the next two weeks. Then we move to 1941, when the world is at wholeheartedly at war and thus Albert’s voice will take centre stage, and I shall come to know my uncle.

Side by Side

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Side by side within the small envelope are two letters to my Mother from her Grandparents. Two letters sent to Wales from the Isle of Wight in 1939. My Mother was on holiday with her parents and brothers. It was to be their last family holiday together, although they did not know this at the time. Just as no-one knew for certain that Britain would declare war within a few weeks, least of all (I hope) my eight year old Mother.

I had intended to publish these letters from Great-Grandmother and Great-Grandfather in consecutive weeks; perhaps a subconscious desire to stretch out the idyll of the pre war letters for a little longer. Yet they have lain so long together in that tough little envelope, how could I part them? So I send them out into the world together, as always intended.

I imagine my mother dashing up to her bedroom and sprawling across ‘the biggest bed in the house’ to read her very own letters; the private joy of one’s very own correspondence. Auntie Frad has piggy-backed a line onto Great-Grandmother’s letter, ‘Thank you for your letter. I will write next week.’ I regret that only one letter from Great-Aunt Frad survives, written in 1970 in which she blames the bad weather on the Apollo 13 space mission. I have faint but fond memories of our Auntie Frad.

20-08-39

Dear Jeanie. I must write a letter to you to thank you for your drawing of your holiday cottage. It is very nicely done and gives us a good idea of the place. We are all so glad you are enjoying yourselves and that the weather is good. I think it might be a rather dismal place if it rained all day. Fancy you having the biggest bed in the house you must be nearly lost in it and hardly know which end to get out. There is no fear of your falling out of the window if it is only a skylight? But you cannot see the country from it? We were everso interested in Daddy and Mummie’s letters of all your doings. I know Daddy enjoys getting the wood for the fire but I expect Mummy will be glad to get back to her gas stove and water from the tap – but I am sure she likes sitting out in the garden. We are sorry you are troubled with spots again – they must be Welsh ones this time. I have just been to look at the little colts. They look so pretty under the trees but the flies don’t give them much peace! Auntie Frad found your lace petticoat in your bed here. She has washed it and will send it to 38 B. Rd. Now with love from all to all I will say Goodbye. Love from Grandma x x x x x x x x x x x x

Great-Grandfather’s letter is characteristically exuberant but less easy to follow. I am not sure what type of woollen attire my Mother sent him, nor who Mr Lloyd was, and why his visit was worth mentioning.

Dear JEANNIE. I am just writing you a few lines to thank you for sending me the Welsh LAMBS Wool. Real WELCH from WALES – fancy that. I am sure I SHALL Hop about quite smartly now when I go out to SMOKE my PIPE &co. Thank you very much for your kind thought &co. I am glad to hear that you are enjoying your holiday &co and that you are having nice summer WEATHER. Tell your DAD that I have been very busy this week picking Apples and PLUMS – wouldn’t you like to have some in the GARDEN where you are staying ?? Also planting broccoli &co as Mr WOODS came up yesterday and dug some ground for me. Also tell him not to forget all about his VISIT to Mr Lloyd as I did not hear very much &co. Well now I must say Goodbyee. Hope that you will have it fine all this week and NEXT. With lots of LOVE & kisses from “GRANDAD” x x x x x x.

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A page from my Mother’s album.

 

It was 79 years ago today..

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Curious that I should find this letter, next in line to be published, on the anniversary of its creation. My Great-Grandfather wrote to my Grandfather on 12 April 1939, a day of ‘warm weather’ – oh how I wish it were warm here today, another gloomy, grey-sky day in London. Great-Grandfather asked for advice about the lawnmower, wondering if his son John could look for a secondhand one in Southampton. My Great-Grandfather is 81 and worried about all the grass there is to cut and worried too about money.

His daughter Frad has left to take Jeannie, my Mother, back to East Cowes to catch the ferry for Southampton and Great-Grandfather chooses this moment of privacy to appeal to his son. Great-Grandfather and Frad have argued; Frad held the purse-strings in Headley House and she was not persuaded of the expense of a replacement mower, secondhand or otherwise.

So on this damp and overcast morning I try to slip myself into that long-ago world, where a little girl who will grow up to be my Mother is skipping down the road with her chatterbox Aunt Frad who (being a schoolmistress) always knew best and always had an opinion that you would be foolish to contradict. Great-Grandfather saw them to the gate, one hand on his walking stick,  the other hand steadying on the postbox wall. As they passed out of view he turned back to the house, shaking his head at the relentless new growth of his market gardens, land that he could no longer control. Oh what a thing it is to grow so old, to lose grip on one’s kingdom. What an agitation to have no secure income, to have to make do with less and less as the years pass. So Great-Grandfather resolves, with the good humour that would never leave him, to make an appeal to his eldest son, the Headmaster and scion of all these grounds. He knows there can be no satisfactory outcome without Headley John Mabey’s assistance. Great-Grandfather sits at the bureau by the open window and labours over his long letter. Finally he sets the pen aside and rubs and wrings his hands as old men do. The sun warms the earth and the birds’ songs fill the sky. With a nod to the natural order of things he leans forward to write the final lines. And thus the crown passes as my Great-Grandfather concedes ‘We SHALL abide by your decision’. 

Dear John – Frad and JEANNIE has just STARTED off for So’ton and as can’t as yet do much in the way of Gardening &co and Mr Woods is busy planting Eclipse Potatoes (early) as he has finished the MAIN crop &co, I thought I would write you a few lines in reference to our GRASS Mower &co. Dick says that it wants doing up &co as it is pretty well coulled [sic] up and the question is, is it worth spending that much money on it? He says that you can get a New GREENS Lawn Mower for 25/-. In fact I saw it advertised in the EXPRESS or do you think you might run up against a 2nd  hand one in So’ton? We have not much money to play with – and I told Frad that I cannot manage to cut all the Grass myself now. You know what grass cutting is with a reap hook – and at 81 it’s a proposition. Frad don’t know SHE is inclined to think it’s too expensive – but if we have Mr Woods to do it it means 5/- each day and it would take him 2 days to get round it and it would at the least want cutting 3 times? And he is 75 and can’t get down to it very well at that and at the present I awfully shakey it seems from the lower part of my back to my knees, got to have a stick now if I go to the LETTER BOX some OLD MAN EH. But no doubt if this warm weather keeps up I SHALL improve lets hope so at any rate. I have not finished TIEING THE Rasps yet this “Flue” business caught me napping about the 2nd March and has held on well and good ever since. Never felt so washed out before but as I hope, a week or so will buck me up and I SHALL be “A HIGH!!!”

GLAD to say that Mah seems to be keeping fairly well &co. We SHALL miss JEANNIE. SHE has been good company &co and I think SHE has enjoyed herself and we have been friends &co. Hope that you are enjoying your holidays – you have had GRAND weather &co. Well I hope that you and Frad will discuss the matter I’ve written and we SHALL abide by your decision &co. So now will close up &co WITH LOVE to all from your “OLD DAD”.

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Searching for Elsie

I thought it would be easy to find her. Proud of myself for finding the burial records of All Saints’ Church online, I had noted the plot numbers of all the Mabeys buried there. So I thought it a straightforward task,  if a little melancholy, to visit them on the Sunday before I returned to the mainland. Optimistically I bought a bunch of flowers from Morrisons. By 2.30pm the selection was dispiriting (for this was Mothers’ Day) so my choice was limited to carnations or red roses. I chose the former. There were nine in the bunch, which would be enough for my plan.

Fine rain fell as I walked towards the church. I did not pass another soul on that quiet High Street. The cosy pub was full of families, the church door was open but no-one else walked as I did. Feeling like the motherless child that I am, I entered the churchyard, startling young rabbits grazing on the lawn.

The long graveyard, bisected by a narrow path extends far behind the church, seeming to vanish into woodland.  I walked across the flat square of green, from which the rabbits had scattered, to tread the mossy path, noting the metal row numbers on the low wall to the left. I cannot tell you why, but I was particularly intent on finding the graves of my two eldest great aunts. Edie and Elsie lie close by one another, although not side by side as Norah and Ursie do. Edie died aged 65 in 1949. She was the first of John and Jane’s children to live to an old age. Elsie passed away four years later, aged 67. She died in 1953, this was the year before my Mother married. They never knew us, their four great-nieces, so perhaps that was why I felt compelled to make my search.

They both started adult life ‘in service’ working for wealthy families on the mainland, Edie as a seamstress and maid, Elsie as a nanny. Neither grew rich, neither married. And I have no tokens of Edie at all, she never wrote a letter that was kept. All I know of her is what my Mother told me – she was the eldest, she had a son who was raised at Headley House, and she rarely returned home.

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My Mother put these photographs side by side in her album. Of all the siblings Elsie is alone in having no studio photograph. We see her standing outside the front door of Headley House in  heavy, shapeless working clothes, an apple in her hand. It’s just a snap but someone (my Grandfather?) took the trouble to have it printed up as postcards. I wonder who she might have sent a copy to.

I have a few letters written by Elsie. They are kind and thoughtful, enjoyable to read. Elsie remembers to write to wish my Grandfather a happy birthday. Elsie remembers to send sympathies to my Grandmother on the anniversary of Albert’s birthday. She was so loved by Ann, whom she cared for as nanny, that she cared for Ann’s own children when they came along. As a young woman she left the Island for work, but she returned. I sense that she wanted to be in one place. Her occupation, as a nanny for clergy, took her to Aldershot, Farnham, London, Dorchester – distances vaster 90 years ago than they are now.

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This postcard was sent in 1915, when Elsie was nanny to the Reverend Reginald Durrant. I think she sent it to reassure her mother that they had arrived safely, the unruly writing and ill-positioned stamp suggest a correspondence made in haste. In 1911 she had one charge (also called Reginald) to look after, most likely by 1915 there were more.

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My quest to lay a flower on each of my ancestors’ graves proved futile. The row markers ran out. The neat rows of aged headstones gave way to mossy, sunken impressions of graves, their markers missing. Some of these anonymous graves had overgrown stone perimeters that I gingerly stepped across, cognisant that one of my Great Aunts might lie shuddering beneath. I asked two women who were tending a grave if they could help with the numbers but they were no wiser than I. Our voices sounded out enormous and incongruous in the gentle, still air of the Sunday Island.

Time ran out for me on Mothers’ Day,  I had a ferry to catch and the skies were darkening. Wishing that I had planned the enterprise better I marched back to my car, head bent against the rain. Clutching my white carnations I promised I would return and search  again for Elsie, and for our family.

Twelve Years Later

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The house in Bitterne Park, Southampton, on a tapestry by my Mother.

In the intervening years between 1919 and 1931 my Grandfather moved off The Island to live in Southampton, he married May and they had two sons. By 4th January 1931 May was carrying their third child, who was to be their first and only daughter, my Mother Jean.

In spite of these significant life events (including the tragic death of Patrick Herbert Redvers Mabey), I have no letters that mark them. Letters from home, before the telephone was cheap and commonplace, would have come at least weekly, so why do none remain from this period? Possibly my Grandmother or my Mother burnt some of the old correspondence after Grandfather died, making one ponder on the significance of the letters that were spared.

Great-Grandfather wrote this thank you letter and gave it to Edie as she passed through Southampton on her way to The Home Counties, where she worked as a Nanny. She also gave Edie apples and potatoes, home-grown of course. Poor Edie must have had a good deal to carry, loaded up with produce from the gardens.

Though the content is sweet and loving my Great-Grandfather was not an accomplished letter writer. His handwriting looks laboured and unschooled. Sentences ramble over several lines and there is the odd spelling mistake too (‘Anno Domino’ gives some amusement). I imagine that ‘Mah’ usually wrote the letters from home, her script flows freely and eloquently in the few letters I have of hers. This note was perhaps treasured for being a rare, tangible token of love from father to son. A treasure (I know) that grows more precious as the years extend and the beloved author fades from view to dwell in one’s memory alone.

Dear John

I am sending you just a line per Edie to thank you very muchly for yours and May’s kind thought &co for Xmas. It was indeed a fine BRAND of TOBBACO  – none to equal it in the I.W. leastways not as I have “sampled.” I have had some truly that was very good this XMAS but NOT quite so GOOD. You surely will have to take to a PIPE again &co. I hear that you are making GREAT PACE in the GARDEN. Umpteen Rows planted ?? WHATTA??

Well I hear that you have got on fairly well this XMAS and managed to finish up with a cold. Why indulge in such luxuries &co?? As Frad will have told you we got through XMAS fairly well, without colds – no regrets &co on that score.

We missed you and family but these things occur in all families more or less, and the TIME comes when none of us can go or come where they like and it came to us – your Mother and me – and it STAYED with us a MIGHTY long TIME and we were and are happy although ANNO DOMINO has STOLEN on us, but not too unkindly but makes us both feel that we cannot do as we have done &co, &co.

I have sent you and May a few apples &co and one or two POTATOES to BAKE for May’s supper &co.

And now I must close up wishing you, May and the children a Happy and Prosperous new Year. GOODBYEE from your “Old Dad”

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Patrick Herbert Redvers Mabey

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There is little I can tell you of Patrick’s life. All I have is his name, and two photographs. My mother labelled this photograph and placed it in the album, honouring a relative long lost. She never met her Uncle Patrick but this likeness would have been on display in her Grandparent’s house.  She would have picked it up and asked those questions, as I would years later about my own mysterious Uncle (her brother Albert)  – “When did he die?”, “What happened?” And after a heavy silence which a impulsive child cannot bear “Are you sad?”

That this beautiful boy died so young must have been a torment to my Great-Grandparents. To lose any child is an unnatural horror, one I pray I never have to bear, but my Grandparents outlived three of their children. In March 1918 they lost Lloyd and then on 19 February 1920 Patrick died, also from gunshot. He was 17. My Mother told me that Patrick was working as a gamekeeper and on passing through a hedge with a loaded shotgun he tripped and the gun went off.

I have my Grandfather’s diary of 1920. I also have diaries from 1915 and 1916, but no others. My Grandparents married in 1920, so I imagine that’s why he kept it, or rather why my Grandmother kept it after he died. Its preservation gives us a testimony to Patrick, although brief. Sadly it tells us nothing of his life, only the manner of his passing.

19th February 1920 Thursday:

Fine Day. Nice Letter from May. Wire from home, serious accident to Pat. School in afternoon, left at 3 home at 6. Pat dead. Accidentally shot. 1-2pm not found til 8pm.

20th February 1920 Friday:

Very Sad day. Went to Newchurch in morning. Elsie returned to Dorchester. Went to Ryde to see Jim and came back home with him. [The rest of this entry, written in pencil, is illegible].

21st February 1920, Saturday:

Up early. Cold day. Pat home. Busy. Sandown. 14 wreaths. Sad day altogether. Lovely funeral, many followers. Tea, talk, tears. Meccano with Dick, made a fine model. Very, very sad weekend.

Exactly 98 years later I record the passing of my Great Uncle Patrick, through no design of my own – some other force perhaps is at work here. This is my own little act of honouring a relative, reminding me again that for some this life is short and they leave us all too soon.

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“My Love to My Love”

IMG_1146One hundred and one years ago my Grandfather sent this card to my Grandmother. Three years later, in 1920, they married. Their marriage ended with my dear Grandfather’s death in 1963. ‘Dear Grandfather’ – a phrase I never thought to utter before I began to read The Letters. I regard that as a benefaction of the universe, that now I feel a connection to a man I never knew whilst he lived.

It seemed fitting to publish a love token on this Valentine’s Day, although I confess this is not a Valentine’s card, rather a birthday card sent on 21 May 1917.  The 14th February 1917 was not marked by any romantic sentiment in my Grandfather’s diary. There was the daily letter from May (my Grandmother to be), but no cards or flowers sent or received, and certainly nothing so extravagant as chocolates.

My Grandfather was a romantic man though, and he expressed his love ardently in the ‘billet doux’ that he slipped within this card. I will not share its contents for even a century later the lines beg privacy, which I must respect. He signs himself “H.H.”, terming himself a ‘Happy Headley’. My Grandparents  were betrothed by May 1917 but could not marry until my Grandfather had paid off certain debts on behalf of his family.

I will share that my Grandfather remarked that his illness kept him from crossing the Solent to visit May in Havant, and that he had to borrow money to send her the card pictured above. It is wonderfully detailed and well-preserved – crisply embossed and hand-stitched, with colouring so fresh I would have guessed it to be only a few years old. Clearly this card was kept close to my Grandmother’s heart. My mother wrote, in the red book on which the card is photographed, that her parents had a happy, harmonious marriage and that ‘they never bickered.’

Last week Lloyd’s letter, and the loss of him,  prevented me from recording it in detail. This week also I have not transcribed the contents of this card, but for a happy reason for there is no sadness here. These words have no need of my interpretation. All I shall remark upon is the feeling that I woke up with this morning, that I hold a token not only of love’s beginning but a marker of the ceaseless flow of love on this earth. I witness here the love that would bring my Mother into the world and, ultimately, started the story of me.

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