School Friends

“a sort of guarantee that things are much as they were, underneath, just as you know that a tree is fundamentally the same in Winter as when it is able to be in leaf.”

Phil Hart 1938′ – this photo was probably taken by Albert.

I don’t know when Albert would have received this short letter, surely some weeks after the date his school friend Phil Hart wrote, on 16 December 1941. However, in The Christmas Party Albert mentions receiving a letter from his school friend. If this ‘Air Graph’ took only five days to fly from ‘The Middle East’ to Southampton and thence to Blackpool, that would have been some kind of miracle. At the time of writing, these young men were only 20. Although the letter is short I loved the insight it gave me into another important relationship in Albert’s life. I was moved by the wisdom of Phil’s words, so apt not only for their radically altered lives, but the strange and uncertain world we live in now:

Dear Albert, This is just a “filling in” missive, not my much-overdue letter to you; that will arrive later. I hope you’ve seen everything that has arrived home from me. I am aware that you’ve been in the RAF for several weeks now. Unfortunately, I am not in possession of your new address yet, so this will go via No 38. I received a letter from you a short while ago, written in Devon. I enjoyed your holiday. It’s strange how you do enjoy such things by proxy, when you’re separated from them. It seems to be a sort of guarantee that things are much as they were, underneath, just as you know that a tree is fundamentally the same in Winter as when it is able to be in leaf. My sister, for instance, writes, “Albert wrote to me last week – don’t think he’s very happy, fed up with drilling etc. So write and cheer him up. Muriel, Sheila and I, walked from Compton, via Oliver’s Battery and Tegdown to Dene and Sparsholt and back to Winton for tea last Sunday. There was a tremendous wind and the Downs looked all silvery and lovely. I do wish you could have been there.” So, of course, do I, and you with me, but meanwhile isn’t it cheering to hear of these familiar places thus? I can’t supply this fare, as you did for me before you entered the RAF but you should receive a better letter from me about a fortnight after this arrives – cheerio for now – Bill.

I know that Phil survived the war, I don’t know why he signed himself ‘Bill’ though. Any readers familiar with the area around Winchester will be impressed by the distance Phil’s sister (Joyce) and friends walked in an afternoon, I’m sure it would take me a whole day. And, in a time of limited freedoms, it is cheering for me to hear of the silvery Downs and imagine a walk with family or friends in that familiar and essentially unchanged landscape .

Wishing you all a Happy New Year, with better times ahead.

What I Hoped For

..from the Isle of Wight to Western Australia

Rev. Francis Bamford on the left of this group depicting the ‘Pageant of St George’. I don’t recognise any Mabey faces but one might be lurking under a (fake) beard.

Today I sidestep the story of my Uncle to tell you another, one which started more than 100 years ago. What I hoped to do, when I determined to publish the letters I inherited, was to rekindle family connections lost over time, to get to know the forgotten in my family through the words they shared. If you have accompanied me in this endeavour, I think you will agree that Albert walks amongst us again – his weekly letters have been the almost exclusive subject of my site for several months.

But as I say, I’m sidestepping away from Albert to share the sequel to a post I published in January 2018. In Believe Me I shared my Grandfather’s letters of recommendation. My Grandfather starting teaching on the Isle of Wight some time after 1911. To gain a position, and any subsequent promotion, testimonials of his good character were essential. So my Grandfather had quite a collection of such letters, which he kept carefully all his life. I wrote that I was particularly taken by the letter from Francis Bamford, vicar of All Saints’ Church in Newchurch. It was not only the freshness of the letter itself – thick, black ink on white, cloth paper – it was also the sincerity of his words:

I have very great pleasure in bearing witness in the highest terms to his moral character and intellectual achievements. I have known John Mabey for nearly fifteen years and have watched him grow out of boyhood to manhood.

This particular post did not get so many visitors but recently Francis Bamford’s Great-Grandson Hugh happened upon it- so another connection has been rekindled, which is more than I ever hoped for. It feels almost miraculous!

The lives of the Mabeys and the Bamfords were, for several decades, intertwined. My Great-Aunt Frad was a teacher at Newchurch School, my Great-Uncles, Great-Aunts and Great-Grandmother sang in the church choir. Great-Aunt Norah taught at Sunday school. Francis Bamford, a respected and much-loved vicar, presiding over church and school, would have known the Mabeys well. I guess I must have had an inkling of this strong connection, for why else would I have copied pages from the oral history book “Newchurch Remembered” that pertained only to Francis Bamford? This little book, which I found in the Isle of Wight Records Office, has several mentions of my relatives, of the shop they kept and the work they did, and so understandably I took copies of those pages. My reasons for photocopying two pages about Francis Bamford are less clear to me now, although I know the recollections held my attention; I am always drawn to kindness.

So I shall return the Bamford letter to Hugh, who lives in Australia, and I’ll send him those stories too. Let me share this one with you, for I think it gives a flavour of the man:

“When Peace was declared on November 11th 1918 there was a kind of mini Pageant in the Church Room and a tea party…. In the evening of this particular day everyone expected a dance in the Church Room (Mr Bamford presided over these dances himself all through the winter months) and so no-one could understand why on that night of all nights he should refuse them a dance. Some time later someone came up with a possible explanation that could well have been the correct one. Right opposite the Church Room, in The Square, lived Mr and Mrs Frank Smith whose son did not return from the War, and perhaps the Vicar thought the sound of music and dancing would have hurt the couple. Sheer speculation but I have a feeling it could be true.” (Recollection of Mabel Groves).

Frances Bamford, vicar of All Saints’, Newchurch, 1896 – 1934. You can view the stained glass window dedicated to him here

“Believe Me”

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Testimonials from the Headmasters of Sandown Secondary School, Gatton Lakes Schools, Denmark Road Senior School (2), Sandown C.E. Boys’ School.

I have  several ‘letters of recommendation’ garnered by my Grandfather between 1911 and 1922, as he sought teaching positions on the Isle of Wight and latterly in Southampton. In those days one’s reputation was forged and strengthened through face to face relationships alone, a testimonial could make a man’s career. Grandfather kept these letters safe as they were the only transferable evidence of his skill and good character.

Every letter is beautifully handwritten by the Headmaster of a school my Grandfather attended or worked at (or both in the case of The County Secondary School at Sandown – now Sandown Grammar). Each letter is concise and clear in intention; I imagine that before the advent of Personnel or Human Resources departments, the Headmaster was the sole author of a reference. These men were no doubt as well versed in concocting pithy pen portraits as they were in teaching algebra.

I try to place myself in my Grandfather’s  world, where handwritten letters alone were sufficient to secure him a new post; it is inconceivable now. I marvel at the trust.

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Letters supporting my Grandfather’s application for the post of Headmaster. He was the Headmaster at Bitterne Park School until his retirement in 1952.

The one letter I have read several times is penned not by a Headmaster but by the Reverend Francis J. Bamford, of All Saints’ Church, Newchurch. The pristine quality of the paper is astonishing given that the letter was written on 29th May 1911. The style of his handwriting appears modern, yet I think to his contemporaries it looked unruly, maybe even unbecoming of a minister. I suppose I like this letter the most because Rev. Bamford had watched my Grandfather grow up, and clearly wished him success in his career. I wonder if the good Reverend – knowing more about human failings than many – surmised how his letter might be viewed by cynical school inspectors in Newport. Was that why he entreated in the final lines, “Believe me”?

Dear Sirs, Mr John Mabey has asked me for a testimonial and I have very great pleasure in bearing witness in the highest terms to his moral character and intellectual achievements. I have known John Mabey for nearly fifteen years and have watched him grow out of boyhood to manhood. His career at school was very satisfactory and his after career at the Secondary School and at College have been in keeping with his good beginning. I have never heard the slightest whisper against his character. He is a remarkably pleasant young fellow and popular with his contemporaries and also with children. I am sure he will make a good master and have every confidence in recommending him for the post he now seeks.

Believe me,

Faithfully yours,

Francis J Bamford, Vicar of Newchurch

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