“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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Lloyd’s Last Post

I placed this letter on a gold ground for they were brave men.

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This is the last letter of Lloyd’s in the collection. I found it recently,  slipped inside the envelope of another letter. It should have appeared before my post of 22nd November, were I observing strict chronological order. I apologise for my failings as an archivist. On 19th June 1917 Lloyd writes to his father, thanking the family for his parcel. I know he felt close to his family, especially in the alien landscape of war. He mentions nearly all his brothers and sisters and he tells his father  “don’t go and work hard and make yourself bad – Don’t forget I’m coming home someday and I expect to see that you and Mah are well and smiling”

I cannot bring myself to type it all out, it feels too sad. This loving son did not come home to work with his Dad and marry, and have a family. The Mabey family was diminished by his death, his dynasty denied.

What survives are the letters and this one photograph of Great Uncle Lloyd, smiling beside his brother Jim. When it was taken I do not know. I suppose it was before those two letters were written – before he saw too much and knew what war was.

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“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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Great-Grandfather

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Now, in this New Year I introduce you to my Great-Grandfather, and to the oldest letter in the collection. John Mabey was born in 1859 and lived in Knighton with his grandparents. For most of his life he was a market gardener. This photograph shows him in August 1936 amongst his fruit trees. My Mother is the dear little soul beside him.

These days there are no other circumstances in which I might use “My Mother is.” She has gone and so one says “my Mother was,” “She did,”  etc. No present or future actions are possible.  Yet in a photograph, where a sliver of time is captured and stilled, she still exists. There she is smiling in the hot sunshine, how happy they look.

Great-Grandfather was a jovial man, by my Mother’s account, and she was very fond of him. She told me that he did not have the brains for business, my Great-Grandmother had those. Jane Mabey ran a shop out of Headley House selling all manner of household and farm goods. It did well until Apse Heath expanded.  Thereafter trade and income dwindled as the family grew ever larger. I believe it was the promise of gold that prompted my Great-Grandfather to enlist, aged 40, for the second Boer War. What his wife thought of him travelling half way across the world with no guarantee of return we shall never know. It seems that Vera Chrystabel was born in her father’s absence. She was the youngest of 7 children that Jane Mabey was left to manage alone, and there was the shop to look after too.

My Great-Grandfather writes from Keat’s Drift in South Africa. He addresses his son as though he is head of the household, done tongue-in-cheek we hope, for he was only 10 years old in 1900. My Grandfather, Headley John, had four older sisters  – Edith, Elsie, Frad and Daisy.

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My Dear John – I received your letter with Daisy’s – and I was very glad to hear from you – also to hear that the Little Mother is better. I hope that you are a good boy and that you help her all you can . How do you get on at school, do you like it? Your Good Friday was very different to mine. I was on a very long march and it was a very hot day and dusty. I shall remember that for a very long time. I was glad to hear that Vera Chrystabel was such a nice little girl – also that Jim was a fine boy. I suppose he will soon go to school. I hear he is getting pretty unruly. I think his mother had better pack him off out to me in a box and I will make a Dutchman out of him – and Mr Levy off too. Please remember me to to Aunt Frances and Uncle John Wheeler also to Mr Sprack and tell him he could make hay out here for it shines both sides of the hedges every day, also to Miss Salter and tell her I have forgotten the taste of “Sodie”. Goodbye John be a good boy and help Little Mother and take care of her. From your old Dad – in South Africa x x x x

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I’m glad to say that John Mabey returned to The Island to drink refreshing “Sodie” in his garden. He survived the war unscathed, but did not find enough gold to make him rich. He brought some back, a little nugget mounted on a tie-pin. We sold it after Mum died. Great-Grandfather’s war medals were stolen in 1960 when Frad and Ursie left the house. Vera Chrystabel died in 1901, aged 18 months. I do not know if Great-Grandfather ever saw her, I hope he did. They called her Molly in the family, long after she was gone – my uncle recalls this. Why she was known as Molly is a mystery. There were no photographs of her. Jane Mabey had only her memories, no picture to hold and say  “Look Molly is..”

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A Portrait of my Grandfather

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My Grandfather painted by my Father

This painting was always in our home, by which I mean for as long as I can remember. I knew that the name of this man was ‘Grandfather’ before I understood the concept of grandparents, for I had none. In truth it used to scare me. As a young child this large portrait towered above me, stern-faced and silent. The ‘Grandfather’ must be a giant I thought.

I remember the dark evening when Grandfather fell off the wall. My sister and I had been ordered to the front room so that Mum and Dad could enjoy some after-dinner talk with their guests (I remember this because ‘having people round’ was a rare occurrence). Of course we were bored and trapped and so resorted to climbing on furniture. It was our forbidden amusement to kick off the seat cushions of the two armchairs and jump on the springs stretched across the frames beneath. These were our trampolines and we were in trouble if caught, so we were mindful not to squeal. The higher I jumped the closer I got to Grandfather’s face and his hard stare. I must have been quite a young child because I was certain that if I got close enough and willed it so – then his expression would change and he would become real. Sadly exhaustion set in before I succeeded and my sister and I ceased our game, lolling on the hard, brown, tapestry cushions. And then Grandfather, with a terrifying bang, slipped off the wall and tipped over onto the seat-less chair.  Frozen, we waited for Dad to storm in and punish us, but we were saved by Mr Lowe’s loud laughter, which had drowned out the noise of our mischief. Undaunted by the height of the canvas (taller than us both) we rehung the two fishtail hooks on the picture rail and found a quieter occupation. Mother discovered our wonky hanging the next day. She admonished us but not too harshly, for I think she was quietly impressed that we managed to reach so high above our heads (with the aid of the chairs of course) without causing any breakages or serious injury.

Later in life I learnt that my Grandfather, in stature, was the very opposite of a giant. He was “A dear little man”, in my Mother’s words. He was 5 foot 8 inches tall and when aged 26 he recorded his weight as an astonishing 8 stone 3 pounds.

I  have come to know, by reading through ‘The Letters’, how truly loved he was. Mostly that is carried in the tone of letters rather than their contents. However there are also direct sources such as his obituary in the Culham College magazine of September 1963 which I have reproduced below. I smile to read that he was “A man of modesty but great wisdom, a friendly man, a true servant” and I feel proud.

The same writer tells us “his memorial will be his faultless reputation” and again I smile. But I know that Grandfather has another memorial. He made himself the guardian of his family’s voices through preserving the letters of their lives. That legacy, expansive and illuminating is a living one. So my childhood intuition is proved right, my Grandfather was a giant.

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Grandfather attended Culham Teacher Training College between 1909 and 1911

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Private Langridge’s Reply

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This week it is Private J. Langridge’s  turn to speak to us, a very different letter to last week’s. He gives us an account of 22 March 1918, entire and plainly stated, which brings Lloyd’s life-story to a close. Yet in spite of its content this letter moved me less than Mrs Dawson’s, for hers was heartfelt whereas this letter from Lloyd’s comrade is written out of duty.

Private J. Langridge writes from Hut 27 B Company, Royal Sussex Depot, Chichester one February morning in 1919 Using a regulation pencil and regulation paper he replies to my grandfather’s letter. The military man answers the enquiry directly, ‘he was killed by a bullet in the head’. A plain, hard fact that no family wishes to know. Did Grandfather’s hand tremble, seeing the words that extinguished all embers of hope?  Did Grandfather sense the thinness of  these lines “I feel quite sure he was killed outright and that he did not suffer” – a form of words surely?  In those times families seeking information from the military would receive a sanctioned reply, devoid of recounts of misery, failure, pain. I surmise (but cannot say for certain) that there were many letters written containing exactly those lines.  J. Langridge troubled to write a four page letter in his laboured hand, troubled to detail why he could not report Lloyd’s death – so he was a good man, a survivor of bloodshed and battles that I do not wish to imagine.

Dear Mr Mabey,

I now have the pleasure of answering your letter which I received this morning.Your brother, as named in your letter, was with me on the 22nd March when I am sorry to say he was killed by a bullet in the head. At the time of his death he was my no. 2 in the Gun team to which he belonged. I feel quite sure that he was killed outright and that he did not suffer. I am sorry I cannot tell you what happened to his body as I was took prisoner shortly afterwards. The sad affair happened on the 22nd March between the two villages of St Emile and Villers Falcon about one o’clock just after we had orders to retreat from a railway cutting. Our captain in charge of the company at that time was Capt. Powell who was afterwards killed and the Platoon Sergeant was Sgt. Mason. I didn’t report your brother death as I had no chance whatever while I was a prisoner as we were not allowed to mention anything in our letters in that line. If there is anything else you would like to know I shall be very pleased to answer it if I have and [sic] knowledge of it. I feel quite sure you have had an anxious time about your brothers and I am pleased to hear you have heard of the other one and hope he will soon be back home again with you. Now I will close trusting this will reach you safe.

I remain, Yours Truly, Pte. J. Langridge

Let These Old Lives Speak

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My intention this week was to share the letter written by a comrade of my Great-Uncle’s but the box had other plans for me.

It was my desire to bring order to the letters in the box that thwarted continuation of the linear narrative concerning Lloyd. Within the box so many letters lie loose and many are folded in on one another, letter within letter. The majority are from my uncle Albert, referred to as John by our family. Some of these are held together with tightly knotted string, bundles which I could not bring myself to disturb – to untie the knots secured for who knows how many decades seemed somehow disrespectful, even unkind. Who was I to unsettle the snug security of private correspondence? So my focus yesterday was to sift through all the papers that were un-enveloped, sorting by author – the young, the old, the remembered and the unknown. Such sorting requires reading of course. I read so many lines from ages past, and as I read I sensed my own thoughts fall silent. As in moments of meditation my mind grew still, released from the fast currents of the here and now. Peace descended as I let these old lives speak. Mostly I heard Albert – writing his weekly letter during training, writing from London, Wiltshire, Lincolnshire, Manchester, Cumbria and then, as Flying Officer Mabey from Canada; there are so many from that faraway country. Of all the letters that passed through my hands I fully read only a few. And what force of serendipity led me to read of his billet in Manchester “I could not wish for lodgings more like home” and then to find the letter from  Mrs Eleanor Dawson, the very woman who had opened her home to the young airman as he waited for his overseas posting.

I did not expect her letter to move me so, for tears to rush up so quickly. It is the universal contained within those lines that touches the soul – she writes of a mother’s love, the unending worry for sons sent to war. What humanity I hear in her words of gratitude and good wishes, faith in a happy future for all because that is the only faith possible. Grace lifts off the page and passes through me. Her words rested in my heart all night long. Grandmother must have felt glad and comforted to receive a letter so full of kindness. It is remarkable that a stranger’s words draw me a fraction closer to my own grandparents, people who I never knew, or ever spoke to, never having the privilege of hearing their stories. A little more light is cast upon them now. Thank you Mrs Dawson.

Dear Mrs Mabey,                                                                     November 19th 1942

Thank you and your dear husband for your very thoughtful letter, I had been thinking a lot about your dear boy and wondering if he had arrived safely at his station overseas, so you can imagine how relieved we all felt at the good news. Enclosed you will find stamps your dear boy asked me if I would send to you. I am sorry for the delay. I have had my son ill – just after he left me. I am glad to say he is much better but still under treatment. You must be very proud indeed to have such a lovable son, as he is always so bright. I shall never forget when he said good bye to me, God bless him he might have been one of my own dear ones, I could not have felt more touched. I was sorry we could not do more for him, I am quite sure where ever he may be everybody he meets will just love him – they just couldn’t help but do so. I am anxiously waiting to hear from my dear son. I do not know if he has arrived at his station or not. We mothers have just to be patient and know the same God is watching over them. I must close now with all good wishes and many thanks to you and your dear husband. May God bless and keep you and your loved ones from all hurt. I do not forget you in all my prayers.

Yours very sincerely, Eleanor Dawson

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If by any chance you think you might be a descendant of Mrs Dawson, please let me know. I would like you to have this letter.