Monday 8th December, First Instalment

“I will recount my adventures on my trip to Castleton.”

Albert’s map showing the route from Vic and Lily’s former home (‘Hope Cottage’) to their new residence, ‘Laneside’. I cannot quite match it up with current maps, and am puzzled about the school also being a cinema!

The Derbyshire Peak District is an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ and so, because of the strict planning laws relating to National Parks, the village of Castleton remains mostly unchanged from 1941, when Albert escaped the murk of Blackpool and visited for an overnight stay. This letter gives us the first instalment of that visit, with more detail to follow in Albert’s next letter. Albert sounds happy to be out of town and in familiar company. I felt like I was back there with him, even to the point of wistfully wishing I had known Uncle Vic and Aunt Lily. I found a nice photo of them, with Geoff, which I think was taken around 1926. They are standing in the garden of Hope Cottage.

Although I am not familiar with the area, I know that the Peak District is a very popular destination, with Castleton being a hub for walkers, cavers, climbers, cyclists and those who simply seek some restful hours in the English Countryside. ‘Mam Tor’ is the highest hill in that area, its name means ‘Mother Hill’. Also, so Wikipedia informs me, it is known as the ‘Shivering Mountain’ on account of the frequent landslides. The Winnats is a deep valley pass that means ‘Windy Gates’. Look up this National Trust website and you will see how beautiful it is – and very different to Blackpool!

Dear all, as a change from the usual, I have a lot of news and as I have to write to Castleton as well tonight, I may have to curtail this letter a bit. First I will recount my adventures on my trip to Castleton. Saturday started off fine but by 12.30, when I took the Manchester coach it was blowing hard with fine rain. By the time we reached Manchester it was raining hard. At Manchester I hoped to catch the Sheffield bus, that we used to get up to Mam Tor, but they told me that it did not run, so I thought I would do the next best thing and catch the Buxton bus. (Listening to Mr Churchill – heard Rooseveldt at 6.30).

On the journey to Manchester I was struck by the fact that most of the main roads around this way are of old stone setts – something like our tramway cobblestones, but often smaller: I am glad I didn’t have to cycle over them. If you look on the map you will see that the Buxton and Castleton Road divide at Chapel-en-le-Frith. Rather foolishly I went on to Buxton, since I forgot the road when I got the ticket and thought I would be more likely to get a seat in the Castleton bus by boarding it at Buxton. However I was told that there was no Castleton bus, so I got a car back to Chapel by which time it was about 5.15 and growing dark. From Chapel I walked along the Castleton Road. Fortunately it was not raining so much and I was pleased to remove my hat and get out into the fresh air a bit. Walking briskly in the gathering dusk, I was quite soon almost at the top of the hill, past the farmhouse on the left and almost where the road runs along the top of a deep gully,  lots of contours on the left. Then one of those lorries came along and by waving my arms and shining my torch I was able to stop it and get a lift right to Squires Lane. I could just make out the silhouettes of the hills as I got out and I arrived at about 5:45,  just as Auntie Lily and Geoff were coming down the lane to meet the station bus.

Indoors we had sausages for tea also some mince tarts which was very nice indeed. Then we had a game of Monopoly which is a very interesting game, although not really suitable for less than four players. We had one game which took until about 10 pm. They have a very nice house, much better than Hope Cottage, though it is further from the village about half mile. Squires Lane is actually the Loose Hill Road and the houses are on a new road on the other side of the wall. They have quite a large garden but, due to having no time to spare, Uncle Vic lets someone else (an ‘in-law’) do most of it. They have six rooms, with hot water, electric light and mains radio and a nice bathroom. From the living room window they have a view of Mam Tor and The Winnats.

In the morning we had breakfast at about 9.30 and the morning was a fine contrast to the previous evening. It was still blowing hard but the sky was clear blue and the wind keen. There was a thin sprinkling of snow on the tops. At the bottom of Mam Tor I saw the bracken through which we waded when we went to the Odin mine, and it was all red and orange, very nice. For dinner we had some Christmas pudding which was a very good one, then Geoff and I and some of his friends went for a walk up The Winnats and back down the Mam Tor Road. The wind through The Winnats was the strongest I have ever experienced. The gusts were so strong that we could really lean against the wind. Upto about the corner, or just past it, the road has been metalled to quite a respectable surface.

There were numerous brave hikers and cyclists about most of them without coats and some even in shorts! There were three cyclists pushing up The Winnats road. From the top there was the usual fine view, and it was quite clear so that we could see the end of the valley. We came back and I left at about 6.30 to catch the bus, (to be continued) love from Albert.

…I have to stop as there is no time.

Fancy having a Christmas pudding before Christmas! I suppose the war, and an honoured guest, were a good excuse. Albert seems to have fallen foul of that common spelling error (at least in my family) of writing ‘loose’ for ‘lose’. There is a Youth Hostel at Losehill Hall, and a road called Goose Hall, so I think he merged the two. Without a second thought Albert set off on foot to to walk the last six and a half miles from Chapel-en-le-Frith to Castleton, along an unlit road without pavements. I suppose he had no choice, but how many of us would even consider doing that? I’m glad he managed to halt that lorry and get to Castleton before the sky turned pitch black.

Aunt Lily

“Yesterday I sent off a warning to Auntie Lily that I may arrive there on Saturday”

Who was Aunt Lily? The answer is a ‘How’. A very long time ago in 1879, Elizabeth Barnes, of Sheffield, met and married my Great-Grandfather Albert Pratt. They were both ‘in service’ and, allegedly, both worked for sometime at Chatsworth House. Elizabeth had a younger brother, Charles, who married and moved to Castleton in Derbyshire. He and Kate Barnes had one child, a daughter called Florence. Florence married Edward How in 1922. They had one son called Geoffrey Barnes How. Florence was therefore my Grandmother’s cousin, younger than her by 5 years.

It was simple to write that paragraph, yet torturous to discover the details – on account of most of the participants using different names, or having different places of birth from one census to the next. Florence was always known (except those in officialdom) as Lily. Edward was known as Vic, Charles was sometime known as Chas and Elizabeth’s place of birth wandered around the environs of South Yorkshire. Thankfully my mother left me photographs with names pencilled on the back, otherwise I would never have discovered my distant relative, Florence Lily How.

Lily lived until she was 89. She died in Sheffield in 1981, the year I went to university. I did not know her. As so often happens, my Mother would have lost touch after my Grandmother died in 1965. In the 1960’s Derbyshire was an expensive and long journey from Hampshire. Mum had her hands full with 4 young children; a visit would have been near impossible. Lily moved house, perhaps an address book was mislaid, the connection disappeared.

So all I can share is the sense of kinship between my Grandmother, May, and her cousin, that is conveyed in the postcards they left behind. Clearly as teenagers they visited each other several times. Whether May was accompanied by parents or her older sister Lizzie I do not know. On the reverse of the photograph above Lily writes:

“Dear May, I can’t come myself so here is a substitute. Don’t laugh please, at the horrible simper. I got my p.c. (postcard) this morning from C.V. Early wasn’t it? Everything seems very quiet here, after such rushing times, but it will give me time to think. I found everybody very well, even after they had sampled the doughnuts. Joking apart, they thought them delicious.”

The postcards I have from Lily to May and vice versa, are affectionate and amusing; I would like to weave them into this project of mine, but not yet. Lily and May’s friendship continued throughout their married lives. Albert, Geoff and Peter were born within 5 years of each other. We see them here in this holiday snap, taken around 1927. They are a happy, contented family group.

Back row: Lizzie Pratt, A.J. Pratt, four unknowns, May Mabey. Front row: Lily & Vic How with Geoff. Albert, Peter and Hedley Mabey.

As a young Airman alone in Blackpool, Albert was keen to call on his Derbyshire relatives, for some fuss and familiar company. On 3 December 1941, he is making plans to visit on a weekend pass. We will hear all about the visit in a later letter. Hopefully I will find some more photographs to illustrate it with.

Dear All, once again I fear that this may be a short letter,because for one thing there is not much news, and for another thing I have not much time it now being nearly 10 pm. I have just been to the grammar school listening to much Brahms, a recording of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat minor, and an actual performance of a sonata for violin and piano. As a light relief there were the Barber of Seville Overture, the Flower Song from Carmen, and the Invitation to the Waltz – Joyce’s record. On Monday we had Beethoven’s 8th Symphony and some piano music. It has all been very enjoyable. I have not usually bothered much about Brahms but I liked this evening’s programme very well, though it was rather heavy at times. I am beginning to think that perhaps B. is not so bad after all!

Yesterday I sent off a warning to Auntie Lily that I may arrive there on Saturday, since we have been told that our weekend will be this week. To-day I received the enclosed letter from her, with 6d worth of stamps which will come in very useful.

I have 40 Players which I need to send. I don’t know how many a week you would like. Thanks for the P.O. by the way, it will come in useful for the weekend.

We now have only 3 airmen in the billet, and one of them is expecting to be posted very shortly so that will leave only two. We are expecting some more in very shortly probably they will be new recruits just up from Padgate.

Tomorrow we should have the so-called educational test for the pilots’ and observers’ course and next week the Selection Board, so it seems that things are at last moving. As regards that the weather, has been very muggy this week. We have had no rain to speak of and it has been quite chilly in the mornings but during the days (today especially) it has been quite warm and close. Tonight there is a nearly full moon and it is extremely light out, there being only slight cloud. I wonder if you have been able to get out in the weekend: I hope so. Really I am afraid that is all, so this is a very short letter. I hope to have a lot to make up for it next Monday, love from Albert.

PS I am sorry to say that I have lost that nice tie clip which Auntie Lizzie gave me. It must’ve dropped off somehow. There is a performance of “The Messiah” here next week – I must go. Which primula is it which is out, the Wisley “Julia Hybrid” or the other “ordinary” purple one?

“Players or Better”

I find Blackpool a real city of temptation..

My Grandmother’s (or my Grandfather’s ?) writing tells us that Albert has moved yet again, this time to Dickson Road.

Dear reader, forgive me for not writing for so long. Albert’s letter has been lying around my house (on the bedside table, by the computer, on the sofa) for too many weeks. Perhaps the letter has enjoyed its travels around my house, reminiscent of the times it spent on the dining room table at Bullar Road. Perhaps Grandmother or Grandfather kept the letter in a pocket for a while, in order to read it again, refolding the five pages carefully along the creases that remain in place today.

Albert’s opinion of Blackpool has changed somewhat, due to the variety of evening entertainment on offer. Although he struggles to find a quiet place to read (I love his observation “of course the churches are no use at night”), he has thrown himself into his new life with gusto. One would hardly think there was a war on!

A melancholy tone pervades at times, such as when he writes “it is not very happy stopping indoors in a home that is not mine.” Did my Grandmother worry about her sensitive son, lover of classical music and English Downland? If he were mine, I am sure that I would have.

Dear All, On Friday I received your letters and rag, written Sat. night and yesterday afternoon, your parcel arrived. I see that those letters were written on Tuesday night, so it seems that the letters take longer in this direction. I was very pleased to receive the parcel; I think the pleasantest part was the pair of shoes. Having to wear boots has made my feet quite sore and although those shoes are heavy one I felt as if I was treading on air. You have probably received my parcel of cigs by now. I shall certainly send more later, also chocolate but the latter is not now so easy to obtain. We do not use the token or coupon system at the NAAFI which now serves us, we have to queue up & then we only get 20 cigs. and a 2d bar of chocolate. I can get the cigs. at other places quite easily, but not so the chocolate. Incidentally, I bought 2 x 20 cigs and a 10 at the first 3 shops I tried – all Player’s and I didn’t draw a single blank! By the way when you say “Player’s or better”, what are the better?

cigarette packet ('Players Navy Cut')
According to Wikipedia, Players Navy Cut was most popular “amongst the middle class and in the South of England.”

I shall send back a vest and a pair of pants (and pyjamas) with this letter. there is a laundry service to which I am sending my Air Force stuff – towel, shirt, and collars. It is a free laundry & until something goes wrong I shall use it. I have washed socks and handkerchiefs but perhaps you could send some more socks, as I have only two pairs – one I am wearing, the other pair is drying. I was also pleased to receive the apples though I do not think they will keep long, the small ones which I have tried lacked that crispness which they usually have. When you send again you might put in some darning wool for my socks – just in case! The money for my parcels and torch you really should take out of my pay – I expect it is none too easy to make ends meet and at the rate of several parcels a month it will not take long to pay back the cost of Jean’s bicycle – so you would not be any better off! As regards money, I find Blackpool a real city of temptation. It is so much easier to buy a reserved seat at 2/6 or 3/- than to queue up for 1/6d or 2/- seat, and after the show I don’t need much persuading to go and have supper, and of course there are always coffee, ices and lemonade brought round in the interval. I met quite a nice fellow at Friday’s WEA class and we had supper together. I had not seen any cheese since Padgate, so I had and enjoyed Welsh rabbit [rarebit]. If I spend only 7/6d this week I shall have £1 left, which I shall try to save. I shall also try to save 5/- a week by managing on 10/1 per week and thereby save something for Christmas presents and leave. In 4 weeks from now we get (if lucky) a short weekend pass, Saturday dinner time to Sunday night, and in 8 weeks time a long weekend from Friday night to Sunday night, or Monday morning (7am). So on the long weekend I might get home, and on the short weekend, I can go to Castelton or Wentworth. After a while I may be able to get a day pass out of our 5 mile “bounds” (the bounds exempt Fleetwood and Lytham on the coast) and possibly go to Coniston on that, or else Bolton, if the coach tours no longer run.

Yesterday I saw the opera of which I am sending the programme. Being Russian it was not so easy to understand, but I enjoyed it very well. The Opera house is much bigger (about the size of the “Forum”) than the “Grand” where the other operas were, and it is quite modern. The Winter Gardens, the Tower and the Palace are the 3 main places of entertainment. Each contains a cinema, a variety (Palace), stage show (Winter Gardens -Opera House) or something similar and a ballroom. The Winter Gardens have about 3 restaurants and 4 bars, as well as milk and coffee bars, lounges, and amusement halls of automatic machines. The Tower has restaurant, bar, and a menagerie and aquarium. By paying for the cinema or stage show one can see the rest of the building, and after last night’s opera I wandered round & looked at the amusement arcades and the dancing in the Winter Gardens. even if it does not appeal to me much, it is a truly remarkable place.You are quite right about the fellows here; they are not of the “rough & tough” type, and don’t bother me, but there is usually plenty of noise going on, so I find it difficult to concentrate on writing & reading. this morning things are quite quiet, but if you find a lot of mistakes in my letters you will know the reason why. That is why I do not stop in very much, also, it is not very happy stopping indoors in a home that is not mine, one tends to forget being away by going out. So on Mondays & Wednesdays I go to the RAF musical meetings, on Friday to the WEA class, on Thurs. or Tuesday to see my Hamble friend, & on Saturday to the Theatre. That does not leave me much time to be lonely. It does not leave me much time for reading either and I have only reached page 39 in my “English Downland” book. I hope to find a quiet place where I can read in silence. I must make a tour of the many clubs and canteens & see if I can find somewhere. The reading room of the library is unfortunately closed at 7p.m., and of course the churches are no use at night.

Could you let me know which books Peter took? Or perhaps I shall write to him and ask. Somewhen you could possibly make a list of Christmas presents for our family, Ron, Havant & Branstone. Our course at Blackpool is 10 weeks to-morrow, so it looks as if I shall be here for Christmas and I might as well buy presents about a month before the time so as to have a good selection to choose from. I might get Peter another chemistry book. Thanks very much for the torch, but I used it to go downstairs & when I tried it again it would not work! so I suppose the bulb has gone: the journey up must have done for it. Most of the people have had their photographs done by now but you will not see any from me in a hurry! Some of them are very poor & I have seen none of real excellence. I have not as yet made any real friends but I do not mind that. I go out on my own and often meet pleasant people when I am out. I do not doubt that the others in the billet wonder what I do with myself. I do not tell them much because I should not think they would approve of my music meetings. Next Monday there are some professionals appearing to play a Beethoven Sonata and a Brahms trio, usually the music is provided by a radiogram. On Wednesday we tried to hear a broadcast concert but the reception was too poor to continue listening. In spite of it being a very good set, there was a lot more fading than we experience, so to fill the time, the one who organises the meetings played us some piano music: he had no music & is a very good player.

Well I think that is about all so goodbye and love from Albert.

P.S. I hope you have some nice rides – tell me about them, I should like to know. What does ‘ad vincula’ mean?

I was glad to hear that the Ceratostigma was out, does it look as if it will be a nice shrub? I have destroyed a good many of the letters you sent. I hope you wanted none of them. I am keeping Jean’s though because it gave me a good laugh to read it, Bravo Jean!

“Welsh Rabbit”, ah that made me smile, it reminded me of a staple of our Sunday afternoon teas; Welsh Rabbit with Worcester Sauce. As a child I thought it was a silly name my Dad made up, never having heard of a ‘Welsh Rarebit’. Does anyone else remember that? A silly, and frankly (for a small child) confusing and rather disturbing name. It tastes nothing like a rabbit.

cigarette packet (‘Players Navy Cut’) © IWM (EPH 5223)

Friday October 24, Part Two

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And once again, through no design of my own, I publish a letter at almost the same time of year that it was written. Here my uncle writes of migrating birds and robins singing again. I pause from my typing to listen to my own little robin warbling on the garden fence. I see the geese pass overhead. Albert is tapping lightly on my shoulder, asking me to look beyond and see the gossamer thread of connection that we share on this late October day. So we start to know each other.

I have got left £2.15s to last me until next pay day on next Friday. Also I have the best part of a 5/- [5 shillings] book of stamps. I am glad to hear that Jean has at last got a bicycle: she says that you took the money from my box, so don’t bother to repay it, she can count it as a birthday (or Christmas) present from me. We got 10/- at Padgate, and since then have had no money. Glad I brought some!

I was interested to hear how you are getting on, though it made me a bit homesick to think of all the places you went to on your ride. I am glad to see that you use the gramophone: you must let Joyce hear it when they come round, she would especially like to hear the “Emperor Concerto” right through (H.M.V. plum label) and the Bach Piano Concerto in A minor (H.M.V. red label). The second she has not heard at all, if I write to them I shall mention it. That “Hymn Tune” is I think “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach, played by Myra Hess (H.M.V. plum label 10″ in right hand compartment). Others which you might enjoy are:

Invitation to the Waltz, Overture midsummer nights dream, Marche Militaire (J), Unfinished Symphony, Hungarian Rhapsody (J), Anita’s Dance (J), Liebestraum No.2 (J).

Those marked (J) are Joyce’s and in the left hand compartment. There are also all our old ones knocking around somewhere in the box. By the way my balance is not a “Spring Balance“! Take a look at it one day and see if you can find the spring or the springs. When you went out you probably noticed, as I did before I left, how the birds are beginning to sing again, especially the robins and wrens. I expect the skylarks will be beginning again soon. I have heard none up here, but have seen several flocks of birds flying out to the sea S.S.W. Migrating I suppose, quite possibly martins, swallows or swifts. I have never seen migrating birds before. I have just read the letters from Havant and Branstone: it is very nice to see how they are getting on. It reminds me to see about something for Auntie Lizzie’s birthday too. I had forgotten about it. I think I can get some chocolate at the canteen & send some along to her.

I am glad you are still getting the “Radio Times” (show Joyce) for tonight I see something labelled in the paper “Mozart”, it should be good. I have got the “News Chronicle” to-day, the “Telegraph” is nearly unprocurable here. I was interested about the rear lamp, a pity we did not think of it before, because that should solve all earthing problems. You were quite right about the taxi. I lingered at Stewarts until nearly 10 to 1 and by the time I got to Euston, it was 1.4 (train at 1.5). I was fortunate in obtaining a taxi just outside the door in Regents Street. But still, it cost me only 2/6 with the tip. As for the book of stamps, I had no time at all after lunch. That had better be all so goodbye now and love to all, from Albert.

P.S. You will show this letter to anyone else who would be interested of course. The food in this billet is quite good but not very plentiful. We should get moved on Monday to more permanent billet. I shall want you to send up my bicycle padlock & chain to lock my kitbag a little later – a lock here costs from 2s6d. Also some bits of rag for cleaning. I shall need a torch too.

This letter is recognisably from a different era; gramophone records, shillings and pence (d) and a curious way of writing the time – I assume 1.4 and 1.5 are 1.40 and 1.50 respectively. I also took note of the hyphenated spellings ‘to-day, to-morrow’ etc. I’m guessing these were not Mabey idiosyncrasies, although the family has some rather poor spellers! I was also surprised by the date format that Albert used, thinking this an Americanism, as we favour (and being English regard it as superior) the ‘day, month, year’ form. Was Albert’s date a ‘modern’ form that later fell out of favour or the traditional format that the UK later abandoned? I delight in these details, pedant that I am.

‘These are The Days of The Unexpected’

IMG_1906Just as I was about to start on Albert’s letters, Great-Grandfather makes another appearance! I found this letter from 1940 as I was collating Albert’s. Looking at the letter propped up against my computer, it seems to come from a different age. I suppose it does, for what did my Great-Grandfather, born in 1858, know of the trappings of my modern-day, connected world? I wonder what would he make of it all.

Great-Grandfather writes, as he did in October 1939, to wish Grandfather a happy 51st birthday. How different their lives are now, compared to the year before; Grandfather has been evacuated to Dorset with his school and bombs are falling on the Isle of Wight:

27 October 1940

Dear John – just a few lines to wish you all the Best for your 51st Birthday. How Time Flies &co. I suppose that you will not spend this B’day at Home as you were Home last Sunday. Well last Sunday JIM and Olive were here. What a lot of unexpected things have happened this last Month &co – all for the good we hope. These are the days of the unexpected for just about half an hour ago, we – Mah, Elsie, Daisy and Norah were in the kitchen busy talking &co when all at once THE LAMP jumped – THE WINDOWS rattled and the house SHOOK &co and 5 Bombs dropped, seemed Quite Close. Caused quite a consternation but have no idea where they dropped possibly WINFORD WAY? Shall possibly hear about it Tommorow? So must leave it at that!!! But we must be thankful that we do not live in London – or any large TOWN &co. Well let us hope that by your next B’DAY THE HITLER GANG will have THEIR TEETH severely DRAWN &co. Well GoodBye Cheerio “OUR CHINS are Still up” DAD.

Wouldn’t the world have been very different, if Great-Grandfather’s hope had been realised and ‘The Hitler Gang’ were defeated within the year? Great-Grandfather seemed unaware that Southampton had already been attacked by Nazi bombers; 23 September 1940 is widely reported to have been the first night of The Blitz. Perhaps information was kept to a minimum. Southampton was very heavily bombed because it was a major port and the Spitfire factory was located at Woolston. A good account of Southampton’s Blitz can be found here The Blitz. As a naval base, Portsmouth was also targeted and often bombs were discharged on the Isle of Wight as  planes returned to Germany.

Periodically I ask myself, when sifting through my box of letters, why a particular letter was saved from the vast correspondence Grandfather received in his lifetime. In the case of this little letter the reason is clear, Great-Grandfather died in 1941. This was the last time he sent birthday wishes to his son.

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Grandfather’s 50th Birthday

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‘Hope, family, the everyday ordinary’

Yesterday I walked with my friend on along the shore at Southsea, looking out across the glittering water to the Island, constant backdrop to our promenade. I realised that I have been so long in London that I forget the sea.

Southsea was a place I visited as a young teenager, travelling by train from Eastleigh to Portsmouth Harbour. Days of roller-coasters and minor misdemeanours. I am not sure I have been back since.

The sea was magnificently indifferent to my forgetfulness, continuing to cast spangles in the air. The same sea as in my Great-Grandfather’s time. Same sea, same sky – all else altered.

I have neglected my writing. A letter from Great-Grandfather has lain forgotten amongst my papers for many weeks. But the letter, like the sea, pays no attention to my oversight. It has existed unread for decades and thus it remains, patient for my return.

Great-Grandfather’s letter, dated  24 October 1939, was written on the day Headley John Mabey, his eldest son, turned 50. Sadly I only have this first page, the second page has been lost so I don’t know how Great-Grandfather ended his congratulatory epistle.

24 -10-39

Dear JOHN –

This is your 50th B Day and thought I must write you a line or two to congratulate you on your 1st Half Century &co NOT knowing if you will complete the NEXT. You will have many things to relate &Co if you do. 2 of the Mabeys of my TIME and Born at Knighton of the Older Generation Has reached 96 but of the later ones about 84 & 85 the Highest, my Grandfather 82 – but that leaves you a long way to go. Well 50 years ago was a FINER day than this and I was a happy man- that day- to learn that I had a SON – after several daughters &Co not that I was ever unhappy on this account, only Old Dr Foster told me when Daisy came along – Mabey you are going to fill up your house full of GIRLS trying &Co.

One thing I hope and wish for is that if you live to my age 81 is that you may be as well as I feel at the present – and I may say that until last March when I had the Flue &co I had never felt that I was an Old Man but I have SINCE but am NOT GRUMBLING. I’ve had a good innings and can still stand up at the Wicket although some of the Batting has been Good, BAD and INDIFFERENT. Well so much for that. We are not quite sure if you will be at Soton [Southampton] TOMORROW Re 1/2 TERM? At any rate you will get this at some place sometime. Our LITTLE Mah is keeping fairly well but this last week or so of Cold EAST and NE WINDS has not been for much getting out round the GARDEN &Co. I have not done much spade work &Co. I keeps on “POTTERING about My Son” as Old Uncle Jim WHEELER used to say &Co. Well I cut a bit of GRASS and to a bit of Hedge clipping &Co – as long as tis something…

Being one born so much later, I read Great-Grandfather’s words sensing the chill of sorrows that the long war, only just begun, would bring. He wrote in October 1939 not knowing how long the conflict would last, nor with any sense of dread at what would be taken away. He wrote unaware that he had few years left and that his son would not live to be 81, as he wished him to.

My dear Great-grandfather wrote in hope, writing of family and the everyday occupations of an ordinary life. Hope, family, the everyday ordinary – these continue unaltered, under the same sky and circled by the same sea.

 

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”.

greens