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.
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.
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.