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
It may be September 2019 as I write this, but reading Albert’s letter I feel a frisson of the festive excitement he felt on 21st December 1941. It is the day of the Christmas party and Albert is rushing off a letter to his parents so that he can get on with the more pressing business of setting up his camera. How I wish that he had been on the other side of the camera, so that I had a photograph to show you. I hope he developed his prints so that he could give them to the girls; a memento of their happy times. I’m sure the photographs were treasured by their recipients. Is it too much to hope that somewhere in this world a photograph survives?
The letter also mentions the progress of Phil Hart, Joyce’s brother and Albert’s friend from school. Phil’s whereabouts were unknown in Church Parade and my Grandmother was obviously concerned, perhaps more so than Albert was! Whether Albert allays her fears through writing, “The Middle East is a very horrid place”, I don’t know. I think my Father would have disagreed with Albert, as he served most of his time in World War Two in Egypt and the Western Sahara, and said it ultimately changed his life for the better.
Poor Mrs Hart was obviously a woman teased by the whole of the Mabey Family, as you will discover.
When I was younger I too visited the White Horse at Otterbourne and it’s still there, although more of a restaurant than a pub now. It is some distance from Southampton, so if Albert and Joyce did not cycle I wonder how they travelled there. Its nice to imagine that Albert might have taken a walk down Kiln Lane, as I used to, to visit the supposedly haunted old churchyard. It nice to think of he and Joyce picking flowers by the tributaries of the river Itchen, before deciding to go and have a ‘brandy’ in the pub.
Dear All, I hope this letter will reach you before you leave home, I want to post it to catch this afternoon’s post. I have sent your cards and Peter’s present to Havant. I’m afraid that I have nothing for you, I have bought a present but unless I can find a very strong, large box I do not wish to trust it to the post. I hope to be able to take it home myself about a month or so hence. I sent 4/- postal order to the Island, and that is about all -I am afraid my presents are very few. I have had a letter containing some handkerchiefs from Ron, and writing paper from Auntie Lizzie.
I was surprised and pleased to see your last letter which arrived on Thursday, only the day after your Sunday one. As you surmised, I read Phil’s letter before anything else, even before I looked at the other letters. I was very pleased to learn that he is still alright even though he is not enjoying himself very much – but then he never does! However I should imagine that the Middle East is a very horrid place, I’m sure that of all foreign countries, Egypt,Palestine & Libya are about the last I want to visit I must send him an airmail very soon. I hope that your next letter will contain Phil’s letter, or your copy of it. I am eagerly waiting to read what he says.
I can just imagine that Mrs Hart would nearly believe that you had brought her white Bovril. I remember that on several occasions we have made her believe, or half believe all kinds of curious things. Joyce will doubtless remember the time when we had been out for a walk and on coming back nearly persuaded Mrs Hart that we had had some brandy (!) at Otterbourne (The White Horse is it?) Actually the brandy was cider and of course Mrs H. said that she knew we were leg-pulling all the time! I imagine too that they would be most interested in your Rizla machine, though I am surprised that they had not seen it before.
My Hamble friend came up here somewhen in August or early September but he did not go to Padgate. With luck I may get away sooner than he did, but all these things are so vague and indefinite that I cannot be very precise. The end of January should see me out of Blackpool though. This morning about six of us went to the 11 o’clock service at the parish church. They did not have any carols though, which disappointed me – they come in the evensong, when of course we shall be having our party.
“I have seen the cakes which are iced, and the trifles and the iced sandwich cakes and the cream cakes and the little fancy buns, mostly home-made and all looking very nice.“
We are having some photographs taken, as one of the girls had a camera as a leaving present from her office and I have bought a couple of Soshalite bulbs which I can fire from my torch, for which I have bought a new battery – I couldn’t get an Ever-Ready though. It will be good to use a camera again. I bought “Photograms of the Year” 1942 yesterday – it has gone up to 7.6d but there are some good pictures in it. I do not think that it is quite as good as the last one though. I had better close now as the post is going soon so goodbye & love from Albert.
PS your letter was not postmarked, or rather your stamp was not – they postmarked the used one instead.
“There is little hope of recovering it I am afraid.”
Albert writes a happy letter on Wednesday 17th December, 1941, although his first line sent a jolt of panic through me, a shadow of what my Grandmother felt, I’m sure. Oh, but is not truly bad news, not of the life and death variety, yet the loss of one’s writing pen was, in wartime, perhaps akin to losing a mobile phone today? Maybe not quite so bad as that, most people I know would freak out if they lost their phone. Albert was not of the freaking-out generation, so he laments his loss and then gives my Grandmother copious instructions on what to do to find a replacement, in that slightly presumptive tone that young adults reserve for their parents. So, once I appreciated Albert was not in immediate danger, I enjoyed this letter, which details preparations for Albert’s first Christmas away from his family.
Dear All, first of all I have some bad news, so brace yourselves. I have lost my lovely fountain pen. The pen that I liked so very much and so many other people admired. I am writing this with a Platignum I bought to-day for 2/2d. There is little hope of recovering it I am afraid. I don’t know if I told you that the clip had broken almost as soon as I arrived at Blackpool but I have been carrying it loose since then and it must’ve dropped out somewhen. Whilst searching my pockets for the pen I found the missing tie clip but I am afraid the pen will not turn up so easily, so perhaps you will look and see if there is a “Relief No. 7” for sale anywhere and with a fine or medium fine nib, if so buy it, if not see what the nearest equivalent is but don’t buy it in case I can procure one elsewhere – if I cannot, I shall have to do with what I can get. Anyhow I want one, so spare no expense! The Shell money should have arrived by now.
I am now busy looking forward to our Christmas party. The management of the billet changes hands on Monday and two of the girls have been transferred to Bristol and go on that day, so we are having a farewell party on Sunday. There are a man and wife taking charge now and from what I have seen of them they are very nice people. They bought a Christmas tree (artificial) with them and the man, who used to be a baker or something is going to make us a cake. We have been busy decorating the room too, and it looks fine now, though it is not quite finished yet – I have some more ideas to put into practice! I had a fine time yesterday thinking of schemes of decorations. I cut out the letters in yellow crêpe paper “Merry Xmas” and hung them in front of one of the mirrors so that you can see them twice, and we have got bits of cotton-wool, like snowflakes, making “HAPPY NEW YEAR” on another mirror and there are still two more mirrors to experiment on. We have got red white and blue paperchains, like our red and green ones, across the room, and green ones draped across the mirrors & unused fireplace. Some of the more horrid ornaments have been camouflaged with coloured paper, tinsel and streamers, and some holly which was beginning to look a bit dusty we have gilded over, and it looks very nice.
On Monday Auntie Lizzie’s present arrived – some nice writing paper (not this) and envelopes. With this lot I am sending the cake, which I have managed to pack in a shoebox. I have also been getting my cards ready to send, I expect I shall post them during this week because it looks nice to have a good show on the mantelpiece. We have quite a lot here, though there are none of mine as yet. I find that I am sending off quite a pile, about a dozen altogether. I am afraid that this will be a late parcel again as it is now 11 pm so I shall not finish it tonight. On Monday I went to St John’s church for a choir service by the Ministry of Health choir and I enjoyed it very much. I had a programme but it seems to have disappeared somehow.
Thursday: it has just occurred to me that you may be going away on Saturday or soon after so I had better post this with as little delay as possible. I am interested to read about the scarves, they must look very gay and it’s a good idea of Joyce’s. It pleases me to hear that the Forsythia is out now – it has beaten the New Year this time! As for the bicycle tyres, I don’t quite know what to do, though I should imagine that new tyres would keep better than old ones. When storing rubber I believe it is best to keep it in the dark. If you can afford it I should buy them, if you have the money though, because the “Fort” is a very good tyre. The films you sent Geoff were the oldest there were, bar the Agfa, I remembered the sequence of dates. I think I shall keep the Agfa for peace celebrations!
I have just seen that you go to Havant on the 24th, so that disposes of that query. I hope you will not have too awkward a journey. Yesterday evening we had some records I enjoyed very much – Mozart’s 41st (“Jupiter”) symphony. That is a work I have wanted for some time and it gave me very great pleasure to hear it again, and made me want it even more.
The weather is quite fine and not too cold here now, and if it is anything like that at home the gardening should be proceeding apace, though of course it gets dark too quickly to do anything in the evenings. My cold is still with me and I cannot taste things very well, so I have not had any of the biscuits though the apples are very nice to eat.
Just a few lines penned whilst I am at Morse. I’m afraid it is not very good paper but properly it is a scribbling pad. I was interested to read about Auntie Lizzie’s Hampshire books, that is just the sort of thing I should like to look through. It is especially good because they deal with just the part of Hants that we know best. You must let me hear more about them. By the way, I have been through “English Downland” for the second time and will send it along next week. To-day is very cold (or at any rate this morning) and foggy, but I think it may be quite fine once the sun gets up. My torch is getting very dim so I must get the first new battery. It has done well though, and I have used it a lot. Well I think that is all, so goodbye & love to all, from Albert.
P.S. I have not got a calendar as they all seem to have disappeared (and so has my money!) I want a pen so that I can see how much ink I have left.
“I think I shall keep the Agfa for peace celebrations”, that poignant line causes me once again to reflect on how short a life my Uncle lived and how sorely he was missed. Albert didn’t see the peace, he did not resume his career in the petrochemical industry. Albert did not marry Joyce, buy a house and have children, who would have been my cousins.
When I go too far into this type of melancholy, I remind myself of the facts of my Uncle’s life, that he experienced happiness and adventure, and like most of us, he did not know his end. In December 1941 my Uncle was enjoying cosy evenings in the company of clever young women, listening to the gramophone, sharing cups of tea and Players cigarettes. He was free to do as he pleased, away from home and family duties. I see him laughing at the ‘horrid ornaments’ with the girls, huddling round the fire to compare progress on their paper chains and snowflakes, delighting in their warm smiles and appreciative looks (both for his musical knowledge and scissor skills). I know that Albert’s RAF career gave him qualifications he would never have acquired in peacetime and sent him to distant destinations he was unlikely to have visited otherwise. He lived out some of his dreams, which is as much as any of us can hope for.
“I was able to stroll about with no hat or gas mask and my hands in my pockets without fear of being stopped.”
It seems that Albert spent more time travelling to and from Castleton, than he spent with his family there. With some relish he describes his long trip back to Blackpool, catching a train from Manchester at 1.25 a.m. (imagine that!) and arriving home well after his curfew.
This letter is a mixture of familiar domestic news and war time details that appear thankfully alien to us in 21st Century Britain – the landmine crater, a captured German’s flying suit and a two foot remnant of ordinance on display in the Scout room!
I found the photographs in my Mother’s album. I don’t know if Albert ever saw Geoff again, so I wanted to add the pictures as a tribute to him. Geoff was 16 when Albert visited, and he would follow his cousin into the RAF.
Tuesday, December 9, 1941
Dear All, I am starting the second instalment of this letter today, so that I can catch up with the news as quickly as possible. I think I had just arrived at the station (Hope) when the last instalment closed. The train was due at 7:33 but was unfortunately half an hour late. Uncle Vic had enquired about the Manchester times and found that I should have about 10 mins to go from Manchester Central to Manchester Victoria. However, since I got into Manchester Central it was about 9:30, and since the other train had left at 9:10 there wasn’t much need to hurry! At Victoria station I discovered that there was a train to Blackpool at 1:25 am, so I went down to the Forces canteen at the station and whiled away the time eating some cheese sandwiches Auntie Lily cut for me, trying to sleep and reading some 1938 “Amateur Photographers” which were there.
At about 1 am we went along to the train and (four of us) secured a compartment in which we could lay down. The lights were out, and we kept out any would-be companions by shouting “Full up!” whenever the door opened. When the lights went on we took out the bulb and continued our rest until the train moved. I had quite a rest until the train reached Blackpool at 3:30 when I returned to the billet (the key was left out for me) four and a half hours late, and went to bed and slept until about 7:0 am.
Castleton looks much the same as ever it did, and though there are very few cars on the once busy road, I saw quite a number of hikers. The cinema and fish and chip shop are still going strong. Geoff tells me that they have quite modern films now, only about six months old. When we were last there I remember that that “Sanders of the River” was being shown. Of course there are nothing in the way of military there, and I was able to stroll about with no hat or gas mask and my hands in my pockets without fear of being stopped.
There are some excavations been carried out on Treack Cliff opposite the Odin mine for Flurospar. They tell me it is used for a flux in blast furnaces. On Treack Cliff too I saw the crater made by one of the landmines. It is not a very big one, due to the underlying rock no doubt. They have a large piece of that mine (about 2 foot long) at the Scout Room, also a 6 foot length of the silk parachute cord from it, and a German flying suit. The blackout there is much better than at Blackpool.
I told Geoff that I would ask you to send up some films, as he is interested in photography but cannot get even ordinary films. Go to the cupboard and on the shelf, back left on some old plate boxes you will see a pile of films. I think the best ones to send are Selo “HP2:Z20” and a Kodak “Super XX”. Talking about photography, I was reminded that I have a Dufaycolor film undeveloped: it is on the very top of the cupboard where I keep all my chemicals, but I cannot say whether or not it is in a Dufay box. However, it will be labelled, and for your further information the spool is done up in red paper – you find it no doubt, so could you please send it off. Somewhere there is the old bill which states that I have 3d credit with them – try the medicine cupboard by my money box for it. As regards the picture that got bent, I am not quite clear whether it was the negative or my print. In any case there is not much that can be done, though soaking may help.
Yesterday and to-day the weather has been wet and drizzly, so I can consider myself lucky on Sunday. You seem to have had much the same week-end weather except for the thunderstorm. It would not have been good for cycling at Castleton.
I think a bottle of gooseberries would do alright for Ron, I can’t think of much else that would suit him.
I do not need any more cheese though, we have no need of extra provisions in this billet. We are now up to 6 again, though two of them are going soon.I think that Tibbles must be going mad from what you say about him. It is something to amuse you though.
I was glad to see that Peter has won a prize, he has deserved one for a long time. I think as for him registering at 16 and a half, that is nothing to be worried about. If he goes to college he will be exempt until he has taken his degree, and if it is a BSc, they will probably put him on government research. I took the “educational test” last week and went through it easily enough – it was the sort of stuff Peter was doing before he could walk properly. But this week we go up before the Selection Board which consists of officers who seem to do their best to keep us out, so I don’t know if I shall pass that part. As regards Morse, I get on quite well and I’m up to 10 w.p.m. now. We have to reach 12 here. At last that is about all, so goodbye and love from Albert.
P.S. Don’t bother about getting a new tie clip. What with all our moving about it too might fall off and with the uniform it doesn’t show at all, so a tiepin (which I have) is perfectly satisfactory.
My Grandmother obviously worried about my Uncle Peter (the cleverest person I know) going to Cambridge University at such a young age, but Albert wisely pointed out the advantage that Peter would be exempt from conscription. What unimaginable strains the war put on families, the constant worry, for mothers especially. Geoff was Lily’s only son, her only child – how difficult it must have been to watch him go. How cruel that Geoff was killed in action on 25 March 1945, aged 20. One hopes Lily and May found some small comfort in their shared loss. But to lose your only child, all your hopes for the future – I don’t imagine she ever got over it.
When Val of Colouring The Past offered her followers a free colouring of a photograph, I jumped at the chance. Val selected this photograph of three generations of my Mother’s family, that first appeared in my post Your Dear Little Self, which I posted last August. I am so happy with the results! Val has done such a careful and sensitive restoration, these figures seem to glow with life. Val has meticulously followed the information I could give her about clothing, hair colour and the house and garden. I was able to give Val a copy of Albert’s hand-coloured photograph of my Mum, in the very same dress, that he took in 1937 – serendipitous to say the least.
I hope that you too like Val’s rendering of the photograph, and of course I encourage you to delve into the many fascinating works on her site. There is something hypnotic in the transformation of black and white images into ‘real’ colour – to me it’s as though the dream world of the past blooms and expands into life.
I see into my Mother’s childhood world, a world that of course I never knew. They are posing for my Grandmother, one spring afternoon, perhaps during the Easter weekend, at Headley House. There stands my Grandfather, standing tall, and by his standards informally dressed (as he is without a jacket). There sits my Great-Grandmother, in her habitual black and spotless white apron. My Great Aunt Frad beams at the camera, no doubt a cheeky quip on her lips. She lays a gentle hand upon my Mother’s arm, just to keep her still whilst the Brownie camera focuses and clicks. Then little Jeannie can go, go and find Blackie, go and play in the sunshine for a while, before she is called in to wash her hands for tea.
“I believe the billet is to be closed for Xmas so we shall have to move out, though only temporarily I hope, because I cannot imagine a better billet.”
There was a haunting lyricism in Albert’s last letter, recalling his rides to Ovington and to Avington, the whitest frosts on the fields of the Island, the steam rising off the gentle horses in the morning sun. I have been looking at his albums, which has brought me joy and sorrow in equal measure. He took these two photos in 1939, before the war began, before his fate was sealed. He was probably thinking of his photographs as he wrote.
You will have gathered by now, that two of Albert’s interests (besides photography) were reading and walking. So books and maps, being the means to both ends, feature often in his letters home. Here Albert shares his interest in one of the ‘girls’ in the billet, which centres not, I think, on any romantic intentions but on her decent 1″ maps and good taste in nature writing. He’s found an educated friend to go to the music society meetings with, and does not try to conceal his pleasure. Good food makes Albert happy too, as does a warm fire and plentiful hot water. Well, does that not hold true for all of us?!
Wednesday Nov. 26th Midday Dear all I have not yet received your parcel so it may arrive later on in the day, but since I last wrote I have very little to report, and nothing to reply to. The only important item is that we have a “short weekend” this weekend from noon Saturday to midnight ( 11.59pm actually) on Sunday and I hope to go to Sheffield, and have written to Auntie Lily asking if it will be convenient for me to come. The times of trains are rather awkward, and make the journey about five hours, so I am going by bus which should be quicker provided there is a good connection from Manchester to Sheffield. I had thought of getting lifts but shall not bother unless there is a long wait at Manchester. I have also written to Mr Gibson to let him know, in case he had intended to come here next week (Nov 30) and have also said that I may be able to get a day pass the following week (Dec 6) in which case I shall try to visit him. I think that is fairly certain as there is a Corporal in our billet who is able to wangle them for us (in return for a glass of beer no doubt!). As to Christmas leave, it seems to be definitely off. Our long weekend should be Xmas weekend, so it will be put off, not to the following weekend which is payday, but to the weekend after that, which is in the New Year. I believe the billet is to be closed for Xmas so we shall have to move out, though only temporarily I hope, because I cannot imagine a better billet. We have just had, for dessert, a sort of sponge pudding with orange in it and custard over – it was very nice indeed. I have not yet eaten all the biscuits which are very nice. I often have one before I go to bed which is usually about 11 pm. We go up at 10:30 or just after, and by the time I have cleaned boots, shoes and buttons and put my trousers to press under the mattress, it is usually about 11-ish. Then in the morning we usually start at 10 to 8 and get up about an hour beforehand, which is not very early for me and as the water is always hot, that is alright. They light a fire at about 7.15 in the morning and now that the other fireplace is repaired we have two fires going. On Friday morning some of the lights went including those in the kitchen and scullery. I said I could put a new fuse in and did so, but only succeeded in getting two of the bedroom lights back on leaving the kitchen and scullery. More fellows tried but were not more successful and we had to bring a light up from the cellar and suspend it in the kitchen with much string. Monday and Tuesday the electricians came and after some mucking around with the fuses which were quite alright got the lights going yesterday. I did not hear what they said about it, but one of the wires must have gone, and blown the fuse into the bargain. You remember that our playroom light did the same thing about five years ago. Auntie Lizzie wrote me a letter which I received yesterday and I must reply to that soon I also should write to Joyce (I have started that), Ron,and Raymond. Also to one or two of the people at Hamble. I have already use all the 2 1/2d stamps in that 2/6d book, so perhaps I have not too many stamps even now.
Yesterday evening I went around collecting train and bus times, and cigarettes and I’m sending the latter with this letter.
There was no chocolate, though but I may be able to get some boiled sweets for Xmas and also toffees, if I am not too lazy to stand in the queue. On Monday I went to the RAF music society’s meeting and heard some chamber music of Brahms and Cesar Franck, and songs by Mozart. I went with one of the girls from the billet. She is interested in music (plays the piano) and in cycling and walking. She has a 1 inch map of the district and some nice travel books including one called “Rivers of the South”, with photographs by C Dixon Scott [J Dixon Scott & A. B. Austin], which is in the Bitterne library. Other suggestions for Christmas presents are: blue handkerchiefs – I do not think the others will stop white for long without boiling. “Hampshire Scene” by John Vesey Fitzgerald [Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald] a book which Daddy told me he saw at Major Charmer’s at New Milton. A book of maps of England and Wales, Phil has a good pocket atlas by J.G. Bartholomew, and I expect Mrs Hart will show you when you go round there. Another of the girls here has another very good book of maps, 3 miles per 1″ published by W & A.K Johnston Ltd, Edinburgh and London, at 5/-. As regards scale, it is the better (the other is 5m=1″) but it has no index and is not, I think, so well printed, so I really don’t know which is the better. That makes a lot of things I should like for Christmas -more than I shall get no doubt but it is quite a nice lot to choose from anyway! This afternoon there is a football match so I shall keep well in the background and clear on the side. There are some seats at the recreation ground and I have an interesting book to read, British scientists of the 19th century Vol. II. You may remember it, a Penguin book of which Peter had the Vol.I. I have lots of 6d books in my drawer and must send some home, for it is nice to have something to read in our breaks, and in order to save money I don’t have tea very often. Evening 5.15pm. Your parcel has not yet arrived and there is no other mail so there is no further news excepting that we may not get our leave after all due to a church parade being due so I don’t know whether I am going to Castleton or not.
Cheers! Your parcel has come so I must now open it and answer in brief. I am surprised that Jean had not got her parcel but actually I thought she would be home for the weekend, but no doubt it will be welcome when she gets back. I think you had better get a geometry set for Jean, as I have not seen anything special up here and you will probably get it cheaper at home, try Rose’s or some similar shop. Get one with celluloid set squares, 60° and 45° good thick stuff and similar protractor, and a compass like this with also, if not too expensive, a compass for ink in a nice strong well-made box because you know how she will bang it around! I don’t mind paying up to about 5/- or a little more if you think it is worth it. Tell me how much it costs and I will send you the money. Arthur Askey’s film doesn’t seem to be due here yet, though I have not seen all the programs for next week. Blackpool does not seem to get very modern films. If you get Mr C to do those prints postcard size, you will find some “Best Wishes” folders in my cupboard. I believe they are in a Kodak white envelope on the bottom of the cupboard. Well that had better be all, or else I won’t be able to post this so goodbye and love from Albert.
I know very little about him. I know my uncle was born in Southampton on 20 July 1921 and that he died in Scotland in January 1944. He was the eldest child of Hedley and May Mabey, my grandparents. He worked as an industrial chemist before his service in the RAF. He was a clever, handsome man and a keen photographer.
Were I to write that he was a presence in my childhood, I would be lying. All I remember is this photograph that was in my parents’ bedroom, finding the ‘big black compass’ and the book of poetry.
Ours was not a house filled with photographs but paintings hung on every wall in every room. The only two photographs on display when I was a young child were Albert’s and my Father’s mother. I knew that they were both dead, and thus in my solemn way I equated photographs with mourning.
We got into trouble once through playing with the ‘big black compass’ in the wild part of our garden. I think my sisters and I were being spies. The misdemeanour was my doing. It was I who rummaged around in the airing cupboard, pushing my small hands under the ‘good tablecloths’ at the back. There, amongst the bars of yellow soap and Imperial Leather talcum powder, I felt a leather handle to pull at. This was attached to the curious block of metal, which I furtively transported downstairs and out to our spot in the garden. Later Mother scolded me for taking what I should not. I knew I had done wrong but I could not understand the hurt upon her face. She never said it belonged to him. We called the heavy, square box a ‘big black compass’ because of its glass-faced display of semi-circular dials and red needles. It was a mechanical mystery. My uncle, what he did and who he was, was another type of mystery. I know now he was a flight navigator, but the function of that instrument will remain a puzzle, for Mother made sure that we never saw it again.
The book of poetry was the collected works of Keats. There was an inscription in it, from his girlfriend Joyce. Mother let me borrow it when I was at university, on condition that I took good care. I looked for the book after Mother died, but she must have given it away. What happened to the big black compass heaven only knows. The photograph stayed on the chest of drawers until my parents moved to live with my sister. ‘Long enough’ I suppose she said to herself – 40 years was long enough.
I have sent away for Albert’s service record and I hope that it will yield more concrete information, I’m waiting another week before starting on his letters, in the hope that I will receive the record soon. So it goes that more than 70 years since he passed away, almost everything I will know of Albert will come from his own hand.
This little letter, the good quality notepaper and envelope all of a piece, was written and posted on the 27th December 1939.
Thank you so much for the pretty Xmas card. Your Aunties were very pleased with theirs especially Auntie Daisy and Norah with their picture of Blackie. I do miss you running about the house but am so glad you are enjoying yourself with your dolls – what a large family of them you must have!
I expect Daddy’s holiday is going all too quickly – if you had stayed here another week you would not have been able to go home for Xmas because of the fog – wouldn’t that have been sad? Give my love to Peter and thank him for his letter. Love to Albert too. I hope he is well. Lots of love to your dear little self from Grandma.
Auntie Frad will write to you.
Auntie Frad stands behind my Mother in this photograph, with Great-Grandmother and my Grandfather. It was taken in the front garden of Headley House, on a spring afternoon I imagine. My Mother is possibly a little younger than eight years old – but it is the only photo I have of them both together. And you would imagine her a rather miserable soul, would you not, from her expression? Thankfully we have her letters and see the sunnier side of her character. There is another tiny photograph of Great-Grandmother cuddling a little cat, perhaps it is Blackie? I shall find that and share it soon.
Rereading this note stirred the futile desire to have had a Grandmother myself, to have received such little notes – life-long treasures of family love.
I photographed the letter outside in my garden, taken by a strange notion to let the paper and ink feel the warmth of the sun once again. It is my morning habit to make a tour of my garden, which takes no more than five minutes due to its small size. It’s a daily pleasure to watch bees diligently visiting the flowers, to see leaves stirring in the breeze, and simply to be in the sunlight.
Recently I moved the original blueberry bush, which Mother and I bought at the nursery she loved. It’s in a better spot now. We only managed to get one, there being just a single variety on sale. She told me we should find another type, otherwise the flowers could not pollinate and there would be no fruit. That was in the summer. We had no further opportunity before autumn came. “You had better take it” she said in October. “You had better take it, for now.” I remember catching her eye and we silently acknowledged the falsehood of ‘for now.’ My Mother died two weeks later.
So I took the blueberry bush and I bought another. My Mother was right, of course, and I have been eating blueberries from my garden every morning, in this hottest of English summers.
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.
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 severaldaughters &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 aswellas 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 haveSINCE 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.
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.
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 didnot 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.