In my last post, I mentioned that we had read the last of Albert’s letters of 1941, and the next post would bring us to 1942. Well, dear reader, please bear with me as we have to pause, and revisit October 1941 before we delve into the next year.
As I worked my way through the very many letters of 1942, a little note slipped out of an envelope. Undated, many times folded over, tinted with the residues of coal dust and tobacco smoke. I held it in my hand and knew instantly by the soft curve of it, that this letter had lain close to my Grandfather’s heart, stored in his wallet or pocket book, from October 1941 to February 1963.
I think most people have one – a little note, some scrap of something handwritten. Often the subject is quite mundane (I have kept one of my Mother’s last lists) but the pattern and the flow of words written by one passed, or grown, touches us. There is something of the soul, something that we long to keep close.
The contents of this little note replicate much of what Albert wrote in the post 23 Hull Road. I guess what touched me most was that he begins the birthday letter ‘Dear Daddy’, and that he writes ‘may we spend the next one together.’
None of us know what’s around the corner, hasn’t 2020 highlighted that for us? And in 1941, no-one knew either. They had hopes, love and family and little reminders of those things, stored in letters and lists – kept close.
As I drove to the supermarket this morning, I realised that seeing people wearing facemasks feels just so normal now, and I guess in 1941 it felt just as commonplace to see people carrying around their gasmasks. Whilst I won’t compare the current pandemic in the UK to the upheaval of a world war, I see similarities in the hidden, unpredictable threat faced and how society shifts into new, previously unthinkable, patterns of protective behaviour.
As I was thinking about the parallels between war and pandemic, I looked up the number of British civilian casulaties – 43,000 people killed between 1940 and 1941. Currently the number of Covid 19 related deaths in the UK is 41,429 – not far off – in 8 months.
In 1941 due to censorship, people did not hear about how many of their fellow citizens had died as a direct result of war. Albert would have participated in gas mask drills (he could even have been a model for this sketch) but his letters omit such details. There must have been many, many things he did, which he could not share with his family. And I am sure also, there were feelings and concerns he would have wanted to share, about his life, his purpose and the unpredictable world he was living in. As such candour was impossible, Albert details the munitae of his December days, in the dull lull between Christmas and New Year.
Monday Dec 29. 1941
Dear All, I hoped to write a long letter about a walk which I intended to take yesterday, but by the time I awoke it was 10 o’clock and the ‘bus left at 10.20 – so it was not much use hurrying to catch it. The weather was cold and rather grey looking, though no doubt I should have enjoyed myself had I gone. I was going by ‘bus to Garstang, and then to walk up to the hills and moors, using my new book of maps. I must try that walk before I leave here, though I fancy there is a church parade next week.
In the afternoon I borrowed the “Monopoly” board which belongs to the people here, and had a game lasting for the afternoon and the earlier part of the evening, then I wrote some letters. I heard some “bits” of music during the day, including Everyman’s music in which they played the 1st part of The Water Music, much to my delight.
This morning your letters, posted on Boxing Day, arrived, and I was pleased to hear that you had a very good time at Xmas, with the usual Christmas fare and games, & quite a large party to join in with them.
I did not know that Jean had been to the clinic during her exam period, nor did I know that she did so well for Drawing, she is quite good.
As you seem to have such quantities, I am not sending any cigarettes this week. I had 40, but sold them to the man here, as he is not always able to get them; I can do with the money too, as I have not yet got over Xmas! (financially that is). I wonder how you got on travelling on Monday. Several of the girls who have gone on Xmas leave were due back to-day, but none of them has turned up. The fellows who had weekend leave say that the trains from Euston were packed, & very many of them could not get on the night train, and have had to travel later in the day.
It has turned much colder this week, and tonight it is slightly foggy, with a moon shining, and a sharp frost in the offing. The roofs were quite white this morning, which was also rather cold. This is the first really cold weather we have had; it probably is getting ready for next week when I am supposed to have some guards to do!
I am sending along “English Downland” which I am sure you will all like. I have put some remarks in the margin, so I won’t say anything much about it here. The part I like best of all is the description of the road over ‘Old Winchester Hill’, which he does very well, and in addition it is one of my favourite roads. If you have a spare Sunday in the Spring when the violets are out, you really must go along the road from West Meon station to the top of the Hill. I think it is best to go up the road, as then you have to walk and can see the full beauty of it. You could continue along Tegdown to Hyden Wood and thence either home or to Havant.
To-day it is still cold and foggy, I expect it is something like that at home, judging by the weather report from Dover. I hope you are all well: my love to you both & Peter and Jean – Albert.
P.S. I saw a car (Morris 10 or 12) with a ‘COW’ registration number. I took my shoes to be mended today so for the next week I shall clump round in boots for evenings. We should have church parade on Sunday.
And that is the last letter of 1941. What will 1942 bring Albert Mabey? I don’t know much more than you, for I have made a point of not reading ahead, prior to posting these letters. Soon I’ll pull the bundle of letters out from the box and we can discover the next chapter together.
Wartime and pandemic: My uncle knew the former and I the latter. I think about the similarities, the uncertain future, the constant but low-level sense of unease. Most of all I think of how both Albert and myself were taken by surprise, to experience a familiar world so suddenly altered.
This is Albert’s first Christmas away from home. He updates his family on the success of the the Christmas party, paying particular attention to the food. If there was any kissing under the misletoe, then Albert kept it to himself.
Once again I am touched to read Albert’s remarks to my Mother Jean, albeit a mild reprimand for doing poorly in her arithmetic test. My Mum excelled at many things, but maths was never one of them.
A Merry Christmas to you all and here’s hoping to see you all very soon in the New Year.
Dear all (Mummy and Daddy and Peter and Jean, and Aunties Lizzie and Bertha and also Berty and everyone else).
This is a strange 24th of of December and Christmas Eve but it will be another day of rest tomorrow, which is one pleasant thing. We had our party which was really quite enjoyable and the cakes excellent then also trifles with real cream on top I don’t know where ever it all came from there must have been nearly a pint in all. During the afternoon of Sunday I heard the first part of the broadcast of the Messiah and wondered if you to heard it. Now that we have some new people catering for us we have the wireless since they have brought their own, an all mains Murphy with ABC tuning, something like the Bryan’s, a very good set. What we have is a speaker attached to a rediffusion system which seems to be very common here as there are wires across the streets, right and left. I am able to hear the news now and shall probably hear the King tomorrow.
I don’t know when you will receive this, being posted today. Your letter ,written on 19 December, did not arrive until yesterday and mine, which you have not received, was posted on the usual day I believe. I was rather disappointed that you did not put in those Dufoy prints. I was anxious to see what they turned out like – after having remembered that I still had the reel. I also had a letter from Castleton in which Geoff thanked me for the films. They included a 2/6d book of stamps. As regards the 5/- from Uncle Bernard, perhaps you could send it on if the postal order is still intact, otherwise don’t bother . But after buying my Christmas presents, few though they were, I have very little ready money left.
As for chocolate, we get some but not a great deal and just now there are great queues outside the NAAFI for cigarettes and chocolate, although not such large and disorderly ones as at Portswood.
I was very interested to see Phil’s letter and read what he has being doing. It seems that he is in quite safe area and that he is not having too bad time, in spite of what he says about it.
Dec 25 11am: We have just had breakfast and are listening to the church service on the home program . They are singing “Hark the Herald Angels sing” and it brings back to me happy memories of the many times I have been to Havant church on Christmas day; the same carols, the lesson from Isaiah and the Gospel from Saint Luke, about the shepherds at Bethlehem – it does make it a little like Christmas.
I do not know when this letter will reach you. Again I do not know where to send it. By the general slowness of the post I think I shall have to send it home. I will now thank you for the presents which I opened this morning. I am wearing a tie which is better one than our issued article and which I shall save for ‘best’ wear. The handkerchiefs would of course be very useful, though I have not quite so much use now as I nearly got rid of my cold, which has been rather troublesome.
So today I have eaten the cake and I must say that it is very nice and although I believe you said it was without eggs or something. I should not have thought so to eat it. It was lovely and fresh too, in spite of having been kept for a week. I have been eating the biscuits during the week too. I think the Chinese ones are the best, although the chocolate ones are almost or equally as good. The honey biscuits have a good flavour, although they are not so crisp and ‘biscuity’ as the others.
I have just been reading your letters and it is a pity I did not read them before, because I have not been to church and now it is too late to go to any of the morning services. You see, I have to get someone to wake me up if I want to get up earlier thanabout 10. I was called at 10 this morning.
As regards the rest of my present I think it would be best to get my watch done if that is possible. The ‘Hampshire Scene’ is in the Portswood library, the author is John Vesey Fitzgerald. I have an idea that folder of maps is a smaller scale than the books. I believe I have seen them. Anyway, as Phil has the Bartholomew’s book it will be nice for me to have a different one. They will also be able to revive memories of home and holidays for me, as well as help me to find my way around wherever I may get sent to.
As regards presents and things, I have not a great deal to show for this Christmas. I have had five cards up to date, though I have sent off a great deal more. I sent a card and letter to Mr and Mrs Gibbons in which I enquired about Jack. It is a good job that I did not send to him at Thorney Island. I have had two books from the girl who used to work at Hamble – one is a Dictionary of Photography, the other on the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. I have the one from Havant some while back, and last week Ron sent some handkerchiefs. I have just told you about Auntie Lily’s present and that I think completes the list.
This morning is fine and sunny and if the afternoon is as nice I may take a short walk in the country, though I must first of all write a letter to Joyce, who has been waiting about a fortnight or more for a reply to her last one.
My love to Peter and Jane Peter must tell Jean for me that even if someone has to be bottom for Arithmetic and even if we are not surprised, it would be better if she got more for it and does a bit better next time especially (I am sure Peter can tell her this) for so important subject as Arithmetic. I know she can do it and have no doubt that the trouble is only carelessness, so buck up Jean! I am glad that she has done so well English, French and History and that she takes an interest in the Art Club and enjoys it so much. There do not appear to be any marks for drawing or suchlike. But Jean, I don’t like your green ink although I like reading your letters!
I don’t know whether I can fill the rest of this sheet now. I have not even got some old men to talk about like Jean has, so I will close now, with love to you all from Albert.
P.S. This stamp on the envelope is the one off your letter before last! (saving paper). And give my Christmas greetings etc to Mrs Whatmore and Mrs Churchill (!).
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.