Colouring My Mabey Family Past

An afternoon in 1937 comes back to life

The Mabey family at home, Branstone, Isle of Wight c.1937

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.

Books and Maps

“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.

Albert

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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.

“Your Dear Little Self”

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This little letter, the good quality notepaper and envelope all of a piece, was written and posted on the 27th December 1939.

Dear Jeanie,

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.

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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.

Grandfather’s 50th Birthday

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‘Hope, family, the everyday ordinary’

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

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

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

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

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

24 -10-39

Dear JOHN –

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

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

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

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

 

Side by Side

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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.

20-08-39

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 did not 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.

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A page from my Mother’s album.

 

Patrick Herbert Redvers Mabey

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There is little I can tell you of Patrick’s life. All I have is his name, and two photographs. My mother labelled this photograph and placed it in the album, honouring a relative long lost. She never met her Uncle Patrick but this likeness would have been on display in her Grandparent’s house.  She would have picked it up and asked those questions, as I would years later about my own mysterious Uncle (her brother Albert)  – “When did he die?”, “What happened?” And after a heavy silence which a impulsive child cannot bear “Are you sad?”

That this beautiful boy died so young must have been a torment to my Great-Grandparents. To lose any child is an unnatural horror, one I pray I never have to bear, but my Grandparents outlived three of their children. In March 1918 they lost Lloyd and then on 19 February 1920 Patrick died, also from gunshot. He was 17. My Mother told me that Patrick was working as a gamekeeper and on passing through a hedge with a loaded shotgun he tripped and the gun went off.

I have my Grandfather’s diary of 1920. I also have diaries from 1915 and 1916, but no others. My Grandparents married in 1920, so I imagine that’s why he kept it, or rather why my Grandmother kept it after he died. Its preservation gives us a testimony to Patrick, although brief. Sadly it tells us nothing of his life, only the manner of his passing.

19th February 1920 Thursday:

Fine Day. Nice Letter from May. Wire from home, serious accident to Pat. School in afternoon, left at 3 home at 6. Pat dead. Accidentally shot. 1-2pm not found til 8pm.

20th February 1920 Friday:

Very Sad day. Went to Newchurch in morning. Elsie returned to Dorchester. Went to Ryde to see Jim and came back home with him. [The rest of this entry, written in pencil, is illegible].

21st February 1920, Saturday:

Up early. Cold day. Pat home. Busy. Sandown. 14 wreaths. Sad day altogether. Lovely funeral, many followers. Tea, talk, tears. Meccano with Dick, made a fine model. Very, very sad weekend.

Exactly 98 years later I record the passing of my Great Uncle Patrick, through no design of my own – some other force perhaps is at work here. This is my own little act of honouring a relative, reminding me again that for some this life is short and they leave us all too soon.

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