Grandfather

“My Love to My Love”

IMG_1146One hundred and one years ago my Grandfather sent this card to my Grandmother. Three years later, in 1920, they married. Their marriage ended with my dear Grandfather’s death in 1963. ‘Dear Grandfather’ – a phrase I never thought to utter before I began to read The Letters. I regard that as a benefaction of the universe, that now I feel a connection to a man I never knew whilst he lived.

It seemed fitting to publish a love token on this Valentine’s Day, although I confess this is not a Valentine’s card, rather a birthday card sent on 21 May 1917.  The 14th February 1917 was not marked by any romantic sentiment in my Grandfather’s diary. There was the daily letter from May (my Grandmother to be), but no cards or flowers sent or received, and certainly nothing so extravagant as chocolates.

My Grandfather was a romantic man though, and he expressed his love ardently in the ‘billet doux’ that he slipped within this card. I will not share its contents for even a century later the lines beg privacy, which I must respect. He signs himself “H.H.”, terming himself a ‘Happy Headley’. My Grandparents  were betrothed by May 1917 but could not marry until my Grandfather had paid off certain debts on behalf of his family.

I will share that my Grandfather remarked that his illness kept him from crossing the Solent to visit May in Havant, and that he had to borrow money to send her the card pictured above. It is wonderfully detailed and well-preserved – crisply embossed and hand-stitched, with colouring so fresh I would have guessed it to be only a few years old. Clearly this card was kept close to my Grandmother’s heart. My mother wrote, in the red book on which the card is photographed, that her parents had a happy, harmonious marriage and that ‘they never bickered.’

Last week Lloyd’s letter, and the loss of him,  prevented me from recording it in detail. This week also I have not transcribed the contents of this card, but for a happy reason for there is no sadness here. These words have no need of my interpretation. All I shall remark upon is the feeling that I woke up with this morning, that I hold a token not only of love’s beginning but a marker of the ceaseless flow of love on this earth. I witness here the love that would bring my Mother into the world and, ultimately, started the story of me.

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“Believe Me”

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Testimonials from the Headmasters of Sandown Secondary School, Gatton Lakes Schools, Denmark Road Senior School (2), Sandown C.E. Boys’ School.

I have  several ‘letters of recommendation’ garnered by my Grandfather between 1911 and 1922, as he sought teaching positions on the Isle of Wight and latterly in Southampton. In those days one’s reputation was forged and strengthened through face to face relationships alone, a testimonial could make a man’s career. Grandfather kept these letters safe as they were the only transferable evidence of his skill and good character.

Every letter is beautifully handwritten by the Headmaster of a school my Grandfather attended or worked at (or both in the case of The County Secondary School at Sandown – now Sandown Grammar). Each letter is concise and clear in intention; I imagine that before the advent of Personnel or Human Resources departments, the Headmaster was the sole author of a reference. These men were no doubt as well versed in concocting pithy pen portraits as they were in teaching algebra.

I try to place myself in my Grandfather’s  world, where handwritten letters alone were sufficient to secure him a new post; it is inconceivable now. I marvel at the trust.

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Letters supporting my Grandfather’s application for the post of Headmaster. He was the Headmaster at Bitterne Park School until his retirement in 1952.

The one letter I have read several times is penned not by a Headmaster but by the Reverend Francis J. Bamford, of All Saints’ Church, Newchurch. The pristine quality of the paper is astonishing given that the letter was written on 29th May 1911. The style of his handwriting appears modern, yet I think to his contemporaries it looked unruly, maybe even unbecoming of a minister. I suppose I like this letter the most because Rev. Bamford had watched my Grandfather grow up, and clearly wished him success in his career. I wonder if the good Reverend – knowing more about human failings than many – surmised how his letter might be viewed by cynical school inspectors in Newport. Was that why he entreated in the final lines, “Believe me”?

Dear Sirs, Mr John Mabey has asked me for a testimonial and I have very great pleasure in bearing witness in the highest terms to his moral character and intellectual achievements. I have known John Mabey for nearly fifteen years and have watched him grow out of boyhood to manhood. His career at school was very satisfactory and his after career at the Secondary School and at College have been in keeping with his good beginning. I have never heard the slightest whisper against his character. He is a remarkably pleasant young fellow and popular with his contemporaries and also with children. I am sure he will make a good master and have every confidence in recommending him for the post he now seeks.

Believe me,

Faithfully yours,

Francis J Bamford, Vicar of Newchurch

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A Portrait of my Grandfather

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My Grandfather painted by my Father

This painting was always in our home, by which I mean for as long as I can remember. I knew that the name of this man was ‘Grandfather’ before I understood the concept of grandparents, for I had none. In truth it used to scare me. As a young child this large portrait towered above me, stern-faced and silent. The ‘Grandfather’ must be a giant I thought.

I remember the dark evening when Grandfather fell off the wall. My sister and I had been ordered to the front room so that Mum and Dad could enjoy some after-dinner talk with their guests (I remember this because ‘having people round’ was a rare occurrence). Of course we were bored and trapped and so resorted to climbing on furniture. It was our forbidden amusement to kick off the seat cushions of the two armchairs and jump on the springs stretched across the frames beneath. These were our trampolines and we were in trouble if caught, so we were mindful not to squeal. The higher I jumped the closer I got to Grandfather’s face and his hard stare. I must have been quite a young child because I was certain that if I got close enough and willed it so – then his expression would change and he would become real. Sadly exhaustion set in before I succeeded and my sister and I ceased our game, lolling on the hard, brown, tapestry cushions. And then Grandfather, with a terrifying bang, slipped off the wall and tipped over onto the seat-less chair.  Frozen, we waited for Dad to storm in and punish us, but we were saved by Mr Lowe’s loud laughter, which had drowned out the noise of our mischief. Undaunted by the height of the canvas (taller than us both) we rehung the two fishtail hooks on the picture rail and found a quieter occupation. Mother discovered our wonky hanging the next day. She admonished us but not too harshly, for I think she was quietly impressed that we managed to reach so high above our heads (with the aid of the chairs of course) without causing any breakages or serious injury.

Later in life I learnt that my Grandfather, in stature, was the very opposite of a giant. He was “A dear little man”, in my Mother’s words. He was 5 foot 8 inches tall and when aged 26 he recorded his weight as an astonishing 8 stone 3 pounds.

I  have come to know, by reading through ‘The Letters’, how truly loved he was. Mostly that is carried in the tone of letters rather than their contents. However there are also direct sources such as his obituary in the Culham College magazine of September 1963 which I have reproduced below. I smile to read that he was “A man of modesty but great wisdom, a friendly man, a true servant” and I feel proud.

The same writer tells us “his memorial will be his faultless reputation” and again I smile. But I know that Grandfather has another memorial. He made himself the guardian of his family’s voices through preserving the letters of their lives. That legacy, expansive and illuminating is a living one. So my childhood intuition is proved right, my Grandfather was a giant.

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Grandfather attended Culham Teacher Training College between 1909 and 1911

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Private Langridge’s Reply

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This week it is Private J. Langridge’s  turn to speak to us, a very different letter to last week’s. He gives us an account of 22 March 1918, entire and plainly stated, which brings Lloyd’s life-story to a close. Yet in spite of its content this letter moved me less than Mrs Dawson’s, for hers was heartfelt whereas this letter from Lloyd’s comrade is written out of duty.

Private J. Langridge writes from Hut 27 B Company, Royal Sussex Depot, Chichester one February morning in 1919 Using a regulation pencil and regulation paper he replies to my grandfather’s letter. The military man answers the enquiry directly, ‘he was killed by a bullet in the head’. A plain, hard fact that no family wishes to know. Did Grandfather’s hand tremble, seeing the words that extinguished all embers of hope?  Did Grandfather sense the thinness of  these lines “I feel quite sure he was killed outright and that he did not suffer” – a form of words surely?  In those times families seeking information from the military would receive a sanctioned reply, devoid of recounts of misery, failure, pain. I surmise (but cannot say for certain) that there were many letters written containing exactly those lines.  J. Langridge troubled to write a four page letter in his laboured hand, troubled to detail why he could not report Lloyd’s death – so he was a good man, a survivor of bloodshed and battles that I do not wish to imagine.

Dear Mr Mabey,

I now have the pleasure of answering your letter which I received this morning.Your brother, as named in your letter, was with me on the 22nd March when I am sorry to say he was killed by a bullet in the head. At the time of his death he was my no. 2 in the Gun team to which he belonged. I feel quite sure that he was killed outright and that he did not suffer. I am sorry I cannot tell you what happened to his body as I was took prisoner shortly afterwards. The sad affair happened on the 22nd March between the two villages of St Emile and Villers Falcon about one o’clock just after we had orders to retreat from a railway cutting. Our captain in charge of the company at that time was Capt. Powell who was afterwards killed and the Platoon Sergeant was Sgt. Mason. I didn’t report your brother death as I had no chance whatever while I was a prisoner as we were not allowed to mention anything in our letters in that line. If there is anything else you would like to know I shall be very pleased to answer it if I have and [sic] knowledge of it. I feel quite sure you have had an anxious time about your brothers and I am pleased to hear you have heard of the other one and hope he will soon be back home again with you. Now I will close trusting this will reach you safe.

I remain, Yours Truly, Pte. J. Langridge

Great-Grandmother

Above a section of my Great-Grandmother’s sampler, completed age 7.

My grandfather’s family were from the Isle of Wight. For generations Richards and Mabeys lived in the environs of Newchurch. Stephen Richards built a house at Branstone in the 1700s, which still stands; ‘Headley House’ (so named for being the first house in the village). There is not so much of Branstone now. Jane Richards married John Mabey in 1882 and they lived at Headley House until her death in 1944. She bore 12 children, and had three grandchildren. None of the six surviving daughters married, for the ‘Great War’ took the young men that would have been their suitors.

I know the letter that I hold in my hands is near one hundred years old, yet its age is betrayed neither by fragile paper nor faded ink but by the script of my great-grandmother’s handwriting. Jane Mabey writes to her son John and the content is timeless. I am struck by how my own mother might have written such a letter to me, on subjects of weather and family friends and that self-deprecating “nothing in the way of news”. And yet there is an out of the everyday and ordinary about this letter – for Lloyd is missing and Jim’s whereabouts are unknown, although the family know he was gassed. My great-grandmother’s anxiety and sorrow is simply, humbly expressed and no less powerful for that. It is her loss, and abiding love for all her children that transmits through the pages so long after the heart that beat for them has ceased. Lloyd and Jim were my grandfather’s younger brothers. Lloyd did not come home.

Branstone Feb 16th (1918?)

Dear John,

I daresay you have been looking for a word from me but I have waited till today to see if anything came from Jim. I wonder if they are only allowed to post one letter weekly, it would mean a lot of trouble if there are many of them and they all wrote as often as they wanted. Uncle and Auntie Sprack had a letter last Wednesday. It was written on the day after mine Jan. 28th but not posted till Feb. 1st. There was nothing fresh in it, only to wish them good wishes for the year and he said he was just going to have 1 and a half inch needle put into his leg to make him well. So I hope we may get another letter next week. Oh how glad I shall be when we can once more get in touch with him and get answers to our letters, the time seems endless. I was glad to get your card and hope you did not renew your cold. The weather has turned to wet again and not very warm but it’s nice to be not so piercingly cold as it was the beginning of the week. Mabel Merwood was married today. Not much sunshine for her. A letter came for Jim from Victor, he is demobilised and has set up housekeeping in Newport. He said he had just got a letter returned that he wrote to Jim in July. You will be pleased to know that Ursie was delighted with the new records. Pat put up the big horn this week and they sound lovely. I’m afraid I have nothing in the way of news. Your Dad was called upon to shoot a horse for Mr Mayow. That has been the chief excitement of the week. I suppose you have heard nothing more as to Lloyd? My heart is full of sorrow when I realise that I shall see him no more. I dearly loved the lad as I do all of you and I had fondly hoped that he might have been spared. But its useless to repine. I must close now having no more news. Hope to be able to write more of Jim next week. With love from all.

Your loving Mother.

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