Side by Side

IMG_0837

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.

IMG_0840
A page from my Mother’s album.

 

Searching for Elsie

I thought it would be easy to find her. Proud of myself for finding the burial records of All Saints’ Church online, I had noted the plot numbers of all the Mabeys buried there. So I thought it a straightforward task,  if a little melancholy, to visit them on the Sunday before I returned to the mainland. Optimistically I bought a bunch of flowers from Morrisons. By 2.30pm the selection was dispiriting (for this was Mothers’ Day) so my choice was limited to carnations or red roses. I chose the former. There were nine in the bunch, which would be enough for my plan.

Fine rain fell as I walked towards the church. I did not pass another soul on that quiet High Street. The cosy pub was full of families, the church door was open but no-one else walked as I did. Feeling like the motherless child that I am, I entered the churchyard, startling young rabbits grazing on the lawn.

The long graveyard, bisected by a narrow path extends far behind the church, seeming to vanish into woodland.  I walked across the flat square of green, from which the rabbits had scattered, to tread the mossy path, noting the metal row numbers on the low wall to the left. I cannot tell you why, but I was particularly intent on finding the graves of my two eldest great aunts. Edie and Elsie lie close by one another, although not side by side as Norah and Ursie do. Edie died aged 65 in 1949. She was the first of John and Jane’s children to live to an old age. Elsie passed away four years later, aged 67. She died in 1953, this was the year before my Mother married. They never knew us, their four great-nieces, so perhaps that was why I felt compelled to make my search.

They both started adult life ‘in service’ working for wealthy families on the mainland, Edie as a seamstress and maid, Elsie as a nanny. Neither grew rich, neither married. And I have no tokens of Edie at all, she never wrote a letter that was kept. All I know of her is what my Mother told me – she was the eldest, she had a son who was raised at Headley House, and she rarely returned home.

IMG_1451

My Mother put these photographs side by side in her album. Of all the siblings Elsie is alone in having no studio photograph. We see her standing outside the front door of Headley House in  heavy, shapeless working clothes, an apple in her hand. It’s just a snap but someone (my Grandfather?) took the trouble to have it printed up as postcards. I wonder who she might have sent a copy to.

I have a few letters written by Elsie. They are kind and thoughtful, enjoyable to read. Elsie remembers to write to wish my Grandfather a happy birthday. Elsie remembers to send sympathies to my Grandmother on the anniversary of Albert’s birthday. She was so loved by Ann, whom she cared for as nanny, that she cared for Ann’s own children when they came along. As a young woman she left the Island for work, but she returned. I sense that she wanted to be in one place. Her occupation, as a nanny for clergy, took her to Aldershot, Farnham, London, Dorchester – distances vaster 90 years ago than they are now.

img_1449.jpg

This postcard was sent in 1915, when Elsie was nanny to the Reverend Reginald Durrant. I think she sent it to reassure her mother that they had arrived safely, the unruly writing and ill-positioned stamp suggest a correspondence made in haste. In 1911 she had one charge (also called Reginald) to look after, most likely by 1915 there were more.

IMG_1447

My quest to lay a flower on each of my ancestors’ graves proved futile. The row markers ran out. The neat rows of aged headstones gave way to mossy, sunken impressions of graves, their markers missing. Some of these anonymous graves had overgrown stone perimeters that I gingerly stepped across, cognisant that one of my Great Aunts might lie shuddering beneath. I asked two women who were tending a grave if they could help with the numbers but they were no wiser than I. Our voices sounded out enormous and incongruous in the gentle, still air of the Sunday Island.

Time ran out for me on Mothers’ Day,  I had a ferry to catch and the skies were darkening. Wishing that I had planned the enterprise better I marched back to my car, head bent against the rain. Clutching my white carnations I promised I would return and search  again for Elsie, and for our family.

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.