The RAF Observer

“What happens after I have done the wireless and Morse I cannot say.”

My uncle was a modest man, I have learnt this much through reading his letters. His success at the Selection Board is not mentioned in this letter until almost the very end. Before he shares this news, Albert’s focus is on Christmas gifts gathered and the ‘absolutely wonderful’ concert he attended at The Tower. If Albert was accompanied by one of his female Civil Service friends we shall never know. Nor shall we ever know who the ‘Hamble friend’ was, or what became of him, for Albert never mentions him by name.

Time shows that Albert achieved the position of Observer, as we can see the brevet on his uniform in this photograph . I’ve not been able to find out much about the role, other than the Observer was considered second in command to the pilot and was most often the navigator and radio operator of the crew. It seems then, that my childhood description of the ‘big black compass’ may have been apt.

Saturday 7 pm December 12

Dear All, unlike last week I’m starting this letter early since I’m spending the evening indoors. We were inoculated for the second time today and my arm – the left one – is feeling rather stiff this time, you may recollect that it had practically no effect last time. Probably the fact that I have a cold has something to do with it, but you must not think that I am by any means ill (or I would not be writing this letter). I think I have been lucky to escape for so long without catching a cold.

Yesterday I said goodbye to my Hamble friend, who has finished his training here and is going for five days leave to Warsash. It will be a bit lonely now he has gone because it was very nice to be able to talk to him about our work and the people who are, and were, at Hamble. I hope to see him later on, when I get moved from here though. I received your parcel to-day, many thanks for it, though as yet I have not sampled the eatables or opened the Xmas gift, which I intend keeping until the day. I have spent the 3/- and a bit more besides. I think I have got nearly all the Xmas presents and cards settled, though I have not paid for Peter’s book yet as it has not arrived. I bought a small chocolate cake, which I hope to send to Havant if I can find a box for it; I hoped to use the one your stuff came in but it is not big enough. Someone here will have one no doubt. I have looked for some farm animals for Christine but they do not seem to be any, so I have bought a couple of exercise books since she seems to be short of paper and I shall send some sweets as well. On Wednesday I shall send you your tin box. By then I shall have enough cigarettes (wrapped separately!) and other things to fill it. I suppose I had better send your cards to Havant, though I don’t know how long you reckon to be there. That reminds me, I must buy a stock of 1d stamps for these cards. I suppose I should buy a card for Peter so as not to leave him out. If he is able to get his exam papers I should like to see them. 

We had a mince pie with our tea one day this week so the Castleton one was not the last of this year

On Thursday I went to The Tower and saw ‘The Messiah’, it was marvellous, absolutely wonderful and I enjoyed it more than anything I have heard for a long time.  There was a very good chorus of about 120 I should say, a good sized orchestra and an organ. The place was packed, far more people than were at the Halle concert and I had to pay two shillings to stand. I very nearly did not bother to go in, but having heard it I would willingly pay twice as much to hear it again.

Sunday Morning: I am feeling rather better now and sure I’ll be alright tomorrow. I am something like I was when I was inoculated last year. I had a letter from Grandma and Auntie Ursie during the week. Auntie Ursie says that their daffodils and snowdrops are beginning to show, I wonder if ours are coming out yet. She also drew my attention to the fact that they come from Poulton-le-Flyde, which of course I know, though I do not recollect Brown’s Nurseries. 

On Thursday I went up to the Selection Board who took me without any difficulty as an Observer. It will make no difference to me for some while, as I have to go through the whole wireless course, though not the gunnery.  What happens after I have done the wireless and Morse I cannot say. I am sorry to hear that Jean is not very happy in her billet, though she is a good girl not to complain. It  seems to me that she got on best with the Hollybrook children. I hope she will have some nice companions when she is moved. I have not written to her lately but I don’t seem to have much time, or much news. I suppose that she will be spending some time at Havant after you have left, or will you be there the whole week? Well that seems to be about all I have to say, so goodbye and love from Albert.

P.S. I was interested to hear about Mrs Hart and the solitaire board, I remember that they used to play it at Landford.  I could do with some stamps for the next lot of cigarettes. 

In some other post I will tell you what I know about cousin Christine and her family. Her grandfather was the catalyst through which my Grandparents first met; when I discovered this I was glad to solve the mystery of how, in 1917, a man from the Island could have met a woman from Havant.

There must have been so much more to Albert’s new life that he did not share with his Mum and Dad – the chats with fellow lodgers, the training, the thoughts and longings he had. This letter jolted my own memories of writing home, when I was at university. It was a little unusual, in 1981, to write a weekly letter, for public phones were commonplace. I wrote letters because my Mother wrote to me, and she could not hear well on the phone. I kept all her letters, it seemed a wicked thing to contemplate destroying them. And my Mother, as we discovered after she died, kept all of mine. They lay with Albert’s, in the same big box. Maybe one day, when I am an old, old lady, I shall marry them up – I couldn’t bear to do that now. Maybe one day, much further on in time, a relative of mine shall read of the duet we danced to, and marvel at the lost world we inhabited.

The Jeaneth Bird

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Albert called my Mother “Jeaneth Bird.” Recently I found a Christmas card he sent her, in which he wrote “I had hoped to find a picture of the Jeaneth Bird in flight.” How tender that phrase appears to me, a sweet sentiment that brings forth the image of  little Jean  soaring like a skylark in a pale blue sky. Perhaps on the 24th October 1941, as he sat to write to his little sister, he imagined her amongst the migrating birds described in his letter to his parents and missed her too.

It is almost inconceivable now, in these always connected times, that a twenty year old man would trouble to write a two page letter to his ten year old sister. Or that a young man’s evenings would taken up with family correspondence and yearning for his bicycle and his gramophone records. In this letter Albert portrays Blackpool a little more favourably, editing out his homesick laments to his parents, but he shares his disappointment about the sustenance on offer. Food, the abundance or lack thereof, is a recurring theme in Albert’s letters.

Dear Jeaneth Bird,

I received your letter to-day and I have now started to reply to it. When I am moved to a more permanent billet, I shall send it along to Branstone. Now there are 3 of our family in billets, and only two left behind at home. In our billet there are 8 of us, and we have to do our own washing up. And we have to sweep our rooms etc, and we get up at 6am too.

I hear that Sybil and Barbara are thinking of getting moved, and you want to be with them, so they cannot be quite so bad as you sometimes make them out to be! I hope you are still getting “Excellents” for your French, and no order marks now. But your English is not always so good, and I am sending back your letter with corrections (If I remember to put it in that is). I am very glad that you now have a bicycle, you must hurry up and learn to ride it so that you can go out for rides with Mummy and Daddy. Do you know what make it is?

[SUNDAY] You are doing quite a lot of travelling by yourself now, more than I used to do when I was your age, though I suppose there is somebody to meet you at each end of the journey. Blackpool is quite a large town, and there are plenty of shops and lots of cinemas and theatres. There does not seem to be such a shortage of things here, although the apples we get are not at all good. If I am able to, I shall get you some hair clips! Then you will have no excuse for wearing those other old things. Blackpool is not very dark at nights either. There are some dim street lights, and the blackouts are very poor, but no-one seems to mind much. The trains & ‘buses run very late too – until 11 at night I believe. We have the trams outside our house, so it is quite like home in that respect. To-morrow, we are being moved to another billet, which, I hope, is better than this one. We have no supper at nights and not really enough at other times. It is quite chilly up here now (I expect it is warmer at home) and we have no fire, so I shall be glad to get out this afternoon.

I think I shall post this to-day but if  you want my address, Mummy will have it: you can let them send any letters to me, though I expect you will be too busy to reply yet. Give my love to Ped, & Grandma and all the Aunties and Uncle Dick.

xxxxxxx lots of love from Albert

My Mother was such a clever woman, it’s quite disconcerting to read Albert’s opinions about her academic abilities! I admire his modesty in not mentioning that he has gifted the money for her bicycle from his savings (see my previous post). He was a kind man and no doubt his words made her feel a little less lonely as she travelled alone from her ‘billet’ in Bournemouth to the Isle of Wight or Havant and back again. (My Mother was evacuated with her school to Bournemouth for most of the war).

I am sure this letter must have meant a lot to my Mum; she kept it for the rest of her life after all.

 

Friday October 24

“You see Blackpool is not like Bournemouth or the seaside towns we know…..even the sea is the colour of tea.”

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It is fair to say that homesick Albert did not think much of Blackpool. In fact should you hold a fondness for that place, I suggest that you think twice about reading further! This is the earliest letter I have. It may not be the first he wrote, but I do know he started his training in the autumn of 1941. The letter is 6 pages long and what follows is the first three pages. Blackpool seems a strange place to start one’s flight training but apparently the town was full of new recruits in 1941; no wonder the shopkeepers put their prices up…

Dear All,

I received your letters this morning, and am replying this morning without yet having read all the other letters. Yesterday afternoon we were inoculated, and have to-day off to “get over it”. But in my case there is practically nothing to get over, and though, strictly speaking, it is not permitted, I shall go out at least to-night.

Now I am fairly happy here. On Wednesday morning, the day after we arrived at Blackpool, I was very miserable and homesick because this is a very spit and polish place and we go drilling on the promenade, which I do not like at all, even now. Strangely enough it was the afternoons gym period which cheered me up! I thoroughly enjoyed it, because it allows one more freedom I suppose. After that I have been getting on much better, though I still dislike drilling etc and always will I suppose. Our billet is quite a good one, though we have no supper. We are allowed out until 10.30pm and lights out is 10.45pm but there is polishing to be done morning noon and night, and life is one long rush.

Blackpool I think is a nasty place. There are few good shops – one camera shop (good) one bookshop which I have not yet seen and about one music shop. There are many, very many such places as oyster and whelk bars, dirty, dingy tea rooms and restaurants, cheap jack shops that sell all manner of old junk and Woolworths etc. Everything is very expensive and the supposedly good-natured Lancashire folk seem very willing to “do” people, and to get rich as quickly as possible. I paid 5d each for dusters the size of pocket handkerchiefs, 1d for 3lb for very poor Cox’s pippins all scabby and some bruised and maggoty. It will be worth while for you to send some from home. I saw cream buns at 4½d each, some small pies 2½d -4d each. The large show places here such as the Winter Gardens, The Tower and The Palace are very ugly buildings, and dirty outside. Nothing modern and clean except perhaps the Odeon cinema and I don’t like that either!

The good thing about Blackpool is the number of shows going. This week the Sadlers Wells opera company is here and I have got a ticket for Saturday night to see the “Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart. Joyce has the “M. of F.” overture, it is in the left hand compartment of the record cabinet, a light blue 12″ Columbia record in, I believe, a blue case named “J.Tee”. Try it, it is a good overture. Since I was late booking, I had to pay 6/6 for a ticket! To-night I shall try to get in to the “Barber of Seville” by Rossini, but must get there early so as to be at the front of the queue. You probably know the overture to that too & probably one or two of the songs. Next week, also from London, is a Russian opera and ballet. I have booked for that already, and got a good seat at 2s6d for Saturday night. Ronald Frankau is also on at the Palace.

At Warrington we were not allowed out but here we get Sunday off and once training begins, a 48hour leave pass each month with permission for travel to a 50 mile radius, so I shall be able to go to these various places. Our chief chemist’s parents are at Cleveleys near here (see map, I believe there is a Blackpool town plan in your atlas) and I can go there of a Sunday. As I have said, my old workmate is here training, and yesterday I called on him. One of the fellows at his billet was being posted to an aerodrome and in his honour, their landlady treated them to dinner. I was invited too! and at the Tower restaurant: about the best in town. We had a grand dinner of hors d’oeuvres, soup, chicken with fried potatoes and brussel sprouts and ices and coffee. There was also sherry and beer to drink, and I tell you we had a fine time. On Sunday afternoon I am going to see him again and we shall go to Cleveleys together, he has been and says that they entertain very well. Incidentally, I have not seen a bit of green open country since we were in the train on Tuesday, and so far have seen no parks in Blackpool. Certainly there are some near the front, and the “Winter Gardens” are gardens in name only, in fact they compromise a cinema, restaurants, dance hall & I think, a theatre. No gardens. You see Blackpool is not like Bournemouth or the seaside towns we know and far from being so clean and smart, I find it dirty and dingy: even the sea is the colour of tea.

 

Lloyd’s Last Post

I placed this letter on a gold ground for they were brave men.

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This is the last letter of Lloyd’s in the collection. I found it recently,  slipped inside the envelope of another letter. It should have appeared before my post of 22nd November, were I observing strict chronological order. I apologise for my failings as an archivist. On 19th June 1917 Lloyd writes to his father, thanking the family for his parcel. I know he felt close to his family, especially in the alien landscape of war. He mentions nearly all his brothers and sisters and he tells his father  “don’t go and work hard and make yourself bad – Don’t forget I’m coming home someday and I expect to see that you and Mah are well and smiling”

I cannot bring myself to type it all out, it feels too sad. This loving son did not come home to work with his Dad and marry, and have a family. The Mabey family was diminished by his death, his dynasty denied.

What survives are the letters and this one photograph of Great Uncle Lloyd, smiling beside his brother Jim. When it was taken I do not know. I suppose it was before those two letters were written – before he saw too much and knew what war was.

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Great-Grandfather

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Now, in this New Year I introduce you to my Great-Grandfather, and to the oldest letter in the collection. John Mabey was born in 1859 and lived in Knighton with his grandparents. For most of his life he was a market gardener. This photograph shows him in August 1936 amongst his fruit trees. My Mother is the dear little soul beside him.

These days there are no other circumstances in which I might use “My Mother is.” She has gone and so one says “my Mother was,” “She did,”  etc. No present or future actions are possible.  Yet in a photograph, where a sliver of time is captured and stilled, she still exists. There she is smiling in the hot sunshine, how happy they look.

Great-Grandfather was a jovial man, by my Mother’s account, and she was very fond of him. She told me that he did not have the brains for business, my Great-Grandmother had those. Jane Mabey ran a shop out of Headley House selling all manner of household and farm goods. It did well until Apse Heath expanded.  Thereafter trade and income dwindled as the family grew ever larger. I believe it was the promise of gold that prompted my Great-Grandfather to enlist, aged 40, for the second Boer War. What his wife thought of him travelling half way across the world with no guarantee of return we shall never know. It seems that Vera Chrystabel was born in her father’s absence. She was the youngest of 7 children that Jane Mabey was left to manage alone, and there was the shop to look after too.

My Great-Grandfather writes from Keat’s Drift in South Africa. He addresses his son as though he is head of the household, done tongue-in-cheek we hope, for he was only 10 years old in 1900. My Grandfather, Headley John, had four older sisters  – Edith, Elsie, Frad and Daisy.

10-05-1900

My Dear John – I received your letter with Daisy’s – and I was very glad to hear from you – also to hear that the Little Mother is better. I hope that you are a good boy and that you help her all you can . How do you get on at school, do you like it? Your Good Friday was very different to mine. I was on a very long march and it was a very hot day and dusty. I shall remember that for a very long time. I was glad to hear that Vera Chrystabel was such a nice little girl – also that Jim was a fine boy. I suppose he will soon go to school. I hear he is getting pretty unruly. I think his mother had better pack him off out to me in a box and I will make a Dutchman out of him – and Mr Levy off too. Please remember me to to Aunt Frances and Uncle John Wheeler also to Mr Sprack and tell him he could make hay out here for it shines both sides of the hedges every day, also to Miss Salter and tell her I have forgotten the taste of “Sodie”. Goodbye John be a good boy and help Little Mother and take care of her. From your old Dad – in South Africa x x x x

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I’m glad to say that John Mabey returned to The Island to drink refreshing “Sodie” in his garden. He survived the war unscathed, but did not find enough gold to make him rich. He brought some back, a little nugget mounted on a tie-pin. We sold it after Mum died. Great-Grandfather’s war medals were stolen in 1960 when Frad and Ursie left the house. Vera Chrystabel died in 1901, aged 18 months. I do not know if Great-Grandfather ever saw her, I hope he did. They called her Molly in the family, long after she was gone – my uncle recalls this. Why she was known as Molly is a mystery. There were no photographs of her. Jane Mabey had only her memories, no picture to hold and say  “Look Molly is..”

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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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Let These Old Lives Speak

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My intention this week was to share the letter written by a comrade of my Great-Uncle’s but the box had other plans for me.

It was my desire to bring order to the letters in the box that thwarted continuation of the linear narrative concerning Lloyd. Within the box so many letters lie loose and many are folded in on one another, letter within letter. The majority are from my uncle Albert, referred to as John by our family. Some of these are held together with tightly knotted string, bundles which I could not bring myself to disturb – to untie the knots secured for who knows how many decades seemed somehow disrespectful, even unkind. Who was I to unsettle the snug security of private correspondence? So my focus yesterday was to sift through all the papers that were un-enveloped, sorting by author – the young, the old, the remembered and the unknown. Such sorting requires reading of course. I read so many lines from ages past, and as I read I sensed my own thoughts fall silent. As in moments of meditation my mind grew still, released from the fast currents of the here and now. Peace descended as I let these old lives speak. Mostly I heard Albert – writing his weekly letter during training, writing from London, Wiltshire, Lincolnshire, Manchester, Cumbria and then, as Flying Officer Mabey from Canada; there are so many from that faraway country. Of all the letters that passed through my hands I fully read only a few. And what force of serendipity led me to read of his billet in Manchester “I could not wish for lodgings more like home” and then to find the letter from  Mrs Eleanor Dawson, the very woman who had opened her home to the young airman as he waited for his overseas posting.

I did not expect her letter to move me so, for tears to rush up so quickly. It is the universal contained within those lines that touches the soul – she writes of a mother’s love, the unending worry for sons sent to war. What humanity I hear in her words of gratitude and good wishes, faith in a happy future for all because that is the only faith possible. Grace lifts off the page and passes through me. Her words rested in my heart all night long. Grandmother must have felt glad and comforted to receive a letter so full of kindness. It is remarkable that a stranger’s words draw me a fraction closer to my own grandparents, people who I never knew, or ever spoke to, never having the privilege of hearing their stories. A little more light is cast upon them now. Thank you Mrs Dawson.

Dear Mrs Mabey,                                                                     November 19th 1942

Thank you and your dear husband for your very thoughtful letter, I had been thinking a lot about your dear boy and wondering if he had arrived safely at his station overseas, so you can imagine how relieved we all felt at the good news. Enclosed you will find stamps your dear boy asked me if I would send to you. I am sorry for the delay. I have had my son ill – just after he left me. I am glad to say he is much better but still under treatment. You must be very proud indeed to have such a lovable son, as he is always so bright. I shall never forget when he said good bye to me, God bless him he might have been one of my own dear ones, I could not have felt more touched. I was sorry we could not do more for him, I am quite sure where ever he may be everybody he meets will just love him – they just couldn’t help but do so. I am anxiously waiting to hear from my dear son. I do not know if he has arrived at his station or not. We mothers have just to be patient and know the same God is watching over them. I must close now with all good wishes and many thanks to you and your dear husband. May God bless and keep you and your loved ones from all hurt. I do not forget you in all my prayers.

Yours very sincerely, Eleanor Dawson

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If by any chance you think you might be a descendant of Mrs Dawson, please let me know. I would like you to have this letter.