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.
“Our beds are made, we have cocoa & a sandwich for a supper & there is hot water all times.”
Two days later, on 4th November 1941, Albert writes another letter home from his new billet. He is sounding really rather chipper, his excitement about his new lodgings leaps off the page. He finds himself in a hotel where there are more ‘girls’ than airmen, a dream come true for a 20 year old man far from home, I am sure.
He has a sense of purpose too, for his specific training has commenced and he is learning Morse code. He writes that his efforts can be seen on the paper. I searched and searched and saw no dashes and dots, until I tilted the first page and saw the impressions of code besides the address. I cannot reproduce it here and if there is a secret message contained therein, well I’m afraid I shall not be investing in fingerprint dust to decipher it!
Later in the letter he relates his visit to Stanley park where he saw ‘Real live birds!’ and enjoys the softness of the grass beneath his feet. He wishes he had walked from Whiteley Bank back to Branstone with his family, back to Headley House where there have been worries about money. How dear he was, to offer a contribution from his wages to help his Grandparents and the Maiden Aunts.
I very much enjoyed this letter, Albert came alive as I read his news. I hope you enjoy it too.
Dear All, you will note the change of address! Apparently our old billet was too far from the parade ground (about 12 mins), so we have been moved here, which is about 10 minutes nearer. We got back to billets at about 6p.m. and were informed that we should move after tea! It is now nine o’clock!
Fortunately this billet is, I believe, even better than the last. For example, our beds are made, we have cocoa & a sandwich for a supper & there is hot water all times, none of which we had at Hull road. Two of use from Hull road came here, and joined five other airmen who have been in Blackpool about 8 weeks I understand. There are also 10 girl Civil Servants, who are working at the Ministry of Works and Buildings, which has moved up to the Hotel Metropole here. There are other Ministries here, including Pensions and Health. They have naturally got the biggest & best hotels in the place.
We have begun to work in earnest this week. We work from 8 or earlier, to 6 with about an hour for dinner. There is the usual drill, and now we do Morse. Yesterday I had my first acquaintance with the Morse code and instead of going to the Music Club I learnt, or partly learnt the code – you will see that on the top of the page over. This evening I missed Handel’s Oratorio Judas Maccabeus by moving here. To-morrow I mean to make the greatest efforts to get to the music meeting. And on Thursday I must see my Hamble pal again – he was out when I called last week.
I received your letters this afternoon. I was sorry to hear that you had so tiresome a journey, though I would be pleased to walk from Whiteley Bank with you! I am very pleased to hear that the bother over the money has been settled, but perhaps you would like to take say 5/- per week out of my S.M. & B.P [Shell Mex and British Petroleum, Albert’s employer]. Or I could make an allotment of 7/- a week to you or them, and you could have as much as you require. Don’t be afraid to take the money if you want it. I am glad that their wireless is alright, and that Peter is better now. I suppose Jean is still in the same billet; I shall try to send her some chocolate or sweets and perhaps some meat paste.I believe there is a laundry service that we can avail ourselves of.
On Sunday I went to Stanley Park which you will find on the map with a pond in the east part of it. I believe it is the only park in Blackpool, but it is quite a nice place and I was joyful to have some grass under my feet, & trees on either side, and even some birds – real live birds! I walked to the eastern gates and out to a field nearby, where I actually saw some cows.
If I can manage a day pass to get outside the 5 mile limit, I should like to go to Garston on Sunday. Garston (I hope that is the name) [No Albert, you meant Garstang] is a village under the Pennines and I can do a little walk from there.
The fellows here say that it is not always the case that leave passes come when they should so whilst we can live in hopes, it is not advisable to hope too much! I have tried some shops for 1/4″ map of the district. There was a 1/2″ available but it did not show Castleton or the Lake District. I shall keep trying though. Boots have a very good shop and quite a nice selection of books. The apples have all gone – I was wrong when I said they were not so good – I had only had two of the little ones when I wrote – the large ones were much better & I shall always be pleased to see some more. That had better be all so goodnight & love from Albert.
P.S. I should not send any more envelopes you can see what happens to them!
What did happen to the envelopes I wonder? This letter, like many others, did not have an envelope. Albert’s letters were most likely censored. I know for a fact that some later ones were, as I’ve found little windows on pages, signifying the removal of a potentially treacherous word or two. Goodnight Albert, enjoy your cocoa and the sound of the “girls'” laughter.
“Your Dad would endorse all I have said, you must take it as said from him through me”
In 1941, when my Grandfather turned 52, it was my Great-Grandmother alone who sent him birthday wishes, for my Grandfather’s Dear Old Dad had passed away the summer before. She signs off with the lines quoted above, which reminded me of something my Mother said about herself and my Dad – that over the years they ‘really did become as one’. They nearly got to 60 years together, my Mum and Dad. Such a long-lived union I won’t experience myself, but it seems that my Great-Grandparents certainly did. This is the last birthday wish I have in The Letters; Great-Grandmother died in 1944, so it seems just chance that this note survived. The ink and paper are so fresh and clean, the letter could have been written last month.
Branstone Oct 27th
Dear John, I must write a line specially for yourself on the occasion of your birthday. I wish I could do it with a lighter heart – but the distressing times we are living in are against it. I can only wish and hope that in the near future the dark cloud of war may have passed away and the sunshine of peace and good will may shine for you and yours. You can look back with satisfaction on the years that have passed. you have been a good son, husband and father and I pray God that the years to come will bring joy and happiness to you and yours. The war has prevented me from giving my usual gift of chocolate but I know that you value more my love and good wishes. Your Dad would endorse all I have said, you must take it as said from him through me.
Your loving Mother
And on the back of the letter, to alleviate the air of melancholy she may have detected in her writing, Great-Grandmother copied out a horoscope to amuse her son. “‘Ware women teachers I spose”, translates as “beware women teachers I suppose” – a little example of Isle of Wight dialect!
Just as I was about to start on Albert’s letters, Great-Grandfather makes another appearance! I found this letter from 1940 as I was collating Albert’s. Looking at the letter propped up against my computer, it seems to come from a different age. I suppose it does, for what did my Great-Grandfather, born in 1858, know of the trappings of my modern-day, connected world? I wonder what would he make of it all.
Great-Grandfather writes, as he did in October 1939, to wish Grandfather a happy 51st birthday. How different their lives are now, compared to the year before; Grandfather has been evacuated to Dorset with his school and bombs are falling on the Isle of Wight:
27 October 1940
Dear John – just a few lines to wish you all the Best for your 51st Birthday. How Time Flies &co. I suppose that you will not spend this B’day at Home as you were Home last Sunday. Well last Sunday JIM and Olive were here. What a lot of unexpected things have happened this last Month &co – all for the good we hope. These are the days of the unexpected for just about half an hour ago, we – Mah, Elsie, Daisy and Norah were in the kitchen busy talking &co when all at once THE LAMP jumped – THE WINDOWS rattled and the house SHOOK &co and 5 Bombs dropped, seemed QuiteClose. Caused quite a consternation but have no idea where they dropped possibly WINFORD WAY? Shall possibly hear about it Tommorow? So must leave it at that!!! But we must be thankful that we do not live in London – or any large TOWN &co. Well let us hope that by your next B’DAY THE HITLER GANG will have THEIR TEETH severely DRAWN &co. Well GoodBye Cheerio “OUR CHINS are Still up” DAD.
Wouldn’t the world have been very different, if Great-Grandfather’s hope had been realised and ‘The Hitler Gang’ were defeated within the year? Great-Grandfather seemed unaware that Southampton had already been attacked by Nazi bombers; 23 September 1940 is widely reported to have been the first night of The Blitz. Perhaps information was kept to a minimum. Southampton was very heavily bombed because it was a major port and the Spitfire factory was located at Woolston. A good account of Southampton’s Blitz can be found here The Blitz. As a naval base, Portsmouth was also targeted and often bombs were discharged on the Isle of Wight as planes returned to Germany.
Periodically I ask myself, when sifting through my box of letters, why a particular letter was saved from the vast correspondence Grandfather received in his lifetime. In the case of this little letter the reason is clear, Great-Grandfather died in 1941. This was the last time he sent birthday wishes to his son.
This little letter, the good quality notepaper and envelope all of a piece, was written and posted on the 27th December 1939.
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.
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.
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.
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 severaldaughters &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 aswellas 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 haveSINCE 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.
Curious that I should find this letter, next in line to be published, on the anniversary of its creation. My Great-Grandfather wrote to my Grandfather on 12 April 1939, a day of ‘warm weather’ – oh how I wish it were warm here today, another gloomy, grey-sky day in London. Great-Grandfather asked for advice about the lawnmower, wondering if his son John could look for a secondhand one in Southampton. My Great-Grandfather is 81 and worried about all the grass there is to cut and worried too about money.
His daughter Frad has left to take Jeannie, my Mother, back to East Cowes to catch the ferry for Southampton and Great-Grandfather chooses this moment of privacy to appeal to his son. Great-Grandfather and Frad have argued; Frad held the purse-strings in Headley House and she was not persuaded of the expense of a replacement mower, secondhand or otherwise.
So on this damp and overcast morning I try to slip myself into that long-ago world, where a little girl who will grow up to be my Mother is skipping down the road with her chatterbox Aunt Frad who (being a schoolmistress) always knew best and always had an opinion that you would be foolish to contradict. Great-Grandfather saw them to the gate, one hand on his walking stick, the other hand steadying on the postbox wall. As they passed out of view he turned back to the house, shaking his head at the relentless new growth of his market gardens, land that he could no longer control. Oh what a thing it is to grow so old, to lose grip on one’s kingdom. What an agitation to have no secure income, to have to make do with less and less as the years pass. So Great-Grandfather resolves, with the good humour that would never leave him, to make an appeal to his eldest son, the Headmaster and scion of all these grounds. He knows there can be no satisfactory outcome without Headley John Mabey’s assistance. Great-Grandfather sits at the bureau by the open window and labours over his long letter. Finally he sets the pen aside and rubs and wrings his hands as old men do. The sun warms the earth and the birds’ songs fill the sky. With a nod to the natural order of things he leans forward to write the final lines. And thus the crown passes as my Great-Grandfather concedes ‘We SHALL abide by your decision’.
Dear John – Frad and JEANNIE has just STARTED off for So’ton and as can’t as yet do much in the way of Gardening &co and Mr Woods is busy planting Eclipse Potatoes (early) as he has finished the MAIN crop &co, I thought I would write you a few lines in reference to our GRASSMower &co. Dick says that it wants doing up &co as it is pretty well coulled [sic] up and the question is, is it worth spending that much money on it? He says that you can get a New GREENSLawnMower for 25/-. In fact I saw it advertised in the EXPRESS or do you think you might run up against a 2nd hand one in So’ton? We have not much money to play with – and I told Frad that I cannot manage to cut all the Grass myself now. You know what grass cutting is with a reap hook – and at 81 it’s a proposition. Frad don’t know SHE is inclined to think it’s too expensive – but if we have Mr Woods to do it it means 5/- each day and it would take him 2 days to get round it and it would at the least want cutting 3 times? And he is 75 and can’t get down to it very well at that and at the present I awfully shakey it seems from the lower part of my back to my knees, got to have a stick now if I go to the LETTER BOX some OLD MAN EH. But no doubt if this warm weather keeps up I SHALL improve lets hope so at any rate. I have not finished TIEING THE Rasps yet this “Flue” business caught me napping about the 2nd March and has held on well and good ever since. Never felt so washed out before but as I hope, a week or so will buck me up and I SHALL be “A HIGH!!!”
GLAD to say that Mah seems to be keeping fairly well &co. We SHALL miss JEANNIE. SHE has been good company &co and I think SHE has enjoyed herself and we have been friends &co. Hope that you are enjoying your holidays – you have had GRAND weather &co. Well I hope that you and Frad will discuss the matter I’ve written and we SHALL abide by your decision &co. So now will close up &co WITH LOVE to all from your “OLD DAD”.