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.

Dear Old Dad

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I have the last letter Great-Grandfather wrote in my hands. He signs off ‘Your Old Dad’, and that has got me thinking about my own Father, who I have not seen in four years now. Four years since I have called him ‘Dear Old Dad’. We all used to call him that, for he was always an old Dad; he was 45 years old when I was born, and to have a father that old was quite unusual in the 1960s! So he got very close to his 96th birthday before he passed away. I have missed my Dear Old Dad rather a lot in the last few days, for no particular reason. Four years will turn into five, and so it will go on like that. I regret this. He is more distant to me now, the accumulation of years absent takes its toll. I look at the photographs, I recall the sound of his voice; I try to stem the ceaseless flow of time and what it carries away.

Great-Grandfather writes from his bed, laid up with bronchitis. Touchingly he acknowledges that he is ‘Well looked after in every way.’ He thanks my Grandfather for the secateurs, which sadly he would not get much time to use.

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Dear John,

I feel that I must try and write you a line or 2 re the “Secateurs” &co. What a bit of real “Luck” that you should manage to drop on a pair so very similar to the ones that I’ve lost &co and that you purchased for me so many years ago. I forget HOW MANY but they have done such GOOD WORK and Now to be lost!!! At any rate I am well pleased and Hope to do some good Work with these and tho’ at present it don’t look hopeful &co, as I am writing this in Bed and not very well pleased with myself so far – but must be well satisfied that I’m not worse &co &co. And thankful that I’m well looked after in every way. BRONCHITIS is no favourite complaint of MINE!!! Well I went round the Garden yesterday afternoon almost Heart Breaking &co and nothing done & the 3rd Week in March. Well goodbye for the present. Glad to hear you are keeping well and busy Gardening with kindest regards THANKS &co. From your ‘OLD DAD

I believe that this was the last letter my Grandfather received from his father. And so Grandfather chose to keep this letter very safe, demonstrative of the same sentiment I have for the things my Father left behind. Father did not leave me letters, but little notes and drawings appended to my Mother’s letters. I have other things by his hand too, paintings (of course) and other oddities such as this stone that he drew upon. I cherish these things because they keep him close.

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And so farewell Great-Grandfather. I started this project knowing only your name and where you had lived. Apart from knowing a little more, I feel a sense of your spirit, which surprises me. Were I younger and my parents still living, my connection to you would not be so heartfelt, of this I am certain. Now I have lost my Mother and Father, the lives of long before (ushers in of us all) have a pull upon my heart.

Truly John Mabey, it has been a great pleasure to be with you.

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These Letters

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These letters are from my Mother’s brother Albert. He did not live long enough to become an uncle to any of his four nieces. It is these letters that I always knew of. These are the letters that I knew were stored and safeguarded, because one day someone would read them again and Albert would come back to life.

He died on 12 January 1944. He was 22 years old. My Mother was 13, an evacuee in Bournemouth. His brother, my Uncle Peter was 17 and at Cambridge University.

The three bundles of letters are from 1941, 1943 and 1944. Those loose are from 1942 – I believe – although many have incomplete dates and so could be from other years. I look at this pile of letters and wonder where do I begin.

I think on how their contents are all I shall ever experience of him. The Letters as a whole entity are all I shall ever know of my Mabey relatives passed away, yet Albert’s letters have a particular poignancy. His death was the tragedy of my Mother’s family. She rarely talked of him but the silences of grief were still palpable in my young childhood.

I have two letters left from 1939, which I will publish in the next two weeks. Then we move to 1941, when the world is at wholeheartedly at war and thus Albert’s voice will take centre stage, and I shall come to know my uncle.

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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“Between Ste. Emilie and Villers-Faucon”

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This is where Lloyd died. His date of death is recorded as “22nd March 1918, presumed on or since” in his military record. The two documents below are distinct in our collection of letters for being typed and formal. The first document is not a letter at all; it is account of the battle. Was it given to my Grandfather or did he type it up himself, copied from a newspaper perhaps? The yellowed paper is coarse and friable and initially I assumed it to be of poor quality. I forget that this is a document of considerable age – held  up to my computer screen a watermark shines through, a trade name in Gothic print that I cannot identify. The darkened top half of the paper indicates that it lay exposed to sunlight, or tobacco smoke (or both) for years, with lighter areas revealing the outlines of other discarded documents placed on top.  I fancy the account was not read much, but neither was it thrown into the fire because of the trouble taken to type it all out.

We have no official record of Lloyd’s death but the second letter seems to answer an enquiry of Grandfather’s as to where Private W.J. Lloyd Mabey was laid to rest. Lloyd was  killed on a day when the battalion is recorded as losing 150 soldiers (and 4 officers),  these heavy losses sustained whilst in retreat.

“The efforts and sacrifice of the battalion contributed to the delay in the enemy’s advance, which was one of the main causes of his ultimate failure.”

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5113 Pte L. Mabey

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This is Lloyd’s second surviving letter and his last. Written in pencil on squared paper torn from an exercise book, words fading on the creases. I wonder how many times Grandfather read the letter, all he had left of his brother. I imagine it neatly folded in his pocketbook, close to his breast. Maybe as the years passed he removed it to his desk for safekeeping but never was it to be discarded. One hundred years later it is my privilege to hold.

It is July 1917, Lloyd is stationed in France with the 13th Royal Sussex Regiment. It’s possible that he has been in France for over a year, as the regiment landed in Le Harve in March 1916. Whatever his duties on those two summer days, there was time given to write a letter home. He imagines John reading it out to the family, to Mah and Pa, and sisters Frad and Ursie. He writes to make them smile, so fills the page with thoughts of jam-making, the “awful animal” (a fox?) and teases Frad about “her Bertie”. Whatever Lloyd has seen of warfare he does not, most likely cannot, tell. He says, with no trace of irony, that their brother Jim is “having a good time”. This was the model of the times, to ‘look on the bright side’, and not concern loved ones with the woeful realities of warfare. Lloyd lived in the midst of battles yet writes as though he is only sojourned in France and it would be nice to have a “month off”.

There are moments when Lloyd lets us into his inner world.  These lines from his jovial letter, “It seems as if I’ve wasted my last 7 years – I hope not – but I’ve really got nothing to show for them have I?”  -they pull at the heartstrings. I imagine the family contradicting this assertion as my Grandfather read the letter. Seated round the kitchen table in the oil-lamplight they shake their heads;  ‘Nothing to show for it? No! Lloyd is serving his country, he is a hero’ and so on.

It may not have been his last letter, I shall never know. There were 8 months left for Lloyd. But I wonder why this one has survived and no others? Perhaps because this letter shows the very essence of him. I hear him, full of humour, considerate of his listener, cognisant of the world he lived in, a young man missing the love and simplicity of home. And after he was gone, I wonder how often did they sigh for Lloyd? Collectively wishing him back, peering out of the window down the long sloping road, hoping that just maybe he would appear.

28/7/17

Dear home

I will now try and reply to yours of the 23rd which it was pleasing to get today. Im glad to say that I am still alive and well in spite of the hot weather & c & c & c. You’re no doubt in your glory as its jam making time. I wish I were home – I’d have a go at the spoon. So you’re really expecting Jim home again are you. I hope in a way that you’ll be disappointed – He’s having a good time. I’m very anxious to know what they will do with him. 29/7/17 – It’s just started raining and jolly hard too – one of our favourite thunderstorms – it won’t last long. I expect the kiddies are looking forward to their summer holidays aren’t they – I hope they will have decent weather. I should like a month off but like you my luck is out. Where does Frad have her evening class and who does she teach? I wonder how she’d like me for a pupil – I think she had enough of me when I was a nipper. I expect Jim G. has seen a thing or two to cause a straight face. – I wonder if the Groves got my letters – Perhaps Jack is on his way to Blighty. I’ll bet Frad is worrying over her Bertie – but supposing he does pay her a surprise visit – then she’ll “Tw….” [illegible]. Fancy Auntie paying Mother visits once in 6 years and only being 200 yds. Apart. That is a shame – I can faintly remember her last visit – I was 19 then wasn’t I? It seems as if I’ve wasted my last 7 years – I hope not – but I’ve really got nothing to show for them have I? I was rather interested in your tale of the awful animal you captured – I believe I caught one up in the yard years ago. I certainly remember having lessons on them at school. I’ve had a paper from Aunt Pollie and read that Cecil B’s exemption was overhauled (in his favour) – who was the farmer trying to give him away – It wouldn’t have been Bob M – ?? I forgot to mention that I noticed that Fred Pidgeon was amongst the missing Rifles. I’m sorry for his people. I’ve been following up the argument over a Mr Frodd of Ryde who has apparently taken a commission. The affair caused some feeling in a recent meeting. Does Dad very often get night duty as a Special Constable. I suppose times are not very exciting on his beat are they? It is now thundering very heavily. I’m afraid I don’t know what else to write about – It is shocking the state of affairs in Russia – just as we thought things well in our favour. That shows the curse of German espionage and the influence of their dirty money. It is pleasing to see that the Rumanians  have kicked off very well. I hope they’ll keep it up. I believe Fritz will have the shock of his life shortly. On giving my kind regards to Uncle and Auntie assure them that the war will be soon over – official. I hope you got my letter enclosing photos & c & c also one later posted 26/7/17. I’m afraid I’ve no more news to say so I’ll wind up – with tons of love & x x x x x x x x x x x x x x’s to all.

I remain,

Your loving frere

Lloyd

P.S.  Re Mah’s note 25/7/17 I trust she has got mine now – and hope she’ll save some of that jelly for me. I will answer Ursie’s letter next post. X

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So there is no more of Lloyd. I have papers relating to his death which I will publish in following posts, but this is the last of Lloyd’s voice. He, like brother Patrick and sister Vera, leave no trace upon the earth, never having lived long enough to have children. There are none now living who knew them.

 

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.