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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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“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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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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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.

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.