Grandfather’s 50th Birthday

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‘Hope, family, the everyday ordinary’

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.

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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 several daughters &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 as well as 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 have SINCE 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.

 

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.

Side by Side

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Side by side within the small envelope are two letters to my Mother from her Grandparents. Two letters sent to Wales from the Isle of Wight in 1939. My Mother was on holiday with her parents and brothers. It was to be their last family holiday together, although they did not know this at the time. Just as no-one knew for certain that Britain would declare war within a few weeks, least of all (I hope) my eight year old Mother.

I had intended to publish these letters from Great-Grandmother and Great-Grandfather in consecutive weeks; perhaps a subconscious desire to stretch out the idyll of the pre war letters for a little longer. Yet they have lain so long together in that tough little envelope, how could I part them? So I send them out into the world together, as always intended.

I imagine my mother dashing up to her bedroom and sprawling across ‘the biggest bed in the house’ to read her very own letters; the private joy of one’s very own correspondence. Auntie Frad has piggy-backed a line onto Great-Grandmother’s letter, ‘Thank you for your letter. I will write next week.’ I regret that only one letter from Great-Aunt Frad survives, written in 1970 in which she blames the bad weather on the Apollo 13 space mission. I have faint but fond memories of our Auntie Frad.

20-08-39

Dear Jeanie. I must write a letter to you to thank you for your drawing of your holiday cottage. It is very nicely done and gives us a good idea of the place. We are all so glad you are enjoying yourselves and that the weather is good. I think it might be a rather dismal place if it rained all day. Fancy you having the biggest bed in the house you must be nearly lost in it and hardly know which end to get out. There is no fear of your falling out of the window if it is only a skylight? But you cannot see the country from it? We were everso interested in Daddy and Mummie’s letters of all your doings. I know Daddy enjoys getting the wood for the fire but I expect Mummy will be glad to get back to her gas stove and water from the tap – but I am sure she likes sitting out in the garden. We are sorry you are troubled with spots again – they must be Welsh ones this time. I have just been to look at the little colts. They look so pretty under the trees but the flies don’t give them much peace! Auntie Frad found your lace petticoat in your bed here. She has washed it and will send it to 38 B. Rd. Now with love from all to all I will say Goodbye. Love from Grandma x x x x x x x x x x x x

Great-Grandfather’s letter is characteristically exuberant but less easy to follow. I am not sure what type of woollen attire my Mother sent him, nor who Mr Lloyd was, and why his visit was worth mentioning.

Dear JEANNIE. I am just writing you a few lines to thank you for sending me the Welsh LAMBS Wool. Real WELCH from WALES – fancy that. I am sure I SHALL Hop about quite smartly now when I go out to SMOKE my PIPE &co. Thank you very much for your kind thought &co. I am glad to hear that you are enjoying your holiday &co and that you are having nice summer WEATHER. Tell your DAD that I have been very busy this week picking Apples and PLUMS – wouldn’t you like to have some in the GARDEN where you are staying ?? Also planting broccoli &co as Mr WOODS came up yesterday and dug some ground for me. Also tell him not to forget all about his VISIT to Mr Lloyd as I did not hear very much &co. Well now I must say Goodbyee. Hope that you will have it fine all this week and NEXT. With lots of LOVE & kisses from “GRANDAD” x x x x x x.

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A page from my Mother’s album.

 

It was 79 years ago today..

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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 GRASS Mower &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 GREENS Lawn Mower 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”.

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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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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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