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.

IMG_1451

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.

img_1449.jpg

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.

IMG_1447

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.

“Believe Me”

IMG_1047
Testimonials from the Headmasters of Sandown Secondary School, Gatton Lakes Schools, Denmark Road Senior School (2), Sandown C.E. Boys’ School.

I have  several ‘letters of recommendation’ garnered by my Grandfather between 1911 and 1922, as he sought teaching positions on the Isle of Wight and latterly in Southampton. In those days one’s reputation was forged and strengthened through face to face relationships alone, a testimonial could make a man’s career. Grandfather kept these letters safe as they were the only transferable evidence of his skill and good character.

Every letter is beautifully handwritten by the Headmaster of a school my Grandfather attended or worked at (or both in the case of The County Secondary School at Sandown – now Sandown Grammar). Each letter is concise and clear in intention; I imagine that before the advent of Personnel or Human Resources departments, the Headmaster was the sole author of a reference. These men were no doubt as well versed in concocting pithy pen portraits as they were in teaching algebra.

I try to place myself in my Grandfather’s  world, where handwritten letters alone were sufficient to secure him a new post; it is inconceivable now. I marvel at the trust.

IMG_1045
Letters supporting my Grandfather’s application for the post of Headmaster. He was the Headmaster at Bitterne Park School until his retirement in 1952.

The one letter I have read several times is penned not by a Headmaster but by the Reverend Francis J. Bamford, of All Saints’ Church, Newchurch. The pristine quality of the paper is astonishing given that the letter was written on 29th May 1911. The style of his handwriting appears modern, yet I think to his contemporaries it looked unruly, maybe even unbecoming of a minister. I suppose I like this letter the most because Rev. Bamford had watched my Grandfather grow up, and clearly wished him success in his career. I wonder if the good Reverend – knowing more about human failings than many – surmised how his letter might be viewed by cynical school inspectors in Newport. Was that why he entreated in the final lines, “Believe me”?

Dear Sirs, Mr John Mabey has asked me for a testimonial and I have very great pleasure in bearing witness in the highest terms to his moral character and intellectual achievements. I have known John Mabey for nearly fifteen years and have watched him grow out of boyhood to manhood. His career at school was very satisfactory and his after career at the Secondary School and at College have been in keeping with his good beginning. I have never heard the slightest whisper against his character. He is a remarkably pleasant young fellow and popular with his contemporaries and also with children. I am sure he will make a good master and have every confidence in recommending him for the post he now seeks.

Believe me,

Faithfully yours,

Francis J Bamford, Vicar of Newchurch

IMG_1049IMG_1050

5113 Pte L. Mabey

IMG_0776

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

IMG_0778

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.