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”.

greens

Twelve Years Later

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The house in Bitterne Park, Southampton, on a tapestry by my Mother.

In the intervening years between 1919 and 1931 my Grandfather moved off The Island to live in Southampton, he married May and they had two sons. By 4th January 1931 May was carrying their third child, who was to be their first and only daughter, my Mother Jean.

In spite of these significant life events (including the tragic death of Patrick Herbert Redvers Mabey), I have no letters that mark them. Letters from home, before the telephone was cheap and commonplace, would have come at least weekly, so why do none remain from this period? Possibly my Grandmother or my Mother burnt some of the old correspondence after Grandfather died, making one ponder on the significance of the letters that were spared.

Great-Grandfather wrote this thank you letter and gave it to Edie as she passed through Southampton on her way to The Home Counties, where she worked as a Nanny. She also gave Edie apples and potatoes, home-grown of course. Poor Edie must have had a good deal to carry, loaded up with produce from the gardens.

Though the content is sweet and loving my Great-Grandfather was not an accomplished letter writer. His handwriting looks laboured and unschooled. Sentences ramble over several lines and there is the odd spelling mistake too (‘Anno Domino’ gives some amusement). I imagine that ‘Mah’ usually wrote the letters from home, her script flows freely and eloquently in the few letters I have of hers. This note was perhaps treasured for being a rare, tangible token of love from father to son. A treasure (I know) that grows more precious as the years extend and the beloved author fades from view to dwell in one’s memory alone.

Dear John

I am sending you just a line per Edie to thank you very muchly for yours and May’s kind thought &co for Xmas. It was indeed a fine BRAND of TOBBACO  – none to equal it in the I.W. leastways not as I have “sampled.” I have had some truly that was very good this XMAS but NOT quite so GOOD. You surely will have to take to a PIPE again &co. I hear that you are making GREAT PACE in the GARDEN. Umpteen Rows planted ?? WHATTA??

Well I hear that you have got on fairly well this XMAS and managed to finish up with a cold. Why indulge in such luxuries &co?? As Frad will have told you we got through XMAS fairly well, without colds – no regrets &co on that score.

We missed you and family but these things occur in all families more or less, and the TIME comes when none of us can go or come where they like and it came to us – your Mother and me – and it STAYED with us a MIGHTY long TIME and we were and are happy although ANNO DOMINO has STOLEN on us, but not too unkindly but makes us both feel that we cannot do as we have done &co, &co.

I have sent you and May a few apples &co and one or two POTATOES to BAKE for May’s supper &co.

And now I must close up wishing you, May and the children a Happy and Prosperous new Year. GOODBYEE from your “Old Dad”

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“Believe Me”

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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.

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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

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A Portrait of my Grandfather

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My Grandfather painted by my Father

This painting was always in our home, by which I mean for as long as I can remember. I knew that the name of this man was ‘Grandfather’ before I understood the concept of grandparents, for I had none. In truth it used to scare me. As a young child this large portrait towered above me, stern-faced and silent. The ‘Grandfather’ must be a giant I thought.

I remember the dark evening when Grandfather fell off the wall. My sister and I had been ordered to the front room so that Mum and Dad could enjoy some after-dinner talk with their guests (I remember this because ‘having people round’ was a rare occurrence). Of course we were bored and trapped and so resorted to climbing on furniture. It was our forbidden amusement to kick off the seat cushions of the two armchairs and jump on the springs stretched across the frames beneath. These were our trampolines and we were in trouble if caught, so we were mindful not to squeal. The higher I jumped the closer I got to Grandfather’s face and his hard stare. I must have been quite a young child because I was certain that if I got close enough and willed it so – then his expression would change and he would become real. Sadly exhaustion set in before I succeeded and my sister and I ceased our game, lolling on the hard, brown, tapestry cushions. And then Grandfather, with a terrifying bang, slipped off the wall and tipped over onto the seat-less chair.  Frozen, we waited for Dad to storm in and punish us, but we were saved by Mr Lowe’s loud laughter, which had drowned out the noise of our mischief. Undaunted by the height of the canvas (taller than us both) we rehung the two fishtail hooks on the picture rail and found a quieter occupation. Mother discovered our wonky hanging the next day. She admonished us but not too harshly, for I think she was quietly impressed that we managed to reach so high above our heads (with the aid of the chairs of course) without causing any breakages or serious injury.

Later in life I learnt that my Grandfather, in stature, was the very opposite of a giant. He was “A dear little man”, in my Mother’s words. He was 5 foot 8 inches tall and when aged 26 he recorded his weight as an astonishing 8 stone 3 pounds.

I  have come to know, by reading through ‘The Letters’, how truly loved he was. Mostly that is carried in the tone of letters rather than their contents. However there are also direct sources such as his obituary in the Culham College magazine of September 1963 which I have reproduced below. I smile to read that he was “A man of modesty but great wisdom, a friendly man, a true servant” and I feel proud.

The same writer tells us “his memorial will be his faultless reputation” and again I smile. But I know that Grandfather has another memorial. He made himself the guardian of his family’s voices through preserving the letters of their lives. That legacy, expansive and illuminating is a living one. So my childhood intuition is proved right, my Grandfather was a giant.

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Grandfather attended Culham Teacher Training College between 1909 and 1911

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Grandmother 

IMG_0584There are no memories of my Grandmother; all my life an absence of recollection. In those two years before her death in 1965 I know she would have held me, countless times. I know she must have murmured over my tiny form, held my steady, infant gaze, kissed my forehead and felt my tiny fingers wrap round hers. And I imagine that she would bless me before handing me back to her daughter, and I would have made her glad, hopeful – in the miraculous way that babies do.

In the box there was this torn page, ripped from an album. No explanatory notes on the back. Why it was kept with the bundles of letters is unknowable. Nor do I know who took this photograph, with its careful label of ‘Mother’. It is not my own mother’s hand and Albert was killed two years previously. I have concluded that my grandfather titled his wife thus, for the family album. Here May Mabey stands, patient and steady in Spring sunshine. Is that cherry blossom in the back garden in Bitterne Park, Southampton? The war is over. The men have come home and her eldest son is not amongst them. All the letters that Albert would ever write are already in store.

Grandmother’s voice does not survive, for there is not a single letter from her hand. There is one birthday card, for Mum’s 21st, “from your loving Mother and Father”, that was written by my grandfather. When my mother moved to Sheffield in 1951, my father wrote, intermittently, for a period of three years.  Mum faithfully kept her love letters  but none from her parents.  I don’t suggest this was a deliberate act; I know Mum was living in Sheerness during the flood of 1953 and her lodgings were ruined. So perhaps those letters were washed away, sluiced off by the cold North sea.

Mum said that I reminded her of her own mother. I remember she would say our eyes were alike, “the shape of them, and the colour”, a shadowed green of still water and dark woods. I understand now the importance of naming those similarities, the subtle edges of inheritance, for recognition somehow hints that not everything has passed. I carried the echo of May Mabey whenever I looked up slowly, distracted from my absorption in drawing or reading (my usual occupations as a child), and Mum would say “You look a bit like my Mum you know.” Her voice was casual, mild, careful not to betray the sorrow felt – of this I am certain – at her sudden, unexpected death. My younger sister was barely two months old. My mother was 34.

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