“Not a very satisfactory letter”

The photograph shows the envelope in which I found the following letter, along with three others. My Grandmother would have sent them all on to Headley House, for my Great Aunts and Great-Grandparents to read. They would have been read by the oil-lamp’s light, for there was no electricity. The envelope originally contained a letter addressed to my Great Aunt Daisy. Daisy Nutt was the only daughter of John and Jane Mabey to marry, in 1919 I believe. But the marriage did not last and, unusually for the times, Daisy divorced and returned to live with her sisters and her parents. Why she chose to leave Ryde and her sailor husband I do not know.

Albert starts his letter on an inclement Sunday evening, rather brooding on the failed meeting with Mr Gibson and apologetic that he has not procured any cigarettes. He shares, again, his memories of Hampshire countryside and the melancholy of his words reached me all these years later; I wonder if you shall feel it too?

Sunday, November 23 

Dear all, 

I will try to write as much as I can tonight, though I fear that I may not be able to finish it. It is not a very satisfactory letter I am afraid, for one thing, I have no cigarettes, which is not very good since, I received some stamps with your last letter! I will see what I can do in the week. Also I have to say that Mr Gibson did not turn up today -perhaps you miscalculated, or perhaps my letter put him off, for when he suggested that he might come to see me, I wrote that he ought to perhaps to drop me a line so as I should not be out. I stopped in all to-day but he did not turn up, though I should not have walked far, because yesterday I had a nasty blister on my left little toe. I put some Acriflavine on it last night and it seems alright now.

I have since learnt that it was Scorton that I went through last week, though I don’t know about the other places. If we have any snow this winter, I shall certainly do my best to get out into it. I remember well a ride with Phil out into the Forest after we had had a slight fall – most of the snow had melted by the time we arrived, but that field on the left up Hunter’s Hill still had snow on it because the winter morning sun had not yet got to it. I also remember going with him to Avington Park & Ovington (one of his favourite rides) and there was quite a bit of snow remaining on the road between the east of Avington Park and Ovington, the Bell Inn I believe. And that reminds me of the time I went to the Island (early this year I believe) and went out before dinner to Bobberstone way. I went towards Fighting Cocks and left down the Bathingbourne Road, and near the Godshill Road I got off and walked across some fields which were white, with one of the whitest frosts I have seen and especially nice because the sun was very yellow and shining through the trees and on some horses in the field and the horses were steaming in the frosty morning. It was very nice and I walked up the field and looked across over the frosty fields. I remember too that I had my blue overcoat on and it was too warm for me.

Ratty & Mole, “The Wind in the Willows”

We got paid on Saturday and to my great surprise I got £2, some of the others who are putting the same into P.O. Savings  got only 30/- and I believe there were a few who received £1. I suppose I should get about £1 next fortnight. However  I have ordered a chemistry textbook for Peter’s Christmas present, I hope it will suit him. As regards myself, I think that watch repair would be quite nice, it would be useful . Most certainly I do not want a new hairbrush! For Jean you might get the “Wind in the Willows”‘ it is a book most children enjoy, and should read, but she may have better suggestions. By the way you can tell her that I for one do not approve of her green ink,  and she had better get some more if she wants to write to me! Just before I go, I got your letter with stamps. I had bought a 5/- book, so I won’t want anymore for a little while at any rate perhaps you had better send a P.O. next time [Postal Order] when it amounts to enough to send. When the Hamble money arrives you had better save it up for a bit because I shall want some about Christmas time. 

We do not seem to have any alerts here we have not had a warning since my first week up here. I remember they were ploughing the park by Brambridge House and now they are doing The Avenue.  I expect you will see a lot more downland being put under the plough this winter and spring, and a lot more beech woods going down -what a shame it is to see those lovely trees being cut up and carted off.

I got the Shell Magazine on Friday, but no letter inside – perhaps they could not afford the stamps.

Owing to money shortage I did not see the Marx Bros film and so cannot give you a first-hand account of it, though I have heard that it was not up to the usual standard. This week there are no films of great interest or plays etc.  Saturday evening I saw “The Cherry Orchard”, a Russian play by Anton Chekhov. It was a most unusual play, every so often one of the characters made a most peculiar speech addressed more to empty space than to the other characters or the audience.  However though very odd, it was very interesting too and quite amusing, so I enjoyed it more so than the Tauber thing. Somewhen in the future there are some Gilbert and Sullivan operas which I should very much like to see.

It is now Monday and once again dull and drizzly. We seem to have a lot of rain here in Blackpool or perhaps you are getting a lot of rain at home too. I must write to Mr & Mrs Gibbons and Jack. They must wonder what has become of me. I suppose you have not seen anything of them since I left. That seems about all I have to say, so goodbye and love from Albert.

P.S. Excuse the scribble I’m in a hurry. If anyone with a spare coupon wants to buy me a Christmas present,  they could get a black tie, I think mine will be wearing out soon.

I wonder if my Mother received “The Wind in The Willows” as her Christmas gift from Albert? And if so, was it the same copy that she gave to me to read, when I was 7 or 8? I loved that book. I raced through the story by torchlight, under the covers as my sisters slept. So I agree with my uncle when he writes (sounding rather older than his years) that ‘it is a book most children enjoy, and should read.’

Those of you that are familiar with Southampton will know that The Avenue is the main route into the city centre from the east. It passes through Southampton Common, which (assuming Albert’s report is correct) must have been ploughed up during the war. I cannot find any reference to this though. Let me know if you have any information about it.

Reading Aloud

“Incidentally, I believe that the large number of civil servants here are responsible for the good shows and concerts that come here.”

Gallops at the foot of Stephen’s Castle Down
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Peter Faceygeograph.org.uk/p/56367

I have not found it so easy to post a letter every week, far less easy than Albert found writing to his parents – this letter was sent two days after the last. It has troubled me, my lack of consistency. Partly I battle against the commonplace demands of work and fatigue, the need to cook meals, and generally look after oneself. Yet there is another specific reason, which is that I find typing out Albert’s long letters rather laborious and as I am an impatient soul my slowness frustrates me. I can type quite quickly if the words spring from my own head, but copying another’s is achingly dull.

But I won’t give up on Albert; I have (oh the wonders of technology) started dictating his letters, which is such a time saver! Reading aloud, if only to an iPad, shadows how these letters might first have been communicated to my Grandparents. I imagine my Grandfather reading to my Grandmother in the kitchen (reorganised to combat the winter cold), or maybe Grandmother read to my Grandfather as they sat together by the fire. Although I realise now how infrequently that would have occurred in the war years, for my Grandfather was evacuated with his entire school to Dorset, and Grandmother was mostly alone in Bullar Road. Still, these letters would have been passed around the family and read aloud at the kitchen table in Headley House, when Grandmother and Jean, reunited on the Island, went to visit.

Dear all,
here is a letter to accompany the parcel which I hope to send tomorrow (Thursday) dinner-time. I have not done much since I wrote last. I went to the concert, for which I have enclosed the programme. The orchestra was quite good and the pianists excellent. I liked the Bach best of all, it was similar in some respects to the concerto in A minor which I have. There were about 15 in the orchestra but the audience was most disappointing – there could not have been more than 350 there, which, since there are 75,000 Airmen in Blackpool represents about a quarter %. Some of the audience were civilians too.
On Monday I went to an educational test to see about being an observer. I took a short and easy test and when the real test comes off I am pretty sure I shall pass. When I pass that I am given a sort of certificate to show that I have passed. Later on in our fourth or fifth week of training we go before a selection board and are asked if we wish to go over to the pilot’s course (same for observers) and if we produce this certificate we have quite a good chance of getting through, so I have only to wait. I believe that our squad is all taking this test on Friday – but like many other things up here that may not come off as arranged.

I wished I had been cycling home from Hamble instead of drilling in one of Blackpool’s dingy backstreets. “


On Friday we have our second Morse test and with luck I should pass that and get onto the six words per minute class. To-day I must try to book a seat for the Warner Brothers film – I hope to go on Friday. There are generally so many people going to the cinemas that one has to queue up or book a seat, yet there was plenty of room at the Halle orchestra concert on Saturday. Incidentally, I believe that the large number of civil servants here are responsible for the good shows and concerts that come here. I am told that before the war, the entertainment was about what one might expect in a place like this.
Today is quite muggy and warm, yesterday was lovely, warm sun and not much wind and quite warm walking home in the evening. I wished I had been cycling home from Hamble instead of drilling in one of Blackpool’s dingy backstreets. We have just been issued with an extra shirt and two collars, making three shirts and six collars in all. Not that I need them, for I find that apart from socks, I do not dirty my clothes at all quickly, of course we do not do any dirty work.
6.40 Evening
I am now waiting to go down to the music Society meeting at 7:30. This afternoon we played football, or rather 11 of us did whilst the other 30 sat down and watched. Then we went home early, which is not a bad way of spending an afternoon. This morning I put some boric acid powder in my socks to stop my feet from blistering but I don’t know whether it has made any difference. Well, there seems very little to write about this time. I have not had any letters since yours, I do not seem to have had much mail lately though I have written quite a lot. I have not written to Raymond yet or to ‘Spray Bank’. I think I might as well break off now and add a bit more later on, if there is any more to add.
9.40
It is funny how I keep on suddenly thinking of little bits of country round home at all sorts of odd times and usually for no apparent reason; sometimes my memory brings up a picture of Stephen’s Castle Down, another time of Deacon Hill or again of the Lyndhurst Road. I don’t know what it shows, but there it is. Well that about finishes that piece of paper, so goodbye and love from Albert.

In the 1930s and 40s Southampton was a large, bustling commercial port and town, yet Albert’s 6 mile cycle ride to the Shell Mex BP oil refinery in Hamble would have taken him down green lanes with views of the river Itchen and the wider expanse of Southampton Water. No wonder he missed his daily dose of countryside, as his sore feet marched up and down the dingy drill ground for hours on end.

‘These are The Days of The Unexpected’

IMG_1906Just as I was about to start on Albert’s letters, Great-Grandfather makes another appearance! I found this letter from 1940 as I was collating Albert’s. Looking at the letter propped up against my computer, it seems to come from a different age. I suppose it does, for what did my Great-Grandfather, born in 1858, know of the trappings of my modern-day, connected world? I wonder what would he make of it all.

Great-Grandfather writes, as he did in October 1939, to wish Grandfather a happy 51st birthday. How different their lives are now, compared to the year before; Grandfather has been evacuated to Dorset with his school and bombs are falling on the Isle of Wight:

27 October 1940

Dear John – just a few lines to wish you all the Best for your 51st Birthday. How Time Flies &co. I suppose that you will not spend this B’day at Home as you were Home last Sunday. Well last Sunday JIM and Olive were here. What a lot of unexpected things have happened this last Month &co – all for the good we hope. These are the days of the unexpected for just about half an hour ago, we – Mah, Elsie, Daisy and Norah were in the kitchen busy talking &co when all at once THE LAMP jumped – THE WINDOWS rattled and the house SHOOK &co and 5 Bombs dropped, seemed Quite Close. Caused quite a consternation but have no idea where they dropped possibly WINFORD WAY? Shall possibly hear about it Tommorow? So must leave it at that!!! But we must be thankful that we do not live in London – or any large TOWN &co. Well let us hope that by your next B’DAY THE HITLER GANG will have THEIR TEETH severely DRAWN &co. Well GoodBye Cheerio “OUR CHINS are Still up” DAD.

Wouldn’t the world have been very different, if Great-Grandfather’s hope had been realised and ‘The Hitler Gang’ were defeated within the year? Great-Grandfather seemed unaware that Southampton had already been attacked by Nazi bombers; 23 September 1940 is widely reported to have been the first night of The Blitz. Perhaps information was kept to a minimum. Southampton was very heavily bombed because it was a major port and the Spitfire factory was located at Woolston. A good account of Southampton’s Blitz can be found here The Blitz. As a naval base, Portsmouth was also targeted and often bombs were discharged on the Isle of Wight as  planes returned to Germany.

Periodically I ask myself, when sifting through my box of letters, why a particular letter was saved from the vast correspondence Grandfather received in his lifetime. In the case of this little letter the reason is clear, Great-Grandfather died in 1941. This was the last time he sent birthday wishes to his son.

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Detective Work

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I opened this bundle of letters from 1943, thinking of my Grandmother who secured them together how many decades ago?

I mentioned in These Letters that many of my Uncle’s letters did not have complete dates, in fact most do not show the year. It’s not a problem if the letter is snuggled in an envelope, as the postmark will do the job, but there are many that have survived loose, so for example ‘Sunday February 28th’ is all I have to go on.

Oh the wonders of the internet! I can, with a few clicks, search the calendars of 1941, 1942 and 1943 and pinpoint the year for each letter Albert wrote. It has taken me about an hour to go through 50 or more letters. February 28th fell on a Sunday in 1943, in case you wanted to know!

Filling in the missing years to sequence the letters in chronological order would have been an impossible task without access to the ‘universal brain’, which we seem ever more reliant on. Being the age I am, I feel ambivalence about the virtual world that we collectively stride ever deeper into  – because for most of my life I have lived without it. The library used to be my place to find things out, and I recall many contented hours searching for information in reference sections. I show my age when, asked how I decided to retrain as a speech and language therapist, I say  I went to the careers section in the library and read about it. It sounds quite archaic!

I have not been to a library in over a decade, for I have no need. So libraries, deemed no longer ‘necessary’ by us former patrons, have lost their status in society. By eschewing their primary service I forgo their secondary free benefits: peace, a comfortable chair and a magazine to read, some friendly faces, acknowledgement, warmth, and a sense of being in a safe place in the outside world. I have no need of these things now, my home, my friends and my occupation provide all of the above. But in later, more isolated years,  will there be any libraries left for me to visit when I need a change of scene?

I procrastinate; Albert’s letters lie waiting and I look at them and feel cowed by the task. This is all there is of Albert. Can I do him justice? I have wondered about him ever since I was a child. Only ever wondered, for I knew I could not ask my Mother. If ever I picked up his photograph that stood on the chest of drawers in my parents’ bedroom, she was quick to chide me with a look. ‘That’s my brother’ she would say, her expression underlining that no more would be said. Mother would make herself more busy and I understood I was to occupy myself with something less contentious. In my childhood adults still talked about ‘The War’ and I learnt a fair bit about it, but one would think nobody died, in spite of the bombs that fell on Southampton and my father’s 6 years of service. Death was not to be spoken about.

Back then my parents deemed that Albert was not a subject that their daughter needed to know a thing about. Not so now, now I can do as I please. It’s a notion on which I have floundered; what do I want from this process of opening up the bundles of letters and publishing them in this virtual world? It is to let him speak again. To have as many living souls as I can muster listen to his words, and know that he was in the world.

 

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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