In my last post, I mentioned that we had read the last of Albert’s letters of 1941, and the next post would bring us to 1942. Well, dear reader, please bear with me as we have to pause, and revisit October 1941 before we delve into the next year.
As I worked my way through the very many letters of 1942, a little note slipped out of an envelope. Undated, many times folded over, tinted with the residues of coal dust and tobacco smoke. I held it in my hand and knew instantly by the soft curve of it, that this letter had lain close to my Grandfather’s heart, stored in his wallet or pocket book, from October 1941 to February 1963.
I think most people have one – a little note, some scrap of something handwritten. Often the subject is quite mundane (I have kept one of my Mother’s last lists) but the pattern and the flow of words written by one passed, or grown, touches us. There is something of the soul, something that we long to keep close.
The contents of this little note replicate much of what Albert wrote in the post 23 Hull Road. I guess what touched me most was that he begins the birthday letter ‘Dear Daddy’, and that he writes ‘may we spend the next one together.’
None of us know what’s around the corner, hasn’t 2020 highlighted that for us? And in 1941, no-one knew either. They had hopes, love and family and little reminders of those things, stored in letters and lists – kept close.
As I drove to the supermarket this morning, I realised that seeing people wearing facemasks feels just so normal now, and I guess in 1941 it felt just as commonplace to see people carrying around their gasmasks. Whilst I won’t compare the current pandemic in the UK to the upheaval of a world war, I see similarities in the hidden, unpredictable threat faced and how society shifts into new, previously unthinkable, patterns of protective behaviour.
As I was thinking about the parallels between war and pandemic, I looked up the number of British civilian casulaties – 43,000 people killed between 1940 and 1941. Currently the number of Covid 19 related deaths in the UK is 41,429 – not far off – in 8 months.
In 1941 due to censorship, people did not hear about how many of their fellow citizens had died as a direct result of war. Albert would have participated in gas mask drills (he could even have been a model for this sketch) but his letters omit such details. There must have been many, many things he did, which he could not share with his family. And I am sure also, there were feelings and concerns he would have wanted to share, about his life, his purpose and the unpredictable world he was living in. As such candour was impossible, Albert details the munitae of his December days, in the dull lull between Christmas and New Year.
Monday Dec 29. 1941
Dear All, I hoped to write a long letter about a walk which I intended to take yesterday, but by the time I awoke it was 10 o’clock and the ‘bus left at 10.20 – so it was not much use hurrying to catch it. The weather was cold and rather grey looking, though no doubt I should have enjoyed myself had I gone. I was going by ‘bus to Garstang, and then to walk up to the hills and moors, using my new book of maps. I must try that walk before I leave here, though I fancy there is a church parade next week.
In the afternoon I borrowed the “Monopoly” board which belongs to the people here, and had a game lasting for the afternoon and the earlier part of the evening, then I wrote some letters. I heard some “bits” of music during the day, including Everyman’s music in which they played the 1st part of The Water Music, much to my delight.
This morning your letters, posted on Boxing Day, arrived, and I was pleased to hear that you had a very good time at Xmas, with the usual Christmas fare and games, & quite a large party to join in with them.
I did not know that Jean had been to the clinic during her exam period, nor did I know that she did so well for Drawing, she is quite good.
As you seem to have such quantities, I am not sending any cigarettes this week. I had 40, but sold them to the man here, as he is not always able to get them; I can do with the money too, as I have not yet got over Xmas! (financially that is). I wonder how you got on travelling on Monday. Several of the girls who have gone on Xmas leave were due back to-day, but none of them has turned up. The fellows who had weekend leave say that the trains from Euston were packed, & very many of them could not get on the night train, and have had to travel later in the day.
It has turned much colder this week, and tonight it is slightly foggy, with a moon shining, and a sharp frost in the offing. The roofs were quite white this morning, which was also rather cold. This is the first really cold weather we have had; it probably is getting ready for next week when I am supposed to have some guards to do!
I am sending along “English Downland” which I am sure you will all like. I have put some remarks in the margin, so I won’t say anything much about it here. The part I like best of all is the description of the road over ‘Old Winchester Hill’, which he does very well, and in addition it is one of my favourite roads. If you have a spare Sunday in the Spring when the violets are out, you really must go along the road from West Meon station to the top of the Hill. I think it is best to go up the road, as then you have to walk and can see the full beauty of it. You could continue along Tegdown to Hyden Wood and thence either home or to Havant.
To-day it is still cold and foggy, I expect it is something like that at home, judging by the weather report from Dover. I hope you are all well: my love to you both & Peter and Jean – Albert.
P.S. I saw a car (Morris 10 or 12) with a ‘COW’ registration number. I took my shoes to be mended today so for the next week I shall clump round in boots for evenings. We should have church parade on Sunday.
And that is the last letter of 1941. What will 1942 bring Albert Mabey? I don’t know much more than you, for I have made a point of not reading ahead, prior to posting these letters. Soon I’ll pull the bundle of letters out from the box and we can discover the next chapter together.
Oh poor Albert! You know, in spite of his dramatic assertion above, I don’t feel too sorry for him, having read this letter through. There seems to have been quite alot going on for Albert in 1941 that was new and interesting, even though that necessitated some hard work on his part (for example getting his ‘words per minute’ up from 10 to 14 in Morse code). However I am sure it pulled on my Grandparents’ heartstrings to read those lines and also to learn that the prospect of Albert having Leave long enough to return home was some months away.
Albert pulls himself out of his petulance to detail his recent entertainments. Although Albert did not mention the concert of 23rd December, I have included the programme here because it was folded up with the letter. It’s lovely to read his annotations, which I imagine he made after the concert, as a means of sharing his experience with the family. I’ve added more photographs at the end of this post, so you can read them too.
Saturday, December 27 1941
I have received so many letters from you this week, that I had better write now, so as to catch up with you. I am writing this in the afternoon after having been out into the town, trying to buy a copy of “The Listener”, but there seem to be none left. It is crowded in the town, so crowded in fact that I did not bother to go into Boots’ and get the envelopes which I require. Since Christmas I have had quite a lot of letters – three I believe from you, one from Auntie Edie, one from Havant, one from Grandma, one from Maggie and from Hamble, so I have had plenty of mail to read lately; now I had better start answering it. It is a good job that I did not write a letter on Christmas evening, as I was then feeling very fed up. It did not seem like Christmas at all as I sat and looked at the fire, and it made it very definitely the worst Xmas I have ever known, and I do not wish to see another like it. It was worse because I had two pieces of bad news to think about, one which I am hoping maybe a mere rumour is that we have to pass out at 14wpm in Morse instead of the previous 10 which I have just passed. The other, which is definitely a fact, is that there are now no long weekends, so after the short weekend the next leave is the 7 days which is given on posting. One bright spot in the evening was a concert by the Scottish Orchestra, in which they played Mozart’s 39th Symphony (in E minor I believe) but even that was marred by poor reception, as it was on the Forces programme.
As for Christmas dinner, it was much the same as any other – quite alright but not Christmas. I ate the remaining apple after tea and very nice it was too – I was surprised that it had kept crisp so long – and we used up most of the nuts and Maltesers.In the afternoon I had a very pleasant walk in lovely weather; it was quite the best day we have had for weeks. I went along the Preston Road through Little Wharton, and then across country to The North towards the Weeton road. In the course of crossing field and I came across a drainage ditch (the country round here is rather flat and wet) and jumped across to the other side. Unfortunately the part that I thought was a nice firm one wasn’t and I landed up to the ankles (wearing shoes!) in soft black mud. However, I wiped it off as best I could and continued towards the Weeton Road at which I turned right and then left to Staining. From Staining, which is quite a nice little village, I went along a footpath to Stanley Park and thence home. The sun was shining, and, because I had not seen any for so long I suppose, the grass seemed exceptionally green and fresh looking.
“Boxing Day, we were of course working, which made it rather miserable, especially since the Airforce seemed to be the only people out of doors.“
In the evening three of us went to the pictures. It was not a film of much consequence (except for a Goofy silly symphony which I enjoyed immensely) and I can’t even remember what it was called, but it was better than stopping indoors and quite enjoyable really. Today as I say I am doing nothing much, though I had a bath just before tea (it is now nearly 7.0).
I have only a slight cough left from my cold and that does not trouble me much now. I have just washed another lot of handkerchiefs and socks – it looks as if some darning will have to be done soon.
I have spent some pleasant moments looking through Peter’s exam papers and doing such easy questions as I’m still able to do; I have got very rusty, especially on the physics co-ordinate geometry and trig. Looking at the maths question on roots of a quadratic equation, I see Peter gives the answer as x2 -27x + 26=0 and on working it out I get x2 -27x + 52, which I believe is the correct answer, so I am afraid Peter has slipped up there (have you?). The others I get the same, though it took me a long time to work through them! I have not yet done the numerical parts of the chemistry or physics (which is very difficult to read) papers. I was amused to see Peter’s memo to listen to the radio on the back of the “Pure Maths” paper. I was surprised that there was only one maths paper.
I am glad that you were able to see Auntie Edie after so long. I hope her journey was not too troublesome. I was interested to read that they had a new Valor at Branston – that was something not heard about, though I knew that the old one had gone wrong.
I was interested to see the facsimile of Phil’s airgraph, though I have seen one before. Did you know that I had sent him one? There does not seem much to answer in your last letters – I have not yet received one later than Dec. 23rd, though I have had an note from Havant saying that the cake “travelled beautifully” which rather relieves me. I hope you had a good Xmas at Havant, something more like the old times there.
Well goodbye now and love to you all, from Albert.
In this letter I found so many things that deserved further investigation, although delving into quadratic equations was not one of them! Perhaps Uncle Peter could comment on that? I was curious about the details of Albert’s walk, so I consulted Google Maps. I discovered that there is no such place as Little Wharton. Following his directions I think it was the delightfully named ‘Little Plumpton’ that Albert passed through. His walk , based on this assumption, was at least 15 miles long, and half of that completed with soggy socks and shoes! Albert’s lack of complaint about fatigue or discomfort serves to remind me that his generation were certainly more hardy than we.
Wartime and pandemic: My uncle knew the former and I the latter. I think about the similarities, the uncertain future, the constant but low-level sense of unease. Most of all I think of how both Albert and myself were taken by surprise, to experience a familiar world so suddenly altered.
This is Albert’s first Christmas away from home. He updates his family on the success of the the Christmas party, paying particular attention to the food. If there was any kissing under the misletoe, then Albert kept it to himself.
Once again I am touched to read Albert’s remarks to my Mother Jean, albeit a mild reprimand for doing poorly in her arithmetic test. My Mum excelled at many things, but maths was never one of them.
A Merry Christmas to you all and here’s hoping to see you all very soon in the New Year.
Dear all (Mummy and Daddy and Peter and Jean, and Aunties Lizzie and Bertha and also Berty and everyone else).
This is a strange 24th of of December and Christmas Eve but it will be another day of rest tomorrow, which is one pleasant thing. We had our party which was really quite enjoyable and the cakes excellent then also trifles with real cream on top I don’t know where ever it all came from there must have been nearly a pint in all. During the afternoon of Sunday I heard the first part of the broadcast of the Messiah and wondered if you to heard it. Now that we have some new people catering for us we have the wireless since they have brought their own, an all mains Murphy with ABC tuning, something like the Bryan’s, a very good set. What we have is a speaker attached to a rediffusion system which seems to be very common here as there are wires across the streets, right and left. I am able to hear the news now and shall probably hear the King tomorrow.
I don’t know when you will receive this, being posted today. Your letter ,written on 19 December, did not arrive until yesterday and mine, which you have not received, was posted on the usual day I believe. I was rather disappointed that you did not put in those Dufoy prints. I was anxious to see what they turned out like – after having remembered that I still had the reel. I also had a letter from Castleton in which Geoff thanked me for the films. They included a 2/6d book of stamps. As regards the 5/- from Uncle Bernard, perhaps you could send it on if the postal order is still intact, otherwise don’t bother . But after buying my Christmas presents, few though they were, I have very little ready money left.
As for chocolate, we get some but not a great deal and just now there are great queues outside the NAAFI for cigarettes and chocolate, although not such large and disorderly ones as at Portswood.
I was very interested to see Phil’s letter and read what he has being doing. It seems that he is in quite safe area and that he is not having too bad time, in spite of what he says about it.
Dec 25 11am: We have just had breakfast and are listening to the church service on the home program . They are singing “Hark the Herald Angels sing” and it brings back to me happy memories of the many times I have been to Havant church on Christmas day; the same carols, the lesson from Isaiah and the Gospel from Saint Luke, about the shepherds at Bethlehem – it does make it a little like Christmas.
I do not know when this letter will reach you. Again I do not know where to send it. By the general slowness of the post I think I shall have to send it home. I will now thank you for the presents which I opened this morning. I am wearing a tie which is better one than our issued article and which I shall save for ‘best’ wear. The handkerchiefs would of course be very useful, though I have not quite so much use now as I nearly got rid of my cold, which has been rather troublesome.
So today I have eaten the cake and I must say that it is very nice and although I believe you said it was without eggs or something. I should not have thought so to eat it. It was lovely and fresh too, in spite of having been kept for a week. I have been eating the biscuits during the week too. I think the Chinese ones are the best, although the chocolate ones are almost or equally as good. The honey biscuits have a good flavour, although they are not so crisp and ‘biscuity’ as the others.
I have just been reading your letters and it is a pity I did not read them before, because I have not been to church and now it is too late to go to any of the morning services. You see, I have to get someone to wake me up if I want to get up earlier thanabout 10. I was called at 10 this morning.
As regards the rest of my present I think it would be best to get my watch done if that is possible. The ‘Hampshire Scene’ is in the Portswood library, the author is John Vesey Fitzgerald. I have an idea that folder of maps is a smaller scale than the books. I believe I have seen them. Anyway, as Phil has the Bartholomew’s book it will be nice for me to have a different one. They will also be able to revive memories of home and holidays for me, as well as help me to find my way around wherever I may get sent to.
As regards presents and things, I have not a great deal to show for this Christmas. I have had five cards up to date, though I have sent off a great deal more. I sent a card and letter to Mr and Mrs Gibbons in which I enquired about Jack. It is a good job that I did not send to him at Thorney Island. I have had two books from the girl who used to work at Hamble – one is a Dictionary of Photography, the other on the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. I have the one from Havant some while back, and last week Ron sent some handkerchiefs. I have just told you about Auntie Lily’s present and that I think completes the list.
This morning is fine and sunny and if the afternoon is as nice I may take a short walk in the country, though I must first of all write a letter to Joyce, who has been waiting about a fortnight or more for a reply to her last one.
My love to Peter and Jane Peter must tell Jean for me that even if someone has to be bottom for Arithmetic and even if we are not surprised, it would be better if she got more for it and does a bit better next time especially (I am sure Peter can tell her this) for so important subject as Arithmetic. I know she can do it and have no doubt that the trouble is only carelessness, so buck up Jean! I am glad that she has done so well English, French and History and that she takes an interest in the Art Club and enjoys it so much. There do not appear to be any marks for drawing or suchlike. But Jean, I don’t like your green ink although I like reading your letters!
I don’t know whether I can fill the rest of this sheet now. I have not even got some old men to talk about like Jean has, so I will close now, with love to you all from Albert.
P.S. This stamp on the envelope is the one off your letter before last! (saving paper). And give my Christmas greetings etc to Mrs Whatmore and Mrs Churchill (!).
It may be September 2019 as I write this, but reading Albert’s letter I feel a frisson of the festive excitement he felt on 21st December 1941. It is the day of the Christmas party and Albert is rushing off a letter to his parents so that he can get on with the more pressing business of setting up his camera. How I wish that he had been on the other side of the camera, so that I had a photograph to show you. I hope he developed his prints so that he could give them to the girls; a memento of their happy times. I’m sure the photographs were treasured by their recipients. Is it too much to hope that somewhere in this world a photograph survives?
The letter also mentions the progress of Phil Hart, Joyce’s brother and Albert’s friend from school. Phil’s whereabouts were unknown in Church Parade and my Grandmother was obviously concerned, perhaps more so than Albert was! Whether Albert allays her fears through writing, “The Middle East is a very horrid place”, I don’t know. I think my Father would have disagreed with Albert, as he served most of his time in World War Two in Egypt and the Western Sahara, and said it ultimately changed his life for the better.
Poor Mrs Hart was obviously a woman teased by the whole of the Mabey Family, as you will discover.
When I was younger I too visited the White Horse at Otterbourne and it’s still there, although more of a restaurant than a pub now. It is some distance from Southampton, so if Albert and Joyce did not cycle I wonder how they travelled there. Its nice to imagine that Albert might have taken a walk down Kiln Lane, as I used to, to visit the supposedly haunted old churchyard. It nice to think of he and Joyce picking flowers by the tributaries of the river Itchen, before deciding to go and have a ‘brandy’ in the pub.
Dear All, I hope this letter will reach you before you leave home, I want to post it to catch this afternoon’s post. I have sent your cards and Peter’s present to Havant. I’m afraid that I have nothing for you, I have bought a present but unless I can find a very strong, large box I do not wish to trust it to the post. I hope to be able to take it home myself about a month or so hence. I sent 4/- postal order to the Island, and that is about all -I am afraid my presents are very few. I have had a letter containing some handkerchiefs from Ron, and writing paper from Auntie Lizzie.
I was surprised and pleased to see your last letter which arrived on Thursday, only the day after your Sunday one. As you surmised, I read Phil’s letter before anything else, even before I looked at the other letters. I was very pleased to learn that he is still alright even though he is not enjoying himself very much – but then he never does! However I should imagine that the Middle East is a very horrid place, I’m sure that of all foreign countries, Egypt,Palestine & Libya are about the last I want to visit I must send him an airmail very soon. I hope that your next letter will contain Phil’s letter, or your copy of it. I am eagerly waiting to read what he says.
I can just imagine that Mrs Hart would nearly believe that you had brought her white Bovril. I remember that on several occasions we have made her believe, or half believe all kinds of curious things. Joyce will doubtless remember the time when we had been out for a walk and on coming back nearly persuaded Mrs Hart that we had had some brandy (!) at Otterbourne (The White Horse is it?) Actually the brandy was cider and of course Mrs H. said that she knew we were leg-pulling all the time! I imagine too that they would be most interested in your Rizla machine, though I am surprised that they had not seen it before.
My Hamble friend came up here somewhen in August or early September but he did not go to Padgate. With luck I may get away sooner than he did, but all these things are so vague and indefinite that I cannot be very precise. The end of January should see me out of Blackpool though. This morning about six of us went to the 11 o’clock service at the parish church. They did not have any carols though, which disappointed me – they come in the evensong, when of course we shall be having our party.
“I have seen the cakes which are iced, and the trifles and the iced sandwich cakes and the cream cakes and the little fancy buns, mostly home-made and all looking very nice.“
We are having some photographs taken, as one of the girls had a camera as a leaving present from her office and I have bought a couple of Soshalite bulbs which I can fire from my torch, for which I have bought a new battery – I couldn’t get an Ever-Ready though. It will be good to use a camera again. I bought “Photograms of the Year” 1942 yesterday – it has gone up to 7.6d but there are some good pictures in it. I do not think that it is quite as good as the last one though. I had better close now as the post is going soon so goodbye & love from Albert.
PS your letter was not postmarked, or rather your stamp was not – they postmarked the used one instead.
“There is little hope of recovering it I am afraid.”
Albert writes a happy letter on Wednesday 17th December, 1941, although his first line sent a jolt of panic through me, a shadow of what my Grandmother felt, I’m sure. Oh, but is not truly bad news, not of the life and death variety, yet the loss of one’s writing pen was, in wartime, perhaps akin to losing a mobile phone today? Maybe not quite so bad as that, most people I know would freak out if they lost their phone. Albert was not of the freaking-out generation, so he laments his loss and then gives my Grandmother copious instructions on what to do to find a replacement, in that slightly presumptive tone that young adults reserve for their parents. So, once I appreciated Albert was not in immediate danger, I enjoyed this letter, which details preparations for Albert’s first Christmas away from his family.
Dear All, first of all I have some bad news, so brace yourselves. I have lost my lovely fountain pen. The pen that I liked so very much and so many other people admired. I am writing this with a Platignum I bought to-day for 2/2d. There is little hope of recovering it I am afraid. I don’t know if I told you that the clip had broken almost as soon as I arrived at Blackpool but I have been carrying it loose since then and it must’ve dropped out somewhen. Whilst searching my pockets for the pen I found the missing tie clip but I am afraid the pen will not turn up so easily, so perhaps you will look and see if there is a “Relief No. 7” for sale anywhere and with a fine or medium fine nib, if so buy it, if not see what the nearest equivalent is but don’t buy it in case I can procure one elsewhere – if I cannot, I shall have to do with what I can get. Anyhow I want one, so spare no expense! The Shell money should have arrived by now.
I am now busy looking forward to our Christmas party. The management of the billet changes hands on Monday and two of the girls have been transferred to Bristol and go on that day, so we are having a farewell party on Sunday. There are a man and wife taking charge now and from what I have seen of them they are very nice people. They bought a Christmas tree (artificial) with them and the man, who used to be a baker or something is going to make us a cake. We have been busy decorating the room too, and it looks fine now, though it is not quite finished yet – I have some more ideas to put into practice! I had a fine time yesterday thinking of schemes of decorations. I cut out the letters in yellow crêpe paper “Merry Xmas” and hung them in front of one of the mirrors so that you can see them twice, and we have got bits of cotton-wool, like snowflakes, making “HAPPY NEW YEAR” on another mirror and there are still two more mirrors to experiment on. We have got red white and blue paperchains, like our red and green ones, across the room, and green ones draped across the mirrors & unused fireplace. Some of the more horrid ornaments have been camouflaged with coloured paper, tinsel and streamers, and some holly which was beginning to look a bit dusty we have gilded over, and it looks very nice.
On Monday Auntie Lizzie’s present arrived – some nice writing paper (not this) and envelopes. With this lot I am sending the cake, which I have managed to pack in a shoebox. I have also been getting my cards ready to send, I expect I shall post them during this week because it looks nice to have a good show on the mantelpiece. We have quite a lot here, though there are none of mine as yet. I find that I am sending off quite a pile, about a dozen altogether. I am afraid that this will be a late parcel again as it is now 11 pm so I shall not finish it tonight. On Monday I went to St John’s church for a choir service by the Ministry of Health choir and I enjoyed it very much. I had a programme but it seems to have disappeared somehow.
Thursday: it has just occurred to me that you may be going away on Saturday or soon after so I had better post this with as little delay as possible. I am interested to read about the scarves, they must look very gay and it’s a good idea of Joyce’s. It pleases me to hear that the Forsythia is out now – it has beaten the New Year this time! As for the bicycle tyres, I don’t quite know what to do, though I should imagine that new tyres would keep better than old ones. When storing rubber I believe it is best to keep it in the dark. If you can afford it I should buy them, if you have the money though, because the “Fort” is a very good tyre. The films you sent Geoff were the oldest there were, bar the Agfa, I remembered the sequence of dates. I think I shall keep the Agfa for peace celebrations!
I have just seen that you go to Havant on the 24th, so that disposes of that query. I hope you will not have too awkward a journey. Yesterday evening we had some records I enjoyed very much – Mozart’s 41st (“Jupiter”) symphony. That is a work I have wanted for some time and it gave me very great pleasure to hear it again, and made me want it even more.
The weather is quite fine and not too cold here now, and if it is anything like that at home the gardening should be proceeding apace, though of course it gets dark too quickly to do anything in the evenings. My cold is still with me and I cannot taste things very well, so I have not had any of the biscuits though the apples are very nice to eat.
Just a few lines penned whilst I am at Morse. I’m afraid it is not very good paper but properly it is a scribbling pad. I was interested to read about Auntie Lizzie’s Hampshire books, that is just the sort of thing I should like to look through. It is especially good because they deal with just the part of Hants that we know best. You must let me hear more about them. By the way, I have been through “English Downland” for the second time and will send it along next week. To-day is very cold (or at any rate this morning) and foggy, but I think it may be quite fine once the sun gets up. My torch is getting very dim so I must get the first new battery. It has done well though, and I have used it a lot. Well I think that is all, so goodbye & love to all, from Albert.
P.S. I have not got a calendar as they all seem to have disappeared (and so has my money!) I want a pen so that I can see how much ink I have left.
“I think I shall keep the Agfa for peace celebrations”, that poignant line causes me once again to reflect on how short a life my Uncle lived and how sorely he was missed. Albert didn’t see the peace, he did not resume his career in the petrochemical industry. Albert did not marry Joyce, buy a house and have children, who would have been my cousins.
When I go too far into this type of melancholy, I remind myself of the facts of my Uncle’s life, that he experienced happiness and adventure, and like most of us, he did not know his end. In December 1941 my Uncle was enjoying cosy evenings in the company of clever young women, listening to the gramophone, sharing cups of tea and Players cigarettes. He was free to do as he pleased, away from home and family duties. I see him laughing at the ‘horrid ornaments’ with the girls, huddling round the fire to compare progress on their paper chains and snowflakes, delighting in their warm smiles and appreciative looks (both for his musical knowledge and scissor skills). I know that Albert’s RAF career gave him qualifications he would never have acquired in peacetime and sent him to distant destinations he was unlikely to have visited otherwise. He lived out some of his dreams, which is as much as any of us can hope for.
“What happens after I have done the wireless and Morse I cannot say.”
My uncle was a modest man, I have learnt this much through reading his letters. His success at the Selection Board is not mentioned in this letter until almost the very end. Before he shares this news, Albert’s focus is on Christmas gifts gathered and the ‘absolutely wonderful’ concert he attended at The Tower. If Albert was accompanied by one of his female Civil Service friends we shall never know. Nor shall we ever know who the ‘Hamble friend’ was, or what became of him, for Albert never mentions him by name.
Time shows that Albert achieved the position of Observer, as we can see the brevet on his uniform in this photograph . I’ve not been able to find out much about the role, other than the Observer was considered second in command to the pilot and was most often the navigator and radio operator of the crew. It seems then, that my childhood description of the ‘big black compass’ may have been apt.
Saturday 7 pm December 12
Dear All, unlike last week I’m starting this letter early since I’m spending the evening indoors. We were inoculated for the second time today and my arm – the left one – is feeling rather stiff this time, you may recollect that it had practically no effect last time. Probably the fact that I have a cold has something to do with it, but you must not think that I am by any means ill (or I would not be writing this letter). I think I have been lucky to escape for so long without catching a cold.
Yesterday I said goodbye to my Hamble friend, who has finished his training here and is going for five days leave to Warsash. It will be a bit lonely now he has gone because it was very nice to be able to talk to him about our work and the people who are, and were, at Hamble. I hope to see him later on, when I get moved from here though. I received your parcel to-day, many thanks for it, though as yet I have not sampled the eatables or opened the Xmas gift, which I intend keeping until the day. I have spent the 3/- and a bit more besides. I think I have got nearly all the Xmas presents and cards settled, though I have not paid for Peter’s book yet as it has not arrived. I bought a small chocolate cake, which I hope to send to Havant if I can find a box for it; I hoped to use the one your stuff came in but it is not big enough. Someone here will have one no doubt. I have looked for some farm animals for Christine but they do not seem to be any, so I have bought a couple of exercise books since she seems to be short of paper and I shall send some sweets as well. On Wednesday I shall send you your tin box. By then I shall have enough cigarettes (wrapped separately!) and other things to fill it. I suppose I had better send your cards to Havant, though I don’t know how long you reckon to be there. That reminds me, I must buy a stock of 1d stamps for these cards. I suppose I should buy a card for Peter so as not to leave him out. If he is able to get his exam papers I should like to see them.
“We had a mince pie with our tea one day this week so the Castleton one was not the last of this year“
On Thursday I went to The Tower and saw ‘The Messiah’, it was marvellous, absolutely wonderful and I enjoyed it more than anything I have heard for a long time. There was a very good chorus of about 120 I should say, a good sized orchestra and an organ. The place was packed, far more people than were at the Halle concert and I had to pay two shillings to stand. I very nearly did not bother to go in, but having heard it I would willingly pay twice as much to hear it again.
Sunday Morning: I am feeling rather better now and sure I’ll be alright tomorrow. I am something like I was when I was inoculated last year. I had a letter from Grandma and Auntie Ursie during the week. Auntie Ursie says that their daffodils and snowdrops are beginning to show, I wonder if ours are coming out yet. She also drew my attention to the fact that they come from Poulton-le-Flyde, which of course I know, though I do not recollect Brown’s Nurseries.
On Thursday I went up to the Selection Board who took me without any difficulty as an Observer. It will make no difference to me for some while, as I have to go through the whole wireless course, though not the gunnery. What happens after I have done the wireless and Morse I cannot say. I am sorry to hear that Jean is not very happy in her billet, though she is a good girl not to complain. It seems to me that she got on best with the Hollybrook children. I hope she will have some nice companions when she is moved. I have not written to her lately but I don’t seem to have much time, or much news. I suppose that she will be spending some time at Havant after you have left, or will you be there the whole week? Well that seems to be about all I have to say, so goodbye and love from Albert.
P.S. I was interested to hear about Mrs Hart and the solitaire board, I remember that they used to play it at Landford. I could do with some stamps for the next lot of cigarettes.
In some other post I will tell you what I know about cousin Christine and her family. Her grandfather was the catalyst through which my Grandparents first met; when I discovered this I was glad to solve the mystery of how, in 1917, a man from the Island could have met a woman from Havant.
There must have been so much more to Albert’s new life that he did not share with his Mum and Dad – the chats with fellow lodgers, the training, the thoughts and longings he had. This letter jolted my own memories of writing home, when I was at university. It was a little unusual, in 1981, to write a weekly letter, for public phones were commonplace. I wrote letters because my Mother wrote to me, and she could not hear well on the phone. I kept all her letters, it seemed a wicked thing to contemplate destroying them. And my Mother, as we discovered after she died, kept all of mine. They lay with Albert’s, in the same big box. Maybe one day, when I am an old, old lady, I shall marry them up – I couldn’t bear to do that now. Maybe one day, much further on in time, a relative of mine shall read of the duet we danced to, and marvel at the lost world we inhabited.
“I was able to stroll about with no hat or gas mask and my hands in my pockets without fear of being stopped.”
It seems that Albert spent more time travelling to and from Castleton, than he spent with his family there. With some relish he describes his long trip back to Blackpool, catching a train from Manchester at 1.25 a.m. (imagine that!) and arriving home well after his curfew.
This letter is a mixture of familiar domestic news and war time details that appear thankfully alien to us in 21st Century Britain – the landmine crater, a captured German’s flying suit and a two foot remnant of ordinance on display in the Scout room!
I found the photographs in my Mother’s album. I don’t know if Albert ever saw Geoff again, so I wanted to add the pictures as a tribute to him. Geoff was 16 when Albert visited, and he would follow his cousin into the RAF.
Tuesday, December 9, 1941
Dear All, I am starting the second instalment of this letter today, so that I can catch up with the news as quickly as possible. I think I had just arrived at the station (Hope) when the last instalment closed. The train was due at 7:33 but was unfortunately half an hour late. Uncle Vic had enquired about the Manchester times and found that I should have about 10 mins to go from Manchester Central to Manchester Victoria. However, since I got into Manchester Central it was about 9:30, and since the other train had left at 9:10 there wasn’t much need to hurry! At Victoria station I discovered that there was a train to Blackpool at 1:25 am, so I went down to the Forces canteen at the station and whiled away the time eating some cheese sandwiches Auntie Lily cut for me, trying to sleep and reading some 1938 “Amateur Photographers” which were there.
At about 1 am we went along to the train and (four of us) secured a compartment in which we could lay down. The lights were out, and we kept out any would-be companions by shouting “Full up!” whenever the door opened. When the lights went on we took out the bulb and continued our rest until the train moved. I had quite a rest until the train reached Blackpool at 3:30 when I returned to the billet (the key was left out for me) four and a half hours late, and went to bed and slept until about 7:0 am.
Castleton looks much the same as ever it did, and though there are very few cars on the once busy road, I saw quite a number of hikers. The cinema and fish and chip shop are still going strong. Geoff tells me that they have quite modern films now, only about six months old. When we were last there I remember that that “Sanders of the River” was being shown. Of course there are nothing in the way of military there, and I was able to stroll about with no hat or gas mask and my hands in my pockets without fear of being stopped.
There are some excavations been carried out on Treack Cliff opposite the Odin mine for Flurospar. They tell me it is used for a flux in blast furnaces. On Treack Cliff too I saw the crater made by one of the landmines. It is not a very big one, due to the underlying rock no doubt. They have a large piece of that mine (about 2 foot long) at the Scout Room, also a 6 foot length of the silk parachute cord from it, and a German flying suit. The blackout there is much better than at Blackpool.
I told Geoff that I would ask you to send up some films, as he is interested in photography but cannot get even ordinary films. Go to the cupboard and on the shelf, back left on some old plate boxes you will see a pile of films. I think the best ones to send are Selo “HP2:Z20” and a Kodak “Super XX”. Talking about photography, I was reminded that I have a Dufaycolor film undeveloped: it is on the very top of the cupboard where I keep all my chemicals, but I cannot say whether or not it is in a Dufay box. However, it will be labelled, and for your further information the spool is done up in red paper – you find it no doubt, so could you please send it off. Somewhere there is the old bill which states that I have 3d credit with them – try the medicine cupboard by my money box for it. As regards the picture that got bent, I am not quite clear whether it was the negative or my print. In any case there is not much that can be done, though soaking may help.
Yesterday and to-day the weather has been wet and drizzly, so I can consider myself lucky on Sunday. You seem to have had much the same week-end weather except for the thunderstorm. It would not have been good for cycling at Castleton.
I think a bottle of gooseberries would do alright for Ron, I can’t think of much else that would suit him.
I do not need any more cheese though, we have no need of extra provisions in this billet. We are now up to 6 again, though two of them are going soon.I think that Tibbles must be going mad from what you say about him. It is something to amuse you though.
I was glad to see that Peter has won a prize, he has deserved one for a long time. I think as for him registering at 16 and a half, that is nothing to be worried about. If he goes to college he will be exempt until he has taken his degree, and if it is a BSc, they will probably put him on government research. I took the “educational test” last week and went through it easily enough – it was the sort of stuff Peter was doing before he could walk properly. But this week we go up before the Selection Board which consists of officers who seem to do their best to keep us out, so I don’t know if I shall pass that part. As regards Morse, I get on quite well and I’m up to 10 w.p.m. now. We have to reach 12 here. At last that is about all, so goodbye and love from Albert.
P.S. Don’t bother about getting a new tie clip. What with all our moving about it too might fall off and with the uniform it doesn’t show at all, so a tiepin (which I have) is perfectly satisfactory.
My Grandmother obviously worried about my Uncle Peter (the cleverest person I know) going to Cambridge University at such a young age, but Albert wisely pointed out the advantage that Peter would be exempt from conscription. What unimaginable strains the war put on families, the constant worry, for mothers especially. Geoff was Lily’s only son, her only child – how difficult it must have been to watch him go. How cruel that Geoff was killed in action on 25 March 1945, aged 20. One hopes Lily and May found some small comfort in their shared loss. But to lose your only child, all your hopes for the future – I don’t imagine she ever got over it.
“I will recount my adventures on my trip to Castleton.”
The Derbyshire Peak District is an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ and so, because of the strict planning laws relating to National Parks, the village of Castleton remains mostly unchanged from 1941, when Albert escaped the murk of Blackpool and visited for an overnight stay. This letter gives us the first instalment of that visit, with more detail to follow in Albert’s next letter. Albert sounds happy to be out of town and in familiar company. I felt like I was back there with him, even to the point of wistfully wishing I had known Uncle Vic and Aunt Lily. I found a nice photo of them, with Geoff, which I think was taken around 1926. They are standing in the garden of Hope Cottage.
Although I am not familiar with the area, I know that the Peak District is a very popular destination, with Castleton being a hub for walkers, cavers, climbers, cyclists and those who simply seek some restful hours in the English Countryside. ‘Mam Tor’ is the highest hill in that area, its name means ‘Mother Hill’. Also, so Wikipedia informs me, it is known as the ‘Shivering Mountain’ on account of the frequent landslides. The Winnats is a deep valley pass that means ‘Windy Gates’. Look up this National Trust website and you will see how beautiful it is – and very different to Blackpool!
Dear all, as a change from the usual, I have a lot of news and as I have to write to Castleton as well tonight, I may have to curtail this letter a bit. First I will recount my adventures on my trip to Castleton. Saturday started off fine but by 12.30, when I took the Manchester coach it was blowing hard with fine rain. By the time we reached Manchester it was raining hard. At Manchester I hoped to catch the Sheffield bus, that we used to get up to Mam Tor, but they told me that it did not run, so I thought I would do the next best thing and catch the Buxton bus. (Listening to Mr Churchill – heard Rooseveldt at 6.30).
On the journey to Manchester I was struck by the fact that most of the main roads around this way are of old stone setts – something like our tramway cobblestones, but often smaller: I am glad I didn’t have to cycle over them. If you look on the map you will see that the Buxton and Castleton Road divide at Chapel-en-le-Frith. Rather foolishly I went on to Buxton, since I forgot the road when I got the ticket and thought I would be more likely to get a seat in the Castleton bus by boarding it at Buxton. However I was told that there was no Castleton bus, so I got a car back to Chapel by which time it was about 5.15 and growing dark. From Chapel I walked along the Castleton Road. Fortunately it was not raining so much and I was pleased to remove my hat and get out into the fresh air a bit. Walking briskly in the gathering dusk, I was quite soon almost at the top of the hill, past the farmhouse on the left and almost where the road runs along the top of a deep gully, lots of contours on the left. Then one of those lorries came along and by waving my arms and shining my torch I was able to stop it and get a lift right to Squires Lane. I could just make out the silhouettes of the hills as I got out and I arrived at about 5:45, just as Auntie Lily and Geoff were coming down the lane to meet the station bus.
Indoors we had sausages for tea also some mince tarts which was very nice indeed. Then we had a game of Monopoly which is a very interesting game, although not really suitable for less than four players. We had one game which took until about 10 pm. They have a very nice house, much better than Hope Cottage, though it is further from the village about half mile. Squires Lane is actually the Loose Hill Road and the houses are on a new road on the other side of the wall. They have quite a large garden but, due to having no time to spare, Uncle Vic lets someone else (an ‘in-law’) do most of it. They have six rooms, with hot water, electric light and mains radio and a nice bathroom. From the living room window they have a view of Mam Tor and The Winnats.
In the morning we had breakfast at about 9.30 and the morning was a fine contrast to the previous evening. It was still blowing hard but the sky was clear blue and the wind keen. There was a thin sprinkling of snow on the tops. At the bottom of Mam Tor I saw the bracken through which we waded when we went to the Odin mine, and it was all red and orange, very nice. For dinner we had some Christmas pudding which was a very good one, then Geoff and I and some of his friends went for a walk up The Winnats and back down the Mam Tor Road. The wind through The Winnats was the strongest I have ever experienced. The gusts were so strong that we could really lean against the wind. Upto about the corner, or just past it, the road has been metalled to quite a respectable surface.
There were numerous brave hikers and cyclists about most of them without coats and some even in shorts! There were three cyclists pushing up The Winnats road. From the top there was the usual fine view, and it was quite clear so that we could see the end of the valley. We came back and I left at about 6.30 to catch the bus, (to be continued) love from Albert.
…I have to stop as there is no time.
Fancy having a Christmas pudding before Christmas! I suppose the war, and an honoured guest, were a good excuse. Albert seems to have fallen foul of that common spelling error (at least in my family) of writing ‘loose’ for ‘lose’. There is a Youth Hostel at Losehill Hall, and a road called Goose Hall, so I think he merged the two. Without a second thought Albert set off on foot to to walk the last six and a half miles from Chapel-en-le-Frith to Castleton, along an unlit road without pavements. I suppose he had no choice, but how many of us would even consider doing that? I’m glad he managed to halt that lorry and get to Castleton before the sky turned pitch black.
“Yesterday I sent off a warning to Auntie Lily that I may arrive there on Saturday”
Who was Aunt Lily? The answer is a ‘How’. A very long time ago in 1879, Elizabeth Barnes, of Sheffield, met and married my Great-Grandfather Albert Pratt. They were both ‘in service’ and, allegedly, both worked for sometime at Chatsworth House. Elizabeth had a younger brother, Charles, who married and moved to Castleton in Derbyshire. He and Kate Barnes had one child, a daughter called Florence. Florence married Edward How in 1922. They had one son called Geoffrey Barnes How. Florence was therefore my Grandmother’s cousin, younger than her by 5 years.
It was simple to write that paragraph, yet torturous to discover the details – on account of most of the participants using different names, or having different places of birth from one census to the next. Florence was always known (except those in officialdom) as Lily. Edward was known as Vic, Charles was sometime known as Chas and Elizabeth’s place of birth wandered around the environs of South Yorkshire. Thankfully my mother left me photographs with names pencilled on the back, otherwise I would never have discovered my distant relative, Florence Lily How.
Lily lived until she was 89. She died in Sheffield in 1981, the year I went to university. I did not know her. As so often happens, my Mother would have lost touch after my Grandmother died in 1965. In the 1960’s Derbyshire was an expensive and long journey from Hampshire. Mum had her hands full with 4 young children; a visit would have been near impossible. Lily moved house, perhaps an address book was mislaid, the connection disappeared.
So all I can share is the sense of kinship between my Grandmother, May, and her cousin, that is conveyed in the postcards they left behind. Clearly as teenagers they visited each other several times. Whether May was accompanied by parents or her older sister Lizzie I do not know. On the reverse of the photograph above Lily writes:
“Dear May, I can’t come myself so here is a substitute. Don’t laugh please, at the horrible simper. I got my p.c. (postcard) this morning from C.V. Early wasn’t it? Everything seems very quiet here, after such rushing times, but it will give me time to think. I found everybody very well, even after they had sampled the doughnuts. Joking apart, they thought them delicious.”
The postcards I have from Lily to May and vice versa, are affectionate and amusing; I would like to weave them into this project of mine, but not yet. Lily and May’s friendship continued throughout their married lives. Albert, Geoff and Peter were born within 5 years of each other. We see them here in this holiday snap, taken around 1927. They are a happy, contented family group.
As a young Airman alone in Blackpool, Albert was keen to call on his Derbyshire relatives, for some fuss and familiar company. On 3 December 1941, he is making plans to visit on a weekend pass. We will hear all about the visit in a later letter. Hopefully I will find some more photographs to illustrate it with.
Dear All, once again I fear that this may be a short letter,because for one thing there is not much news, and for another thing I have not much time it now being nearly 10 pm. I have just been to the grammar school listening to much Brahms, a recording of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat minor, and an actual performance of a sonata for violin and piano. As a light relief there were the Barber of Seville Overture, the Flower Song from Carmen, and the Invitation to the Waltz – Joyce’s record. On Monday we had Beethoven’s 8th Symphony and some piano music. It has all been very enjoyable. I have not usually bothered much about Brahms but I liked this evening’s programme very well, though it was rather heavy at times. I am beginning to think that perhaps B. is not so bad after all!
Yesterday I sent off a warning to Auntie Lily that I may arrive there on Saturday, since we have been told that our weekend will be this week. To-day I received the enclosed letter from her, with 6d worth of stamps which will come in very useful.
I have 40 Players which I need to send. I don’t know how many a week you would like. Thanks for the P.O. by the way, it will come in useful for the weekend.
We now have only 3 airmen in the billet, and one of them is expecting to be posted very shortly so that will leave only two. We are expecting some more in very shortly probably they will be new recruits just up from Padgate.
Tomorrow we should have the so-called educational test for the pilots’ and observers’ course and next week the Selection Board, so it seems that things are at last moving. As regards that the weather, has been very muggy this week. We have had no rain to speak of and it has been quite chilly in the mornings but during the days (today especially) it has been quite warm and close. Tonight there is a nearly full moon and it is extremely light out, there being only slight cloud. I wonder if you have been able to get out in the weekend: I hope so. Really I am afraid that is all, so this is a very short letter. I hope to have a lot to make up for it next Monday, love from Albert.
PS I am sorry to say that I have lost that nice tie clip which Auntie Lizzie gave me. It must’ve dropped off somehow. There is a performance of “The Messiah” here next week – I must go. Which primula is it which is out, the Wisley “Julia Hybrid” or the other “ordinary” purple one?