A couple of years ago I had the difficult job of emptying my mother’s home after she had passed away. Whilst clearing out the attic I came across an old brown leather suitcase, battered and with the handle half off. My initial reaction was, oh dear, another item for the tip. Perhaps I had better look inside, probably another load of tea towels (ex presents probably), bath salts (more ex presents) or even bars of soap (my mother saved soap in case there was another war as it was useful currency!). But the contents were none of these and were instead over 100 letters, all dated in the 1940’s from my father to my mother. Needless to say that the rest of the afternoon was spent looking through this family treasure trove instead of tackling the less pleasant, but more important, job of house clearance.
Now it is a bit unnerving to realise that our parents had the same sort of feelings we had when we were young but perhaps that is no bad thing. Out of all the letters, perhaps these were the ones that I found the most moving.
The first was dated 4th December 1940 and is addressed to the “Old Crystal Palace”. This was a public house in Smethwick run by my Grandfather until it was bombed during the war. The letter, which was the first sent to my mother by my father reads “…I have not forgot you & also to take you up on that date you promised me….”
On 3rd October 1941 he was writing to say “……I expect you to know I have listed in the Army, & I have got my papers to go on the 13th November…”. He joined the Royal Tank Regiment and was abroad for the next 4 years in North Africa and Italy.
A letter of 14th November 1942 explains that “…….Sorry that I have not been able to write but I have been rather busy…”. That refers to the Battle of El Alamein in which Rommel’s advances were stopped and the war turned in the Allies favour.
My father’s view of the officers was less than flattering when he wrote in August 1943 “I’m working with two American officers who are really two of the best & who treat you like a human being, instead of some, almost all British officers, who look down on you.” By this time my father had moved out of the tanks and had become a dispatch rider with the Americans.
My parents were married in July 1945 but it would appear that my mother’s father was some less than enthusiastic about the event “So your father as (sic) come round a little as (sic) he, I am glad of that as it is not very nice when a family is not on good terms….maybe he knows that he did’nt (sic) quite act correctly towards us….”. I would love to know what lead to these comments but now can only guess.
These letters have shown me a different side to my parents that I could never have imagined.
Now this year is the 500th anniversary of the foundation of the postal service by King Henry V111 and in the intervening 500 years there have been enormous political and social changes which have been reflected in the letters that people have written. These letters have been a way for ordinary people to exchange news of both the important events affecting the nation as a whole and, as my father’s letters have shown, of more tiny, intimate, but life changing events.
In order to commemorate the event Royal Mail has set up a ‘Letters of our lives’ project in which it is asking people to hunt out their old handwritten letters and postcards that might help to re-tell the story of the many aspects of the United Kingdom by the people who lived through the events that changed their lives. These may be about:
Family – letters that illustrate relationships between individuals, their relatives and historical moments.
The role of women – as household managers and their fight for equality and their increased contribution in the workplace.
Moments in history – eye witness accounts of a specific event at a critical moment in history.
War and conflict – during periods of war letter writing has been the main form of communication between soldiers and their loved ones, helping to ease the pain of separation.
Emigration and immigration – whether temporary, long-term, voluntary or involuntary, letters can illustrate the history of the movement of people and the impact it has on their lives.
So, if you have any old letters or postcards, why not upload a scan to www.royalmailgroup.com/lettersofourlives , I know I will.