Tuesday 12 November 2013

Letters From Home

Hand-written letters are a real part of family history. Old letters are prized for the information they contain about individuals and events. They reflect the writer’s thoughts, dreams and emotions. Unfortunately, the art of letter-writing is a dying phenomenon and future generations will not be privileged to enjoy the intimate feelings expressed in a hand-written letter.

Letters in the past served to tell family members about the lives of their relatives – the important events being observed, the new additions to families, the loss of loved ones – all on a very personal note from one individual to another.  They were eagerly anticipated and highly coveted by recipients, especially if they had come from relatives who lived far away.

It is possible to see how historical events unfolding in different parts of the world affected the lives of individual families through the news expressed in letters to loved ones. Following are two letters written by a mother, living in England, to her son and daughter-in-law, living in Canada in the late 1930s. A very good friend has allowed me to publish them here as illustrations of family connections kept strong by the regular contact of personal correspondence.

The letters were written a year apart, by my friend’s grandmother – 11 months before and just one month after the start of World War II – and comment on both intimate family matters and on the effects of a war that was to eventually consume most of the world. They are a wonderful insight into one individual’s thoughts about the conflict and also her personal feelings toward her family members during that time. It is particularly appropriate during this week of remembrance to recognize and remember how conflicts affected not only the soldiers, but the families who remained at home.

74 Shakespeare Av.
Oct 3rd 1938
My Dearest Laurence and Lenore,
We’re back to normal this week. We have had a most anxious and tense time the last two weeks. Last Wednesday we all thought War would be declared – and when Chamberlain arrived from the Munich pact it was with great relief to hear it was Peace. Last Wednesday a great number of children were getting ready to leave London. We feel we have a breather now. How long it will last no one knows. Austen last week was helping to fit and deliver gas masks after business hours and it would be 12 to 1 o/c before he got back. We were fitted for ours but would only get them if War was declared. Austen was surprised as everyone was carrying theirs about in Southampton and Winchester. I’m sending you and Lenore a little “peace present” in separate parcels. Yours is a silver “paper and letter” opener – perhaps you may remember it – and Lenore a little Burmese silver box. Please let me have a line as soon as you receive them or I will think they have gone astray. Hope you received the draft for £500!
Love from Aunty Ethel and Your affectionate
Parcel posted Oct. 4.

74 Shakespeare Av.
Oct 2nd 1939
My Dearest Laurence and Lenore,
I received the enlargement of “Bill” this morning. I thought it must have got lost as I received the snaps two weeks ago last Friday. It is a lovely picture of a baby so young. He looks very determined and intelligent and I’m very glad to have the picture. The dates on the back of the snaps you first sent me were 7 weeks and 4 days and the second lot marked 11 weeks. He certainly is a very fine baby and I can see a great likeness to you both.
Aunty would love to knit a sweater for Bill but she couldn’t get any book in town with ones for a baby under a year old. Would you be able to send her the directions for one and illustration of same. When you say sweater do you mean with a high neck and polo collar or little coat buttoned up to the neck with or without a collar. What colour would you like it knitted?
In this mornings paper, men of 21 to be called up. Service will begin early next month. Isn’t it all too terrible. Every town and city is a perfect “black out” no streak of light to be shown anywhere. We’re getting a little more used to the gloom but it is very depressing. We’re glad you is all well. I’m glad to say I’m feeling better although these troublesome times are very trying for my complaint. The Petrol is now rationed so we don’t expect to see Austen now. We will let you know how he gets on.
Do write again soon and send directions for any knitted garment you want. Hope your Mum and Dad keep well. With fondest love to you all from us both.
Yours lovingly and kisses for Bill.

[Note: “Austen” was Laurence’s brother and “Aunty Ethel” was their mother’s sister. “Bill” was the first grandchild in the family and son of Laurence and Lenore.]

In both letters we see an attitude of “life does go on” even though the parties lived so far apart from one another and a tremendous uncertainty of war was so apparent. And we can feel the love expressed by one person through but brief notes sent by a mother to her son, written in her own hand.

This week, remember also all the families of the past who were also touched by conflict but yet continued on as best they were able in trying to maintain as normal a life as was possible.

Thanks, Bill, for allowing me to share these precious letters with the world!

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He serves as the Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.