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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

A legacy of letters

Updated: May 29, 2021

When was the last time you sat down and wrote a letter by hand? It must be quite a rare event these days – with emails and messaging being dominant.


On #AncestryHour this week, Frances Thompson was interested to hear from anyone who has letters in their family archive. She does – 100s of them! They were written between 10 siblings (born from 1868 to 1884) and she explores them and their stories in her podcasts at 100 Years of Cox.


The earliest correspondence I have are a few postcards sent during WWI, though no letters from this early period, sadly. However I do have a quite a number of letters, many sent within my own life-time, which play their part in telling family stories.


Secrets revealed (almost!)



One of my favourites is from my great uncle, Ernest Colley, who almost revealed to my aunt what his father, Edward Henry Coules Colley, had done to earn his black-sheep reputation, as I wrote about in Birthday of a Black Sheep.


My great aunt Clarrie, my grandmother’s older sister, wrote in letters to my mum about the start of my gran’s singing career and her own role in chaperoning Gran when she joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company as a teenager, travelling around the country on tour.


I’ve letters my parents wrote to one another before they were married, a letter sent to them while on their honeymoon and another which was waiting for them when they got home. Mum had kept these last two and pasted them in to her honeymoon photo album and scrapbook.


I've kept letters I exchanged with my late aunt when we’d both caught the Family History bug, swapping our discoveries, and I've even hung on to the short scribbled notes my late dad wrote and enclosed with old photos he'd sometimes send me in the post.


Treasures for the future



Particularly fascinating to re-read are the letters from my mum and sister when they accompanied my dad on a work sabbatical to Canada for a few months in 1979 and I have another bundle from my sister which she wrote while working in Los Angeles in the 1980s.


I also have the letter I sent to Mum and Dad while on a family holiday in the US in 1988, relating the mind-boggling and comical story of our journey to get there. It began with a cancelled train at Exeter station and continued with an absurd series of catastrophes, including a train fire, diverted flights, lost luggage, a violent thunderstorm, an air traffic control outage, 2 un-scheduled stop-overs, a plane with a mechanical fault and an over-booked flight. It took 2 days longer than it should have to arrive at our destination! Makes for a good family history story, though, as there is it - all set out in black and white.


So, while I don’t have anything as historic as Frances, I do have (as long as they’re recognised for their value and kept safe) what will hopefully become treasured “windows into the past” for future generations to come.


Do you have any family letters from the long distant past in your collection?


 

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4 Comments


Carolyn Retallick
Carolyn Retallick
May 28, 2021

Yes we do have some correspondence but not going back to the 19th Century. I have copies of letters my grandmother wrote to family members back in the 20s and 30s and also, poignantly, I have a couple of letters that my uncle received from his cousin and best pal from Korea in the early 50s. Sadly, this young man was killed in that conflict and the last of the letters did not arrive until after his death. I treasure these as they are full of youthful hopes and fears and make me tear up every time I read them.

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Wendy Percival
Wendy Percival
May 29, 2021
Replying to

Oh what a sad story, Carolyn. I think this is why letters are so precious. They have such a strong connection with the person who penned them and evoke that emotional response when we read them. All personal correspondence is lovely to have - more so these days with letter writing out of fashion. Where will all those emails be in 100 years time, I wonder!

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traceybrad71
May 28, 2021

One of my Aunts has a collection of postcards sent between my great grandmother and some of her siblings in the early 1900’s. Some messages are letting family know they would be arriving in ”town” (Bendigo, Victoria, Australia) via the midday coach and would wait for them at a particular location. Others ask for particular supplies to be sent, messages to be passed on to mother and updates on the health of my grandmother‘s older brother who ended up being institutionalised at a very young age due to being born with hydrocephalus. He died at age 15 from TB.

I have only had 1 or 2 opportunities to read them and I know that there is more family correspondence, but…

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Wendy Percival
Wendy Percival
May 28, 2021
Replying to

Oh, Tracey, that's really sad and frustrating too. I wonder what's caused your aunt to be so possessive about them. Maybe she doesn't realise just how much it would mean to you to see them. Is your cousin someone who's likely to give you access when the time comes? These gems need to be shared with the people who appreciate them most. Perhaps she'll change her mind at some point. Let's hope!

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