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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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