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Letter Writing Time

December 11, 2012

Letter writing is out of fashion and emails don’t quite have that personal touch. Facebook certainly put the personal back into the frame but without the thought and wide subject matter of a letter. Similarly with twitter. I haven’t read the book which is made up solely of tweets but I don’t think I want to either.

A letter is a device for communication as much as twitter and facebook but it leaves the writer so much more freedom to express thoughts and emotions. It is personal; my mother always used to say you must never open someone else’s letter. Other people’s postcards were fine to read but on no account a letter.

And so it is with mixed feelings of guilt and excitement that I read letters as I am archiving people’s history. I read letters from the nineteenth century and those from more recent times and age is not the prime criterion of interest. So let me share with you some of my favourites and why they are.

Letters enable one to say things which it is difficult to say face to face sometimes because the subject is a ticklish one. When I lived in Yorkshire in the sixties and my parents lived in Shropshire, I had by accident given my mother the wrong house number where I was lodging. I said it was number 13, it was actually 113. So it was a while afterwards that I received a bundle of letters from her saying that I should reconsider marrying the man I was about to marry. I don’t have those letters now, sadly, but she was right, of course, the marriage lasted eighteen months. Of course I wouldn’t have paid any attention but here is a letter in similar vein sent to Rebecca Fisher from her father William Wadams Fisher in 1876.

My Dear Rebe,
In reply to yours I received the other day, I feel somewhat anxious about you and most earnestly desire to give you good advice, and thought it would be wiser on your part to have spoken to us at home on the subject. I do decidedly think it would be better to wait awhile and seek to know the will of God, It is a very serious and important matter and right to be well considered before anything is decided upon. Mr Tildesley is quite a stranger to me and therefore I cannot say much about him and I think he is very much so to you. To step n the wrong direction might be of very serious consequences all through life and I feel quite sure that if you make it a matter of prayer and wish to please God and do this well he will direct you aright.
I told Mr Tildesley that I thought it very wrong for either one to trifle with another’s affections. It has ruined many for life afterwards. I know nothing objectionable in Mr Tildesley but it would seem much more satisfactory if their business matters were more settled and straightforward. Praying that God may direct you and keep you from every wrong way and overrule all the circumstances of life for your future welfare. With our kind love and best wishes.
I remain your affectionate father
Wm W Fisher

It takes Mr Fisher a little while to get to the nub of the matter but there it is in the second paragraph – the suitor hasn’t got enough money! In fact Mr Tildesley’s father had been made bankrupt so Mr Tildesley has less money than most.

And did Rebecca take any notice of her father’s advice? Of course not, any more than I took note of my mother’s advice. The letter was found in the garden of her aunt’s house and rescued. Rebecca and William Tildesley married and lived into their nineties, still married. Whether they were happy, who can say.

There are sad letters, sometimes, like this from Hannah Stringer in the Yorkshire Dales to her family in Helperby. The distance between South Stainley, where Hannah lived, and Helperby, was fourteen miles, a journey which in  a car, today, would take 27 minutes. But without this letter we would have no record of Hannah, Annie, Charlie and the rest. She might have left a diary, but she didn’t and clearly writing was hard. We hear the Yorkshire accent in the writing.

Dear Mother and Sister,
Was very glad to hear from you but was very sorry to hear you had been so poorly. I got a start to write last week but have never got a start since. I can scarce manage to write I am so nervous but you will forgive the writing I get worse in everything holding ought or sitting up. I hope you feel quite strong again and that all the rest keep well. Had Charlie his photo taken with the new bible class for I saw a postcard in a book we had lent and I thought one man looked like him.  Annie improves a little but very slowly. She seldom gets up before dinner and if she sews a bit one day she can scarcely sleep or bear next day with it. She as been to Disforth nearly a fortnight but come back last Thursday. Heard from Walter today he is at school at Woolich until October going through a course of instruction so it does not look as if he intends leaving this year when his 7 years are up ?
Last Sunday as the 3 train had started Mother said they had promised Pollie to go for Military Sunday … Mother …to ?finish. I think now I shall never see Helperby again. I did hope too goodbye with our united love to all from your affect. Sister Hannah.
Hilda talks she is coming sometime

That is so sad. Again, the sting is in the tail. ‘I think now I shall never see Helperby again.’ Sometimes I have a series of letters spanning decades. Reading them is sometimes tedious because they talk of people and situations you don’t know. Always, I must try to bring out the salient points and to switch off my emotions. There are letters from families who emigrate. When the writer is young, they are full of hope and energy, over the years they change to much more muted content and sometimes a longing for the past and their home country they left.

Letters often talk of what is going on in the wider society, in this letter from December 1918 a mother writes to her son who is in the navy. She is anxious about what her son will do when he leaves the navy, she speaks of the flu epidemic which is raging and the local servicemen returning from the war. Interspersed with that is the general day to day stuff – of a deal being done with the parsnips, the turmoil of decorating and life without a servant. Being without a servant saves money and waste. Food, the lack of it, is spoken of – Douglas won’t grow until the food is better, the absence of dried fruit – a mixed blessing, and the problems with the Christmas Post.

My dearest Norman, (sent Dec 1918)
                              I was very glad to get a line yesterday from you. I am only just beginning to get better. The children have had 2 months from school for the flue. I shall be glad when they return.
Willie Jones is home on leave for ten days. He was at Harwich when the German fleet surrendered, he says he shall never forget it. I shall be glad when you get back, if it is only that we can come to some decision with regard to yourself and your future. I am pleased to say we have finished upstairs work thank goodness but I have still got the sword hanging over my head with the closet and the little kitchen. I sometimes think I will never get to the end. Jack has put in the air bricks in the dining room, or they would never have been done, and the paper is all hanging form the wall. I knew you would be sorry to hear about Lillie Fisher. Harry Broom has come home and his leg is much better but of course it will always be crippled. Arthur Clay has come home, he was a prisoner you know. And you will also be glad to know Ellis has come home on leave, there is still a bit of time left. Vickie Wright has ret? to the Palace. I am glad you received the Postal Order all right. I am enclosing another in the letter, so that you will be sure of something for Xmas. I shall be looking out for the parcel, whether you send one or not, as you know what the Xmas traffic will be like, more or less disorganised, sure to be. I am glad you have some prospect of a bit of a lively time during Xmas holidays, hope everything will go off all right. Do not trouble to send anything home if there is any difficulty, because I am sure you cannot afford it. I have got ten pounds for you so far. Our Vic is growing very much and is fatter and better than for a long time past. Douglas does not grow much. I think he will start when we get the food better. I have had the eider quilt off your bed re-covered and it looks so fun and gay. We have also got done the new stair carpet, it looks very nice, next week we are going to turn out the dining room, and fire it well, not before it wants it too. Your father is going to attend at Porto (Portobello) Schools on Tuesday for the election for special Constable. I have told him not to go, I think it very silly of him to run risks at sixty, with the flue raging as it is, if he got it he would not stand much of a chance, with the poor food he has been having lately, but of course he will do as he likes I expect.
I have got a big curtain and cover wash tomorrow and another wash next Monday to get all the work out of the road for the holidays. It is no doubt a good thing for me that we cannot get dried fruit at all as it will not give me quite so much work. It will be a bit easier for me minus so much cooking. I should like to keep on with the work by myself as long as possible, it makes so much difference to the £-s-d to say nothing of the vexation at seeing the waste going on. Leslie Tildesley opposite has the flue, he looks very bad, the doctor said if it had turned to pneumonia he does not think he could have saved his life, as one of his lungs is as good as done, something the matter. Jack has been having a deal with Lois with the parsnips; we are having our milk off Silas again. They all send their best love to you.
With Kindest love and many kisses from
Your ever loving Mother
Letters are unique pieces of social history, treasures all too often overlooked.




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