Listeners to Radio Norfolk on 13 October had the chance to hear Stanhoe and Barwick WI members Valerie Robson and Nicola Smith explain how they have been tracing the families of local servicemen and women who wrote to the WI during the Second World War.
Out of 14 letters thanking the WI for gifts at Christmas in 1943 and 1944, only two writers’ families remain to be contacted, Valerie and Nicola told Breakfast Show host Anthony Isaacs.
“To start with it was quite easy, since a couple of the families still live locally,” Valerie said. “After that, it got to be rather more of a search.”
Their tactics have included scouring electoral registers and phone books for likely-looking names. “On one occasion, just googling the gentleman’s name brought up his death notice from a local newspaper. That had the funeral director’s name on it, so I asked if they’d pass on a letter to the family.”
Back in March we explained how WI members were trying to locate the families of Stanhoe people serving in the forces to whom they had sent wartime Christmas gifts of ten shillings (50p in today’s money). The story came to light when WI historian Frances Ulyatt turned up thank-you letters from several of the recipients in the WI archives.
Now 12 of the letters have been returned to the families of the people who wrote them. Still to be tracked down are Robert E Goodman and D Mayhew.
Robert was probably the son of Albert Goodman, the blacksmith. He had sisters Evelyn and Beryl, but seems to have moved away from Stanhoe by 1943.
D Mayhew wrote from the Salisbury area, where she or he was a clerk for the RAOC. Valerie and Nicola suspect that this was Daisy Mayhew, but have no further information.
The journey has been emotional at times, Valerie said: “When somebody turns up on your doorstep and says, ‘I think it’s my brother that you’re talking about,’ it rather takes your breath away. I’ve had one lady sitting in my kitchen in tears, holding her father’s letter, and that got me going as well.”
“A lot of the families didn’t know anything about the wartime service of their parents, brother or whoever, let alone about these letters. So actually to be holding something written by Father all those years ago was was quite something.”
“Some of the letters are very much as you can imagine someone being taught in school to write a letter. Others are very personal. One man’s writing from his ship, apologising for his bad handwriting because the ship’s in bad weather. Another is talking about how they celebrated Christmas late because ‘they were a bit busy’. You can only imagine what that meant during wartime!”
Nicola knows that her family have served Stanhoe and Barwick WI for four generations, but was surprised and proud to discover that it was her grandmother who had sent out the letters in her role as Secretary. “So it was my grandmother who received most of the replies, and that was a lovely connection,” she said.
The WI’s Norfolk Federation has helped to spread the word about the project, and in due course the researchers hope to locate the Goodman and Mayhew families too.