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I was inspired by a conversation I had with shortfinals in his recent diary on WW II era RAF aircraft to pull out some correspondence between my great-grandmother, "Aunt May", and her niece Dorothy. This correspondence speaks to the impoverished and ruined state Britain found itself in after the War, and how families separated by the Atlantic for decades came back together to help one another. This will be the first in a series and I'm hoping that anyone reading who has a similar story to tell will share.

Follow me over the fold for some history, and the first letter from Dorothy to Aunt May...


Nan, as we all called her, was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1894 and immigrated to this country around 1908 with her parents and her immediate family. Her father was a horticulturalist who created and grew hybrids (asparagus especially) and after having had a couple of bad seasons in England, emigrated to New England where he re-started his business with quite some success.

Aunt May, "Nan", ca. 1910.

"Ivy Villa", Aunt May's/ Nan's Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon; the location is now a car park.

Nan's family was as strikingly non-conformist in England as it continued to be in the United States. Her father was a Quaker, and her mother an Anglo-Catholic. Several years after arriving in this country, Nan (Aunt May) married another recent immigrant, from a place called Brierley Hill (now part of Birmingham), who had come over at about the same time on the RMS Saxonia from Liverpool. I know this because I am in possession of his immigration papers. They were married in 1913 in Lexington, Massachusetts according to the rites of the Episcopal Church.

My great-granparent's marriage certificate, 1913.

Now, my great-grandfather was a Methodist. Again, more weirdness for matrimony between families in the Edwardian period. Stranger still, thanks to some research done by my grandfather's cousin, it would seem that Nan "married down": it is thought that she came to know her future husband in England because one of his sisters was in service in her father's house. They re-united in the United States and married. A long, happy, and decidedly American marriage eschewing issues of class, which they did their best to pass along.

So, enough of this kind of family history, let's talk about where Britain was after the War, which is really the subject of this diary.

I was shown this correspondence by my great-grandmother when I was fairly young, but old enough to understand (she died in 1986 at the age of 92). Dorothy, the author of the letter I will reproduce in full, was her husband's niece and therefore by marriage, hers. In our family, she's called "Dot". I asked about it when I was probably ten years old, discovering that the chest of drawers at our summer house had its drawers lined in British newspapers from the early 50's--mostly sports and hunting and horse-racing, something my great grandmother really liked. I later learned that Dot would send these back to keep Nan "up to date" on these things because there was nothing more in those days she could send from England. So Nan showed me the letters, and now I have them. Nan explained to me what a horrible state Britain was in after the war--bombed-out, bankrupt, rationing well after we stopped it here. "They are family", she said, "let me show you how we take care of one another."

25 Parkes Street.
Brierly Hill, Staffordshire

Sunday, 2/3/47

Dear Auntie and Uncle,

You're most probably wondering if your parcels have arrived--yes one came on Thursday and the other on Friday. They did take a long time getting here but that was most probably due to the inefficiency of the customs. Thank you very much for everything, the nylons are lovely and the blouse is a perfect fit. I've given Betty one pair of nylons as it seemed selfish to keep both pairs for myself.

Incidentally, I had to pay 19/4p duty on the blouse, but it was well worth that amount as one here, of the same quality, would cost about three pounds, and then there would have been coupons.

I guess you're wondering how we are getting on here in the present crisis. I suppose you know that most of the factories in the midlands have been closed for a fortnight due to the fuel situation. Fortunately, none of the family were affected by this as our works supplied their own electricity. We aren't able to use electricity for domestic purposes during certain periods of the daytime and according to news this will continue for some time longer. Last week we only had enough coal to last us about 3 days but last Monday our coal ration came--15 [illegible] to last 3 months--not a lot, is it? All this could have been avoided if the Government had used a bit of foresight--evidently it doesn't know the meaning of the word!

The weather has been bitterly cold. The snow has lasted for 5 weeks and its been the coldest spell for 50 years. There's no signb yet of a thaw, although this morning the sun did shine for a few hours, but the sky is clouded over and its trying to snow again.

Yesterday was the first day of our new clothing coupons--we have 32 to last us until September. I went into Birmingham to try and get a pair of summer shoes with peep-toe and sling heel. I wasn't fortunate enough to get a pair so I'll have to try in Wolverhampton next Saturday. There were crowds of people in Town getting clothes. Most of the stores were unlit and unheated, and assistants were working in coats and gloves and no lifts were running, which helped to add to the confusion. We've been told that ther'll be a shortage of clothing, owing to the closing of factories and cotton-mills. I scrounged around and borrowed coupons off the family about a fortnight ago so that I could get a coat before the rush started.

There's every possibility that there'll be a food shortage soon--even the Government has told us that. At the present we don't have enough to eat so I don't know how we shall manage if that happens.

We have found a fresh way of getting more fat to make pastry and cakes. When we can get medicinal paraffin we use that and we sometimes get marrow bones from the butcher, put them in a tin in the oven and cook them until all the fat is out.
I don't think I shall be able to go out to-day. We've all had a wash this morning, if we use any more soap in washing we shall have to go to work to-morrow just as we get up. If it wasn't so funny serious it would be funny.

Well, that's all the news for now.

Lots of love,

PSI've sent some magazines on to you. When you have time could you please send some papers* to me? This is the note-paper Evelyn sent to me--it's nice, isn't it?

*Paper to write on, clearly meant.

I think it bears noting that while we were enjoying a post-war boom, and now lamenting the demise of its fruits in this country, those of us who had family in Europe--and especially in England--after the War, felt a wide and solemn obligation to help them out as best we could. While we were buying new houses and cars, my distant cousins in Europe were looking forward to a pair of nylons and other basic goods coming by post from their relatives in the United States. I hope this lends some perspective to the ravages of war, and also to just who sacrificed what, and how much.

In part II, I hope for an interview, and in part III, an interview with a friend of mine and lodge brother who was sent from Denmark to England during WWII and was there during the Blitz.

Originally posted to commonmass on Wed Jan 15, 2014 at 06:10 PM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Street Prophets .

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