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Granddaughter’s fascinating find: A treasure trove of First World War letters

PUBLISHED: 11:28 10 April 2015 | UPDATED: 11:28 10 April 2015

Great War social archive

Great War social archive

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Letters from grandad to grandma had been hidden for 90 years

A HISTORICALLY-fascinating haul of First World War letters and documents that had been stored in a family home for the last 90 years has just come to light.

And now the family who found it are making it available to the public and historians in hardback book form.

The archive comprises more than 400 personal letters, photos and documents covering the period from September 1915 to March 1919.

With such a research goldmine, the family want to give free talks and viewings of some of the archive material.

Aura Hargreaves told us: “Some 35 years ago the Beckenham house I live in passed to me when my grandfather, David Taylor, died at the age of 92.

“He and my grandmother, May, had built the house just after the First World War and my mother, their only child, grew up in the house.

“When we moved in and started clearing up, I found bundles of letters in various drawers and cupboards and a quick look at them made me realise that they were personal letters from grandfather to grandmother, and hers to him, when he was a soldier in the First World War.”

It was a very emotional moment for Mrs Hargreaves as she had a special relationship with her grandfather.

She said: “I was close to my grandfather and found reading them hard, so I just put them, and other letters and documents I found, all together in an old filing cabinet. About 25 years ago I had the idea of getting them published but got no interest from the publishers I approached.

“Then, last year, I thought that the 100-year anniversary of the start of the First World War was a good time to try again to get them published, and started work on digitising the letters into a readable format.

“It was not until I started work on the project last spring that I realised what an amazing archive we had.

“There are more than 400 personal letters: not just those from David to May and May to David, but from David’s mother Fanny to his sister Ethel, who was known as Ginger and lived in the USA.

“These letters must have come back to England after the war.

“There are letters from Ethel to David, various letters from soldiers in David’s platoon to Ethel thanking her for socks and cigarettes, letters from David’s senior officers to his mother Fanny when he was missing after a big battle on the Western Front, a couple of letters from David’s old headmaster at St Olave’s to David, one or two letters from family friends to Fanny, and even a couple of letters to May from the mother of a soldier in David’s platoon who had been killed.”

The sheer scale of communication is an insight into the time.

Letters were the cheapest and easiest way to keep in touch 100 years ago.

Mrs Hargreaves added: “As well as the collection of letters, I found a variety of documents supporting the ‘story’ in the period between September 1915 and March 1919 when David was finally demobilised.

“These include various Army documents and forms, copies of book orders sent to David as a prisoner of war in Holzminden prisoner of war camp, and a number of postcards with pictures of war damage in France and Belgium.

“We even have a couple of books and a picture that came back with David from Holzminden.

“We also have photographs of all the main correspondents, and David’s sewing kit with his spare uniform buttons. Most of the letters are with their original envelopes, supporting the dates and locations, as well as providing evidence of the hand of the censors.”

Mrs Hargreaves says there have also been a couple of historical discoveries from the letters, adding: “One of David’s last letters mentioned that the Crystal Palace was used as an Army dispersal camp on demobilisation during March 1919.

“A member of the Crystal Palace Museum told me that, until this letter came to light, it was believed that the palace was only used by the Navy for training and not by the Army at all.

“The other discovery is the origin of the word ‘banger’. When I was typing up the letter from David to May dated October 1, 1918, written in Holzminden in response to May’s question about what they did about cooking, David’s description made me realise that the word ‘banger’ had been invented in that prisoner of war camp.

“I did a search and it was thought that the word was first used in the Second World War. But David’s letter clearly establishes that it originated in Holzminden camp in 1918.”

She has now reproduced the whole archive in hardback book form with the title My Dearest and is now working on plans to create a website with scans of all the documents.

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