I don’t think it will keep on much longer

Writing home on 11 June 1918, just 3 weeks after his first letter, Jack Wakefield is putting on a brave face.  He expresses optimism that the war will soon be over (“I don’t think it will keep on much longer”) and looks forward to getting home (“well Mother, let us hope for the best, then what for a good time in Blighty, it will be grand”).

He repeats some of the information from his first letter, including details of his capture:  “I had the misfortune to be taken prisoner….I had the letter with that paper in it that you said went to Frank and Will on the Tuesday.  I was captured on the Wednesday.  It seemed funny I was the 3rd one”.  Maybe the ‘paper’ was a newspaper cutting – I wonder whether it told of other local lads who had been captured?  That would appear to make sense of the reference to the “3rd one”.  Frank Bookham was soon to be married to Jack’s eldest sister Annie.  He was serving with the 631 Motor Transport Company of the Army Service Corps, and earlier in the war had been out in East Africa.

Having now been a Prisoner of War in Gustrow, Germany, for seven weeks, Grandad is understandably anxious for some provisions from home to supplement what must have been extremely basic provisions in the camp.  “Well dear Mother, do your best to send me a parcel as soon as you can.  The Post Office will let you know what to put in it.  You know, a good big cake, some fags, tobacco, pipe and fag papers.  Send plenty of them for I can make it up with you all when I get back.  See if you can let me have one or two books.”  In order to emphasise the point, at the bottom of the letter Jack adds “send a parcel each week – get Nell to help”.  His next eldest sister Nell was obviously the sister to be relied on – it was she that his brother Will had turned to the previous Christmas when he was short of money.

I recently came across the journal of the Central Prisoners of War Committee of the Red Cross and Order of St John for January 1918.  This edition of the ‘British Prisoner of War’ carries an advert for suitable cigarettes and tobacco to send in parcels.  Whether or not Jack’s family attempted to send any of these we will never know.  The journal also contains useful information on how to send parcels and what could be included.  Unfortunately for my Grandad that did not appear to include “a good big cake”!

Although written on 11 June, the postmark on this letter was a month later – 10 July.  What an anxious time for his family back in Woking.


“Don’t worry about me for I shall look after myself”

One hundred years ago, Grandad had already been a Prisoner of War for 18 days.  He was captured on Wednesday 24th April somewhere near Hondeghem, France.  His regiment (2/2 Royal Fusiliers) had been working with the Royal Engineers excavating trenches a little way back from the front line as the German Spring Offensive pushed steadily westwards.  Quite how he came to be captured I don’t know, but he may have been out on a reconnoitring patrol.

By this stage of the war it was quite common for prisoners to be initially kept quite close to the front line.  Often they were forced to work supplying amunition to the German front and were in frequent danger from Allied shelling.  Living conditions were often squalid, with no shelter, blankets or sanitation.

Whatever happened initially, it would seem that Grandad had, within the month, been taken to the POW camp at Gustrow, about 200 km east of Hamburg.  No doubt he had been given the standard card to send home informing relatives of his capture, but the first of five letters or cards to have survived and kept by the family was written by him on 20th May.

On this card he writes:  “With love these few lines trusting they find you all well and happy as it leaves me.  Well Mum don’t worry about me for I shall look after my-self while here.  I had that letter with the paper in it on the Tuesday and was taken prisoner on the Wed 24/4/18.  Well Mum all I hope is that Will is safe.”

Ironically, that same day his brother Will’s Captain was writing to their mother to confirm his death in Belgium.

The food shortages for civilains in Germany as well as POWs was chronic by this stage of the war.  As I recall, Grandad spoke very little of this period of his life, but one thing that has always stuck in my memory was that he said he ate dandelion leaves.  I was therefore interested to read the following in ‘The Hunger War – Food, Rations and Rationing 1914 – 1918’ by Matthew Richardson: George Scroby of the Cheshire Regiment was held behind the German lines in France and later wrote “we managed to make the food spin out by various additions and substitutes such as gathering Nettles and Dandelions, old cabbage etc which we were able to gather whilst out working..….I used to cook the nettles etc over a fire in the yard to make a bit of a meal” (p 40).

Grandad (Jack Wakefield) goes on to say in his message home “I should like something to eat, you know a good big cake and some tobacco, fags and fag papers.  Send plenty of them.”

Parcels sent from home were a lifeline for the prisoners, but with the reigning chaos as the end of the war drew closer, it is thought that few parcels reached their destination during the latter part of 1918.  “Please send me a parcel regualy (sic) every week you can find out what to put in it at the post office.”

What to send to Germany

Grandad’s card home, though clearly written on 20th May, bears the postmark of 10 July.  All of his communications home seem to have been delayed for quite some time.

“Well Mum I don’t think it will last much longer…. I think this is all so good by, keep smiling.  From your loving son Jack”.  My great grandparents must have received his letter with a mixture of relief that he was still alive but anxiety as to the conditions he was experiencing, despite his plea for them not to worry.

It would be seven long months before his release.

Jack’s card home



“Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten”

“Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten”

Those are the closing words on the scroll which accompanied the famous ‘Dead Man’s Penny’, sent to the families of soldiers killed in WW1.  In some small way I have been trying to do my bit in keeping that memory alive.

We have just returned from our planned trip to France and Belgium and I am happy to say that we were on the Messines Ridge on 12th April, exactly 100 years after my Great Uncle William Neighbour Wakefield was killed there in 1918.

It was a very special day.  To start with I was sad that it was so misty, meaning that the views from the ridge were not great.  But then I thought that this could have been quite typical of the weather 100 years ago.  We headed initially to the British Cemetery and, finding a number of graves of unknown soldiers of the North Staffordshire Regiment, decided to ‘adopt’ one.  I placed a cross there for William, with his details written on it and his photo attached.

We then drove down the road towards Wulverghem and then up towards Kemmel, pretty much parallel with where the front line would have been on 12th April.  Reading the war diary of the 8th Battalion North Staffordshires, the overall picture is one of confusion, with withdrawls being stopped and lines restored and difficulties getting information.  The previous day the Germans had made good progress towards Hill 63 and the Battalion had beenforced to start withdrawing from the ridge, eventually moving back to Kemmel by the 13th.  Heavy losses had been sustained.  Somewhere in all this confusion William lost his life.  A letter from the Regiment to his family states  “He was buried by his friends after the action near the scene of his death”.  Was he one of those soldiers subsequently moved to the British Cemetery at Messines or another local cemetery after the war?  It is possible.

Later that afternoon we arrived at Tyne Cot and for the first time I was able to see William’s name inscribed there.  It was satisfying to know that he is now commemorated in the country where he died.  I placed another cross there for him.

During the course of that day and subsequent days we came across a number of others following a similar personal pilgrimage.  The sheer scale of the slaughter is so hard to comprehend.  Which is why it is so important to remember those who “left all that was dear to them…and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom”.

Grave of unknown soldier of the North Staffordshire Regiment
View towards the Messines Ridge
William’s name at Tyne Cot
A cross for William

Doctor at the dolls’ house

A couple of months ago I had no idea of its existence.  When my cousin was making a start on clearing my aunt’s house, my Mum suddenly thought to enquire as to whether the dolls’ house was still upstairs.  If so, she would like to give it a home!

Their father, Alf George, had made the house for them in the early thirties.  He had no shed where they lived in Croydon, but Mum recalls that he would sit in the kitchen with his fret saw making things.  He was obviously quite a creative man – we have other evidence in the form of miniature paintings and poems.

The dolls’ house he made for his daughters was modelled on Steyning Lodge in West Grinstead, Sussex, where his wife (my Granny) had lived prior to their marriage.  He made wooden furniture for the house, too.

Steyning Lodge West Grinstead
Steyning Lodge West Grinstead in the 1920s
Steyning Lodge West Grinstead today






On investigation it turned out that the dolls’ house was indeed still there, on top of a wardrobe, and on a recent visit it was duly retrieved and taken back to Mum’s house, where we have all now had a chance to inspect it.  I’m amazed, really, that a) I had never known of its existence and b) it survived another generation of children playing with it.  It is remarkably intact.  There are still items of wooden furniture, floor and wall coverings and some little curtains which, as Mum said, had “seen better days”.  She promptly set about making some fresh curtains.

On the front of the house Grandad had painted a climbing plant and on the rear of the house, along with a well, is the image of Tubby the cat.  Mum caused us much amusement when she recalled having been told off by her Mum for standing on the house!  She must have been very small at the time.

Tubby the cat

She remembered other items of furniture, some of which I definitely had in my own dolls’s house.  When Mum visited at Easter I dug out a box which I thought could contain dolls’ house furniture.  We didn’t find what we were looking for, but Mum suddenly exclaimed “oh, it’s the Doctor!”.  It turned out that this wasn’t a new-found interest in the Time Lord, but that she had spotted a china doll which she had had as a child and which they called The Doctor, apparently because ‘he’ looked a bit upright and stern!  (This doll has always worn a dress to my knowledge).  She also found a few metal kitchen items which had been part of a kitchen range set.  So these, and the Doctor, went home with Mum and are now inside the dolls’ house.  The hunt will continue for any other original items which could join them.

The dolls’ house


Is there a doctor in the house?
Dolls’ house interior
Tubby the cat sitting underneath a table


Continuing, in fits and starts, my transcription of Granny’s 1938 diary, I had been pleased to see that they had managed a week’s holiday in Worthing at the end of August.  Granny had writtten to Mrs Wenham, who kept the Guest House, back in June and received a reply a few days later.  On Saturday 27 August they set off early for Worthing.  I very much enjoyed reading of the holiday:  buying sea shoes, walks on the prom, afternoons spent in various parks, and the children digging in the sand and having pony rides.  Then on the day before departure there had been a bus trip to Salvington, to the Downs, “picking winterpicks”.

‘Winterpicks’ did not mean anything to me and a quick Google search did nothing to enlighten me.  “I bet it’s a Sussex dialect word for something else” I thought to myself.  The family history community is amazingly helpful to fellow enthusiasts:  I had a sudden idea to post the query on the Sussex Family History Group facebook page.

10 minutes later there was a reply to my post from a fellow member in Australia! She had found a reference in Google Books referring to Blackthorn fruit.  Ah!  The fruits of the blackthorn are commonly known as sloes!  Within half an hour someone else had contributed that sloes make good wine, as well as being useful for flavouring gin, and someone else had commented that there is a Winterpick Farm near Horsham.  And then someone else shared a link to another online book.  How amazing!  As with other discussion threads on the site, people are so happy and willing to share their knowledge with one another.

Well the holiday came to an end and the family returned to Croydon.  Two weeks later in the diary I read the entry “Corked the winterpick wine up”.  There we are: sloe-picking ready for wine-making.

Of course I should have asked Mum first.  As soon as I mentioned it she said that she grew up knowing about winterpicks and that it was years before she knew there was another name for them.

A few days later it occurred to her to dig out a notebook of Granny’s containing all kinds of recipes and tips.  There she found the recipe for Winterpick wine, sandwiched between those for Elderberry wine and Dandelion wine!  Amazing.

This summer when we hopefully have our habitual few days in Worthing, I think we should look for winterpicks and maybe even give Granny’s recipe a go.  I’ll let you know how we get on!

Extracts from ‘Woodlands, heaths and hedges’ by William Coleman



Winterpick wime
Granny’s Winterpick wine recipe

The Beast from the East

It was while I was driving home from work that the idea came to me.  The local news was full of weather-related stories and the presenter referred to the ‘beast from the east’, since this very cold spell and snowy weather is due to the winds from the continent.  A climate expert was asked if our weather is changing and whether snow in March is unusual.  Whilst the last few years have been warm, he said, broadly speaking, it is not unheard of to have snow in March in the south of England.

It was then that the idea occurred to me to spend the evening going through all of Granny’s 39 diaries to check the weather on the 1st March, since every diary entry without fail starts with a note of the weather.

So that’s what I have done, trying hard not to get too distracted by other entries en route.  And the result of my analysis is that between 1937 and 1983 (with 3 missing years in the 40s and 4 in the 70s) there is only mention of snow on the 1st March in three years:  1954, 1962 and 1965. I do remember that it snowed the April that my brother and I had chicken pox – that might have been 1975 I think.

We are probably altogether less hardy these days.  There was no central heating in the house where I grew up, just a coal fire in the dining room, a gas fire in the front room and electric heaters in the bedrooms and bathroom which were used sparingly.  When my mum was a small child there was no electricity where she lived, so heat came purely from the coal fires. Now we expect to be able to set a timer and have a heated house when we get in, and don’t we notice it when the thermostat goes wrong, as happened to us a couple of weeks ago, leaving us without heat for a couple of days!

I was most amused by Granny’s entry for the 1st March 1982:  “March came in like a lion with gale winds, frequent showers and thunder 11am”.  The proverb “If March comes in like a lion it will go out like a lamb” seems to stem from the idea that there should be a balance in the weather as in life.  Well the last day of this month is Easter Saturday, and as lambs seem to fit pretty well for Easter, let’s hope the proverb is accurate for this year at least!



What happened to Sarah Bryant?

What indeed!

I went to the Record Office with a list of things to look at, and the last item was to find out what happened to Sarah Bryant.  Or more specifically, “what happened to Sarah Bryant (née Backshell) and her daughter Georgiana after 1881?”

It wasn’t until after lunch that I made it that far down the list.  I was at The Keep in Brighton and had spent a fruitful morning taking advantage of access to FindMyPast.  But now for Sarah Bryant, my great great grandmother, who was in Newhaven at the time of the 1881 census with her 26 year old daughter Georgiana.  Her husband George had died five years earlier, aged only 50, and it seems that Sarah had moved from London back to Sussex, the county of her birth, to be nearer relatives.  I looked for her in 1891 to no avail.  Then I looked for Georgiana and found her in the household of William and Harriet Wise and family in Brighton where she was described as a niece.  Despite being now aged 36 she had no occupation.  In 1901 she was still with them in Pelham Street and again in 1911, this time in Kensington Place, now apparently 54 but single and with no occupation.  So next I needed to look for a death for Sarah and I quickly found a likely civil registration entry of March Quarter 1891, Lewes Registration District, aged 61.

Turning to the Sussex Family History Group database I thought I would look for Sarah’s burial.  I could find nothing.  I turned for help to the volunteers in the SFHG room.  With no likely matches on their database we tried Ancestry, and up popped an intriguing entry just below the civil registration details:  UK Lunacy Admissions.  Clicking through, it revealed a national list of Asylum Admissions records, with the information that Sarah A Bryant, female pauper, was admitted 14 June 1881 and died 11 March 1891.  Ok, that was progress – but admitted to where?  It didn’t say.  This time a member of The Keep staff came to my assistance, suggesting St Francis Hospital, Haywards Heath.  We looked at the online catalogue and found the relevant entry and ordered up the document.  He was quite excited about this too, producing a book on the history of the Sussex Lunatic Asylum called ‘Sweet Bells Jangled Out of Tune’ by James Gardner and telling me that the building is now luxury flats – the one his friend has just bought is where the toilets used to be!

Fifteen minutes later I was looking at the documents relating to Sarah’s time in the Asylum.  The first document was the Notice of Death, stating the apparent cause of death to be disease of the heart.  The next document was entitled Notice of Escape.  It seems that at 7.15pm on 20th July 1881 Sarah managed to escape; however her freedom was very shortlived as she was recaptured and brought back at 7.40pm the same evening.

The third document was the Notice of Admission.  She was certified to be “suffering from Mania” on her admission on 14th June 1881.  She was described as aged 51, a widow, abode Newhaven, religion Church of England.  Was this her first attack? Yes.  Duration?  About a fortnight.  Her next of kin was given as her son, Arthur Curtis Bryant of Chapel Place, Belgrave Square, London.

And then the Admission document got even more interesting.  Whether suicidal – “has threatened”, Dangerous to others – “yes”.  Oh dear, what indeed had happened to Sarah?

She was examined by a doctor at her home in Newhaven the previous day.  His comments make uncomfortable reading:  “she says that she has been poisoned and that she is on fire.  Is very excitable, talks in a rambling manner.  Seems lost and appears to have a dread of something”.  “Georgina Bryant her daughter says that she has threatened to cut off her head and to cut her own throat”.  Harriet Wise was also in attendance when the doctor examined Sarah and I wonder whether she will turn out to be a sister of Sarah.  Likewise a Frances Jeffrey was also present, described as a sister in law.  I need to work out the relationships there.

Poor Sarah and poor Georgiana.  It must have been a traumatic time for all of them.  I wonder whether Georgiana or any of the other relations visited Sarah during the almost 10 years that she was in the asylum?  I wonder how Sarah was treated and cared for?

And one more thing – I noticed on the Admissions document the entry ‘Supposed cause – hereditary’.  This leads me to wonder how they came to that conclusion.  Did a similar thing happen to either of her parents?  I’m now itching to discover what happened to James and Philadelphia Backshell, her father and mother…

Haywards Heath Asylum
St Francis Hospital (Asylum) Haywards Heath, Sussex