With love these few lines trusting they find you in the pink

“With love these few lines trusting they find you in the pink”.  So begins the third letter which we have which was written by my Grandad while a POW in Gustrow, Germany, in 1918.  The previous one was written on 11th June, although the postmark was a month later on 10th July.  This one was written on 29th Sept and again there was a month’s delay before the postmark of 30th October.

There may have been other letters written in July, but then a big gap, which Grandad explains:  “Well Mum, I have not been able to write for the last 2 months as I have been in hospital and am pleased to say that I am much better now”.  He gives no more details of the reason for his hospitalisation.  It is possible that it was due to dysentery or a condition related to the general starvation of prisoners and the poor sanitation arrangements in captivity.  Equally it could be that he contracted flu.

The so-called Spanish flu is widely known to have affected young adults more than the elderly or the young.  With no reporting restrictions in neutral Spain, the spread of the epidemic was known about in that country, but in fact it was widespread.  In Richard Van Emden’s book ‘Prisoners of the Kaiser’ he writes “the flu epidemic that was sweeping Europe was killing off prisoners at an alarming rate, as most were too weak or sick to put up any resistance”.  Whether it was flu or not, Grandad was fortunate to make such a good recovery.

Now that he has the opportunity to write home again, Grandad wishes to remind his Mum to send the parcels of which he wrote in such great detail in his first letters, and he sends his love to all at home.  His optimism at soon being home again (“cheer up, shall soon see you all again”) possibly indicates that he was aware of the regular rumours reaching the POW camps at around this time of the Allied advances.  The knowledge that the Germans were definitely retreating by this stage must have given many of the prisoners the mental strength to hold out for an eventual release.  Those last weeks must have been some of the toughest, though, with provisions at an all-time low and many food parcels never reaching their destinations.  “It was just a matter of hanging on until peace was declared” writes Richard Van Emden.

POW letter
Jack Wakefield’s letter home 29 Sept 1918



The Wedding Cake

So photos taken at my daughter’s wedding last month continue to appear, via social media, email and memory stick.  The official ones have yet to make an appearance, but it the meantime there are plenty to pore over.

Seeing photos of the cake-cutting reminded me that there is a photo in my Granny’s photo album of her rather splendid-looking wedding cake.  Although the photo is of poor quality it is unusual for being one taken indoors.  There are three tiers and it looks as though there is a fair amount of piping work decorating the cake.   This rich fruit cake was made by ‘Auntie’ Maggie, a friend from Cowfold with whom Granny had been in service some years before.

Emily Mitchell’s wedding cake 1924

A recent discovery has been a rather delicate loose sheet of paper tucked inside Granny’s recipe book on which is written a list of all the ingredients for this very wedding cake together with the costings!  Granny had very helpfully written on this piece of paper at a later stage “my wedding cake, made by Auntie Maggie, 1924”.  The list makes interesting reading:  2 ½ lbs of butter and 2 ½ lbs of lard, 3 lbs of sultanas, 3 lbs of currants and ….wait for it….. 18 eggs!!  The biggest single expense seems to have been 8 shillings for the 4 lbs of ground almonds needed for the almond paste.  All that royal icing we can see in the photo required 6 lbs of icing sugar and another 9 eggs.   The total costing appears to be £2 – 0 – 3, which, according to the Historical UK Inflation Rates calculator, is approximately equivalent to £115 in today’s money.

The wedding cake ingredients

I don’t know how much it would actually cost to make this cake today – it would be an interesting exercise to do the costings but one that I don’t really have time for just now!  What I do know is that it is one of the bigger expenses of a wedding and some of those we saw at the various wedding fairs we went along to cost many hundreds of pounds.

Since the tradition of keeping the top tier for the christening cake of the first child is no longer a thing, fruit cakes are probably less popular than variously flavoured sponge cakes these days.

My Mum made my wedding cake and went to cake decorating classes specially.  My daughter’s cake was a very nice sponge with simple icing and ribbon and, with the addition of a small posy of flowers by the florist, looked elegant.   Who made it?  Not me, not a family friend, but M&S!

Not just any wedding cake…

Happy Anniversary!

Well today is the third anniversary of my family history blog!  I can’t quite believe that I’ve been doing it for so long, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to look back over the subjects I have written about during that time.

My computer records tell me that this is my 88th blog post.  From the outset I wanted to write about thoughts that occurred to me both while making progress with my family history research and in just normal everyday life, since the topic of family history is never far from my mind. So what subjects have I tackled over these three years?

I’ve written, unsurprisingly, of trips I’ve undertaken with primary research very much in mind.  I started out three years ago writing about our trip to Norfolk to research both the George family of East Dereham and the Muskett family of various locations in that county.  I talked about visiting Norfolk Record Office and the Norfolk Family History Society’s research base at Kirby Hall as well as our tour round a number of villagesI’ve subsequently written about visits to West Sussex Record Office, researching the Mitchell family and The Keep in Brighton, looking at Combridges and Bryants.

There have been other opportunities to undertake what you might call ‘family history tourism’:  visiting West Grinstead in Spring 2017, Staffordshire in May 2017 and Chalvey in the summer of 2017.  More recently there has been our memorable trip to France and Belgium this Spring, marking the centenary of William Wakefield’s death.

I have written about types of resources often used in family history:  wills, newspaper archives and inquests, for example.  Then there have been artefacts which have proved a trigger for a train of thought:  buttons, a doll’s house, Christmas toys, old photos, memorable trees as well as the ‘mystery object’ of early 2017.

A couple of authors, namely Jane Austen and Flora Thompson, have been the inspiration for blogs and I have dipped into a couple of antiquarian books on Sussex, too.

Whilst ancestral occupations is an area that I think I could explore more fully in the future, I have frequently written about other family activities such as gardening, marmalade making and picking winterpicks.

Overall I’m pleased with the eclectic mix and I hope that you, too, have enjoyed the variety and will continue to post your comments.

Now, what shall I write about next….?

The Wedding Day

It’s always exciting to be able to add another name to the family tree, but usually this is a name of someone long deceased.  However, this week I have the thrill of adding someone who is very much alive – my new son in law!

The much anticipated wedding day of my daughter has come and gone and what a joyous occasion it was!  The sun shone (well, let’s be honest, it has for most of this summer) but with air con at the reception venue it was quite comfortable, even if the Church was a bit on the warm side.  It was fantastic to have so many family members and friends there to celebrate with us and has created many memories to treasure.

One of my lasting memories will be my 88 year old Mum standing up to join in with the final dance of the evening – a Circassian Circle!  Fortunately my brother kept a close eye on her.  It was great to be able to catch up with members of my wider family and to be able to note down the names of a recently-arrived little twiglet to add to the tree.  Lovely, too, to see both sets of families mingling and getting to know each other and discovering things in common.

In these days of family members often living a long way from each other, events such as a wedding are important in strengthening the bonds which would have been more naturally there when families lived in much closer proximity.

I thought I’d check through my family tree software for other August weddings, but it seems that this month has not been particularly popular.  However my own parents married in August as did my Great Great Grandfather William Wakefield in 1857.

I don’t have that many wedding photos for ancestors, but there are some lovely ones of my maternal grandparents’ wedding in September 1924.  This one shows the family group, and apparently my Granny (Emily Mitchell) was a little cross that her mother planted herself in the middle of the photo when she felt that was the place of the bride and groom!

Alf and Emily George Sept 1924

No such problems on Saturday – it was all very organized – and though eventually we shall see the official photos, in the meantime it’s great to have so many sent to us electronically.



The small baby in this one is my grandparents’ niece, Mary.  Her granddaughter has just had a baby of her own.  And so life continues and the tree grows!

The NHS at 70

“Miss Polly had a dolly who was sick, sick, sick.
So she phoned for the doctor to come quick, quick, quick.
The doctor came with his bag and his hat,
And knocked at the door with a rat-a-tat-tat.

He looked at the dolly and shook his head,
And said “Miss Polly put her straight to bed.
He wrote a paper for a pill, pill, pill.
I’ll be back in the morning with my bill, bill, bill.”

Just as a doctor presenting a patient with a bill was an alien concept when we sang this nursery rhyme with our daughters twenty years ago, so, when my parents were children eighty years ago, a free National Health Service would have been an equally mystifying idea.

As I continue to transcribe my Granny’s diaries (currently working on 1939) I realise that my Mum and her sister were frequently ill enough to be kept off school, with colds, coughs and fevers.  A few years before the diaries start, my aunt had been very seriously ill with Scarlet Fever, and had been in hospital for some time.  Family visits were not allowed and Granny had to check lists posted up to see if she was still on the danger list.  This of course was in the days before antibiotics.  There were regular trips to the doctor, but mostly the prescriptions given seem to have been for bottles of ‘tonic’.  In the 1938 diary there are 16 references to visiting the doctor and being prescribed a bottle of tonic!

All this had to be paid for, of course.  I can also see from the diaries that my grandparents made regular payments into a health insurance scheme.  Trips to collect a ‘form’ were no doubt in order to reclaim the money for the medical visits.

Viewing this with 21st century eyes I am quite surprised at the apparent availability of the doctor – visits to the doctor were often made in the early evening and he came out to visit the family when the illness was more serious.  My Mum remembers him as a kindly man.  Nowadays home visits seem to be pretty much a thing of the past.

That the NHS still endures 70 years after its launch by Aneurin Bevan is definitely a cause for celebration, still providing a cradle to grave ‘free at point of delivery’ service.  I may complain about the cost of my prescriptions, but I am hugely thankful that even the infectious diseases of my own childhood such as measles and mumps had been largely dealt with by the time I had my own children due to the progress with immunisation.

In the current British Heart Foundation magazine Professor Jane Dacre, President of the Royal College of Physicians, is quoted as saying “when the NHS first started, people were dying quickly of a single disease:  now they are living longer with multiple diseases”.  It is dealing with the long-term conditions, many associated with ageing, which currently challenges the service.

The NHS will certainly have to evolve in order to survive, but I for one would not wish to see a move to a system where a two-tier treatment service was offered – speedier if you had the money to pay.

My grandparents certainly didn’t have a lot of money, but they obviously made a priority of saving to pay for medical bills.  How they must have celebrated when the NHS was born!

Happy birthday NHS.

Living History

I’ve loved the Weald and Downland Living Museum for as long as I can remember.  I first went there on a school trip from Primary School and was immediately captivated by the place.  The Granary;  the Tudor Winkhurst farmhouse; the 15th century wealden hall-house Bayleaf; 17th century Pendean; and the Tollhouse.  They all captured my imagination.  I assembled cardboard models of some of the buildings and very soon we had family outings there too, exploring the woodland and learning all about charcoal burning.

Open air museums such as this truly bring history alive.  You can feel the buildings, smell the woodsmoke, peer through the darkness of a dimly lit room and wonder how people kept warm with no glass in the windows, managed to sleep on such rough beds and kept children safe round the open fires.

As the years have gone by we enjoyed taking our own children there too, where they had a go at ploughing with heavy horses and made corn dollies.  The museum has been there now for 50 years and new buildings keep arriving.  On my latest visit a couple of weeks ago I was able to see the new bakery and dairy near the mill and the structure of stables being erected near Bayleaf.  But I also took the opportunity to revisit some favourites, among them the early nineteenth century school building from West Wittering.  It is buildings such as these that help me to relate to my more recent family history.  Having looked at Victorian school log books it is great to see the benches with inkwells and slates, the old school bell and the primitive looking stove.

Weald and Downland
Victorian school

I also paid a visit to the Victorian Whittakers Cottages, furnished as they might have been in the late nineteenth century for a labouring family.  Inside, a reenactor was sitting darning socks.  Such volunteers add greatly to the visitors’ experience, and I love the way that they talk to you in character, explaining what life is like for them.  The reality of seven children sleeping in one bedroom is brought home seeing the size of the room.

Victorian cottage

It was the first time I had seen the new visitor entrance, and along with the lovely new café and shop there is a new gallery explaining the background.  I saw that they have used the census to research who lived in some of the houses, and again that makes it all so much more real.

I have visited a number of other such museums, such as the Chiltern Open Air Museum, Beamish and Ironbridge, but I think that the Weald and Downland Museum at Singleton will always be special for me.  What a great place for all ages to learn about their history.   http://www.wealddown.co.uk/

Weald and Downland

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.