Laura Earnshaw, one of the volunteers at Tameside Archives and Local Studies, has been looking through war time correspondence in the archives, bringing out stories of practical support and gratitude.
“Good Day and Good Luck”
In researching the Dukinfield branch of the Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild, I have read wonderful, poignant and sometimes humourous letters from men at the front line of the First World War, writing their thanks to the Mayor and the Guild ladies for the clothing parcels they had received. These letters are snapshots of individuals, and their experiences, but they are also a testament to the women of the Needlework Guild, and their work under the Chairmanship of Mrs Kenyon.
The Needlework Guild was known to the men by different names; for example, Private W. Crosdale refers to it as the “Queen Mary’s Guild Fund for Soldiers and Sailors”. The Guild aimed to make up a parcel of 2 shirts and 2 pairs of socks, and some scarves, to send to the Dukinfield soldiers and sailors serving in the war, via their wives and mothers. In researching the Guild, I learned of its long history providing clothing for those in need. Formed in 1882 by Lady Wolverton, by 1897 the future Queen Mary had become its patron. It was re-named the Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild in 1914, and with branches throughout the Empire, began making and sorting clothing for troops. More information can be found here.
Dukinfield volunteers formed the Dukinfield Volunteer Defence Corps in September 1914 – later the 5th VB Cheshire Regiment. This patriotic spirit and great sense of kinship is evident in the soldier’s letters, and it is perhaps not surprising that Dukinfield had an active Needlework Guild, supplying hundreds of shirts and socks to soldiers and sailors. And it is also unsurprising who was chosen to chair this organisation!
Elizabeth Hannah Kenyon was the wife the Mayor of Dukinfield George F. Kenyon. Eight times Mayoress, upon George’s sudden death in May 1917, Mrs Kenyon became Mayor herself until November 1917. Much involved in political and public life in the Boroughs, she worked on the Ashton Board of Guardians, becoming its first Lady Chairman in 1922, and standing on various children’s, hospital, and enfranchisement committees. She was a JP for Cheshire, a councillor, and in 1919 was granted the Freedom of the Borough, and was still performing Mayoress duties for her son the Mayor, upon her death in November 1935, aged 82.
Hundreds of letters were received by the Guild; addressed to ‘Mrs Kenyon and Ladies’, many refer to them as the “Comforts Fund” (Corporal H. Redfern), highlighting how keenly the goods were welcomed! The weather was bad in France, and hot in Egypt, yet many men went weeks without a fresh change of clothes. The useful nature of the parcels was thus important – but not to be under-estimated was the joy of knowing that people at home remembered them and cared about the “vacant chairs” (Pte J. Dean).
A letter received on specialist YMCA paper
Perhaps the most surprising discovery was the lack of censorship. Perhaps I have been too influenced by my familiarity with censorship during the Second World War, but I was shocked by the sheer amount of information the men included in their letters, especially in the first years of the War. Pte J. Hinchcliffe, for example, mentioned that he had been in Ypres for four months. When evident, the censorship seemed patchy and un-coordinated. Was it perhaps left to the Battalion officers, rather than strictly enforced? While Pte Harry Brown informed the Guild that “we are strictly forbidden to mention anything appertaining to the atrocities of war” and this is well-held to, there are massive inconsistencies. Sergeant J. Wheatley for instance, had his regiment censored, but not the dates or weather reports he included; Pte J.S. Wright stated exactly when he was heading to the Front Line! Some letters had words pencilled out; others have signatures at the end – the censor’s perhaps? Only one example of the pre-printed cards is included in the collection (below). Perhaps we would benefit from greater research on censorship in the First World War in light of the above.
An example of the pre-printed cards provided to soldiers with which to write home
I have been proud and humbled to read letters that where often actually written in the trenches. Pte J. Hill’s letter (below), for example, begs that Mrs Kenyon excuse his writing, as he is dodging shrapnel. What has struck me most on was their conversational tone. The men talk about their family, their experiences on the Front, and typically, the weather! They are sincere and grateful: even those who were injured around the time they received their parcel, or were taken as Prisoners of War, took the time to write. They are polite and respectful to the Mayoress, and Mayor, and the Ladies, but more than that, there is a wonderful upbeat nature among the harsh realities of war; a combination embodied in the closing line from a letter by Pte J. Clegg – “Good Day and Good Luck”.
Private Hill excuses the state of his writing as he dodges the shrapnel!
Additional note. The multiple choice postcards were provided to soldiers in hospital, so that they could send a basic message home.