Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Opening a sealed WWI letter for the first time


Working with the county's archives we are used to reading and handling fascinating and unique documents, but we still get a thrill from something a little unusual with a story behind it. One such moment was a couple of weeks ago, when we opened an envelope which had been sealed for almost 100 years, when a letter was popped inside and it was posted out to a soldier serving in Egypt. The chance to open a sealed envelope this old is not something that comes along very often.

The archives contain a number of amazing collections of letters from soldiers from WWI, and with the centenary of the outbreak approaching and interest rising we have had a number of volunteers going through these letters to summarise them to help individuals, academics, local groups and other interested people know the type of things the letters contains so they can be used for exhibitions, education packs or books. One such collection is the Preece collection, containing hundreds of letters sent to Mrs Preece. Most are from her son, Jack, who joined up in September 1914 and the letters tell the story from his training in Norfolk, before travelling to Alexandria and then to the front line and back. Details of the front are given, as well as the times when they are resting and he talks about their food, health and soldiers being stung by Scorpions. Other family friends letters are also included.

In amongst the letters was an envelope which hadn't been opened.  It was the only letter we had which was sent by Mrs Preece, and from the information the letter was sent out to Hal King, in Egypt, and was sent back to her. A few of Hal's letters have survived, and we knew he referred to her as 'my other mother', due to the close nature of their families. With the help of Rhonda, our conservator, we unstuck the envelope and took the letter out to read it for the first time since it was written in 1915.
It was quite a moving moment, and the honour of opening the envelope fell to Julie, the volunteer who has been going through the Preece letters. Through the last few months she says she's felt she has got to know him through his writings, and by extension his mother and Hal. Other people who had only been following the tale from a distance also felt moved, and it gave a real connection to people from a time gone by. It was indeed a letter from Mrs Preece to Hal, telling him she had been given a vase as a birthday present by Hal's mother, informing him of a number of events here at home, before wishing him a happy birthday for later that month. Unfortunately he never received it, and when we checked the dates it would have arrived after he had died. Jack's letters imply he died of illness, although on the envelope is says he was killed in action, so we are unsure which is right.

The information may have been ordinary, but they are an example of millions of letters which were sent during the war, giving brief insights in people's live in Britain or abroad and would no doubt have brought much comfort.

The Preece letters are just one example of the collections we have. Other collections include the Sladden letters, sent by three brothers to their parents, including Cyril who fought at Gallipoli and in the Middle East; Captain Philip Leicester, son of a Mayor of Worcester; a Major General; and a Gunner in the Royal Artillery.  We hope to be able to use these stories over the next few years as part of the Worcestershire World War One Hundred project, as they tell some fascinating stories, humorous and tragic, exceptional and ordinary, which bring to life what life was like for those Worcestershire men who joined up and fought in the war. More details about the HLF project can be found here www.ww1worcestershire.co.uk.

Finally, a big thank you to our volunteers who have been coming in to go through the letters and summarise them, without whom we would not have been able to do this.


You can read a BBC article about the postal service in WWI here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25934407

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