I recently came across a box full of old letters. They were passed to me a couple of years ago but, at the time, I didn't read them as I knew it would be such a mammoth task. But rediscovering them, I became transfixed.
One of my aunts had done the hard task of ordering and dating the letters, each with their own original stamped addressed envelope. All I had to do was read them. But as I started to read – not easy at first due to the scrawling handwriting and unfamiliar words – I soon realised that here was a life I had to explore.
It was my great grandmother Mabel who wrote these letters, mainly to her widowed mother. The letters begin in November 1899, on the cusp of a new century and a new life for 'Mab', as she leaves home in Croydon to marry her fiancée George out in Ceylon. They span a period of three years.
The first batch of letters are written on board the SS City of Rome, in her cabin or on deck, homesick and yet eternally optimistic. Mabel is travelling alone – presumably aged 27, there is no need for a chaperone – and she has made friends with two other women and some young men. The Captain has taken her under his wing and teases her relentlessly. She is old enough and quick enough to tease him back – which he seems to like very much.
This is a long lost world of Deck Quoits and Deck Billiards, of Egg and Spoon and Thread the Needle (does anyone know the rules for this?). A world of etiquette and decorum, of French counts and countesses, when letter-writing was as much a part of life as tea-drinking.
Mabel Gibson Gillespy
Mabel was my father's grandmother. I know so little about her but as I familiarise myself with the loops and curls of her handwriting, with the rhythms and patterns of her speech – she does indeed seem to write as she would speak with many 'capitals' and 'jollies' and 'awfullies' – I understand what a privilege it is to peek inside her world. It's also poignant as I see the enthusiasm in which she is embarking on this new life and her excitement about marrying George. I know what lies ahead.
There is only one person left who knows more about Mabel's story and that is my Great Auntie Ruth – an extraordinary woman in her own right who, as a young WRN, played a part in breaking the German's Enigma code in WW2. Another story to be told another time.
I know the importance of asking Auntie Ruth as much as I can as her memory is beginning to fade. And I feel compelled to record this story for our family. It's a reminder to write down names, places and dates on the back of photos. To make family trees so that future generations can make sense of where they came from. There is usually one person in a family who is interested enough to do this – I think that is now probably me. And I am honoured. And what a gift for me as a writer to have all these precious stories to hand.
My children's generation have their whole life mapped out on the internet. It will always be 'out there', always just a click away. But a cache of letters from over a century ago is indeed a treasure trove and quite, quite priceless.
PS. If any one out there has any more knowledge of this particular passage of the SS City of Rome, I'd love to hear about it. I know it was a very grand ship, built to cross the Atlantic in record-breaking speed. It was also the first steamship to have electric lighting. Unfortunately she was a great disappointment – much too slow – and so she was returned to the shipbuilders. So why was the Rome taking Mab to Colombo? The only clues are the dates of the letters, the ports they visited (Marseilles, Gib, Port Said, Aden, Colombo and Singapore), and the fact there are more sailors and soldiers than civilians on board, including the famous Sir Henry Keppel, then aged 91.