A February letter



c/o GPO


Dear Tim

The last letter I had from you arrived before I went to sea last time which was shortly before Christmas. I was rather disappointed when I returned this time not to see your now familiar handwriting on an envelope. Your letters seem to be getting fewer and fewer. I wonder why? I hope you have been getting my letters. I have religiously answered all your letters at the most convenient opportunity – some have been written at sea a week before it was possible to mail them.

The date on your last letter is September the seventh. Your family were on holiday at the time in one of those places in Wales with the unpronounceable names, and you were having some bad luck with a ginger cake that wouldn’t lift out of the oven or something. Anyway that is a long time ago and I suppose your ginger cakes are quite edible by now.

Christmas shopping

By September 7, a Sunday, Jim had returned to school after the summer holidays but her mother and sister had left for Llangollen on the Friday. Jim took herself shopping to Chester on the Saturday. Among her purchases were two silk handkerchiefs for Christmas presents, one destined for Hugh.

Before I forget it thanks a lot for the silk handkerchief you sent me. Rather a nice design and admired by the boys, who of course wanted to know where it came from. Of course I can’t wear it now but it will keep! Did you get the little present I sent you? I’ve wondered since if you had to pay customs duty on it.  If you will tell me what size stockings you wear (also the shade) I’ll get you a few pairs.  There is plenty of them out here and all well known American brands and also quite cheap. I know they are rather scarce in England now.

Jim’s journal for the second week of September 1941 reports her continued restlessness but she distracted herself with dog-walking and tea with friends, sometimes at The Boathouse in Parkgate with its view across the Dee. Despite the threat of air raids, she sometimes took the train across to Liverpool. In October 1941 she visited her Rodney Street dentist.   As she approached the surgery she saw a well-known figure coming out.

A prominent face

1941 Oct 9 The underground looked sordid and dirty and there were floods at Central due to bomb damage in the roof. Saw Sir Percy Noble, Admiral of Western Command just getting into his car – he was holding a handkerchief to his mouth. [Dentist] told me Sir P was a fine fellow and he thought most of the army half-baked! He told me D L Sayers in one of her latest stories [‘In the teeth of evidence’] murders the dentist and her technical facts are all wrong.

Sir Percy Noble was Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Western Approaches Command from February 17 1941 till 19 November 1942. Originally based in Plymouth, this body moved to Derby House in Liverpool, part of Exchange Buildings. Ships had started sailing around the north of Ireland rather than being a sitting target in the English Channel. The Operations Room was a stronghold in the basement of the building. Liverpool therefore became the base for the defence of supply ships, the lifeline route to the USA and Canada and a target for enemy action.

Air raids were still happening with regularity on Merseyside but Jim soldiered on, suffering her teaching and enjoying more writing. As her thirty-third birthday passed at the end of November 1941, she bemoaned her existence, single and childless. At this stage she had plans to go into Youth Work but continued to look out for Headships as well. Receiving Hugh’s airgraph on December 18, she replied two days later. During the Christmas holidays, there were one or two walks with a male acquaintance who was more interested in her than she in him. 1942 dawned without any firm resolutions on Jim’s part.

An embellished face

Sundry rope at SS Great Britain, Bristol

You will be interested to know I have started to grow a set of whiskers. It looks rather scraggy now but with a little time and cultivation it might come to something. As one seaman remarked ‘it looks like a handful of dirty oakum’. When it is in full bloom I’ll have it photographed and send you a reproduction.

Rope Walk at The Historic Dockyard, Chatham

It is possible to see oakum in the rope-walk at Chatham’s Historic Dockyard. Production continues but no longer uses Russian sisal. Chatham was at one time one of the main centres of rope-making, the sailing-ship industry requiring large quantities. Oakum is unpicked rope. It is waterproof because it has already been tarred; hence its use in ships to bung up gaps between planks.


Since I wrote to you last I have been promoted to Chief Petty Officer. It isn’t much but there are a few privileges attached to it.

Hugh’s Service Record shows that his work was an Engine Room Artificer but his rank was Petty Officer. His promotion to Chief Petty Officer was probably one that held for Osiris only but does indicate that he had earned recognition for his work amidst the gruelling conditions of this patrol. When Hugh wrote to Jim on February 5, there was not much going on except the customary cleaning of compartments and painting. He had plenty of time for reflection and for the first time there is a hint of yearning for home. His promotion may have boosted his spirits.

The Archivist at the Royal Submarine Museum at Gosport told me that at the time of Hugh joining the navy there was an acute shortage of Engine Room Artificers in the Mediterranean due to the high number of submarine losses. ERAs had trades like boilermakers and fitters but also a certain level of education. They were naval ratings rather than officers but ERAs had their own grading structure. During the war there were five classes of ERA, each status not necessarily relating to rank. Specifically, 4th Class ERAs were usually Petty Officers and 3rd Class Chief Petty Officers. Advancement could be by personal qualities rather than examination. The cap Hugh is wearing in his photograph appears to have a Chief Petty Officer’s badge with a laurel wreath surrounding the anchor.

This month’s reading

Osiris being out of action would have given the crew a chance for rest and recuperation. Hugh would particularly enjoy his reading.

I have just finished reading a most interesting book – ‘The Great Trade Route’ written by Ford Madox Ford. A history of the effects of climate on culture in Europe and North America. Cleverly written with a fine sense of humor. I was always under the impression that Ford was an American but I discovered in this book that he is English. You recommended ‘The Long Week-end’ to me and I was lucky enough to pick it up ashore in a book shop. Those are the only good books I have read lately – books are rather difficult to get.

Go to Books for February 1942 for musings about these two books in the context of Jim and Hugh.

From the news on the radio it would seem that England is having a comparatively quiet time just now. I’m glad to hear that and I know you will appreciate it.  By the time you get this letter the winter will be almost over and you will have the spring to look forward to. I would so much like to be in England in the spring again but I’m afraid it won’t be this year.

Please write to me when you get an opportunity. You would be surprised to know how much I look forward to your letters.

Yours, Hugh

Jim noted in her diary of February 1 Am going to write to Hugh but he would not have received the letter before he wrote this one. The day after Hugh wrote, February 6, his letter of December 14 arrived at its destination. There is no evidence that the promised gift ever arrived.