The trunk on the landing had been one of the last things to open up. A large linen cover partially obscured it. The cover had been stitched to fit a large object. I lifted the cover and revealed a doll’s house.
Empty now of its occupants, this toy house too had been completely cleared. Older than the human home it occupied, original wallpaper adorned its walls. However, this was not the end of the present search. In order to look at the trunk, we carefully removed the doll’s house. The trunk was locked. Later, we found the right key from a number of bunches and peered inside. It appeared to contain more paperwork. There were several bundles of letters.
Jim had written ‘Hugh’s Letters’ on the brown foolscap envelope. The wad of folded letters would have to wait. I returned them to their envelope.
A story to be told
Back home in the autumn of 2007, I took a closer look at Hugh’s letters. I soon realised the writer was a naval man. That was obvious from the addresses. The dates were all from World War Two. I knew little about the Navy and, as a product of the post-war baby boom, had only basic knowledge of the war. My school history lessons had stopped in 1914 and the men in our families had been soldiers. What I did know was that the letters told a story that needed to be shared.
Coincidentally, in the November following Jim’s death, I embarked upon the long-distance footpath, the Wye Valley Walk. The following October I completed the trail. Mostly walking alone, I took a lot of photos and thought a lot. When I presented my sponsorship money to the Multiple Sclerosis group which had inspired me to undertake the walk, I also gave a Powerpoint presentation of my journey.
I realised I could give this talk to other groups and offer more topics. As I began working on Hugh and Jim’s story, I made myself known to local adult groups. My first two talks were to Women’s Institute meetings. I clearly remember the feeling of nervous excitement in September 2009 as I packed the car with projector, laptop, extension lead and screen for the first time. The subject was The Wye Valley Walk. The title of the second talk was ‘Letters from a Submariner’.
At this stage, my research was minimal. I built up a collection of slides to illustrate the talk. Some contained quotes from the letters, others photographs of Jim. There was detail of life on board a submarine as Hugh described it. I knew by then how they met. Telling this side of the story involved a lot of background about Jim, particularly how she had spent the beginning of the war.
The talks were going well but my other objective was to return the letters to Hugh’s family. This would involve both naval and genealogical research. Gradually, a bigger picture emerged. As I found more information, I would update the talk accordingly. The story always went down well and bookings increased. Word spread and I found myself speaking to men’s and mixed groups as well as women’s meetings.
The talk generated wartime memories for many listeners. Others spoke of family members who had served in the navy. Some had been submariners and could help me with jargon. There were always lots of questions about Jim too. The more I read the letters, the more they prompted further reading. I wanted to learn about Hugh’s war, where he had served and what happened to him. The dilemma was whether to continue Jim’s biography or to change course.