Hampshire Record Office contains over a thousand years of history relating to Hampshire’s people, communities and places. Within the eight miles of archives are hundreds, if not thousands, of items relating to the First World War. These range from letters and reports mentioning the Christmas Truce of 1914 and games of football in No Man’s Land, to diaries concerning action from various fronts, film footage, postcards of soldiers recuperating at Netley Hospital and posters recruiting for the Women’s Land Army. Among these are letters written between soldiers serving abroad and their families back at home.
One set of letters, primarily from 1918, are between Private Albert Ellender, 1st Scots Guards, and his fiancée, Elsie Butler. They are affectionately addressed ‘My own dearest boy’ and ‘darling sweetheart’ and ended ‘from ever your loving sweetheart xxxxxx’. The importance of the letters to each of them can be felt through their worries over whether they arrived and the joy at receiving them, with Elsie saying, ‘I feel quite happy today sweetheart now I’ve had a letter.’
Private Albert Ellender.
The letters focus on the weather, health, family, requests for cigarettes and writing paper and the desire to see one another again and often the futility of such thoughts:
‘Well my dearest boy I would just like to be where I was this time twelve months ago ……I guess you would to wouldn’t you sweetheart.’
‘Yes darling it would be first class if we did both get there together, but I am afraid there will not be much leave flying about at present.’
‘We have missed some good times but we have got them to look forward to dearest.’
Albert mentions little of his life in the trenches – a bad foot caused by ‘prowling about in the dark’ and writing in ‘my little dugout somewhere in France.’
Princess Mary gift fund box.
Alongside these letters is a Princess Mary gift fund box. The small tin was sent by Princess Mary to soldiers and sailors for Christmas 1914. It may have contained packs of cigarettes, tobacco, a Christmas card from the King and Queen and a photograph of the Princess. Albert Ellender’s tin contains something much more precious than those items. Inside the tin is a small round box which contains a lock of blonde hair, presumably belonging to Elsie. Perhaps this small round box was the ring case for Elsie’s engagement ring and she gave it back to Albert with a lock of her hair as a keepsake.
A lock of Elsie Butler’s hair.
On 28 September 1918, under two months away from the end of the First World War, Albert Ellender was killed by gas poisoning, aged only 25.
On 6 November, 6.30pm-9.00pm, Hampshire Record Office will commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War with a focus on the stories of those involved at a special evening event. The letters of John Baines, a Winchester scholar and young Royal Engineers officer who served in France and Salonika will be brought back to life by his grandchildren in a costumed presentation. An exhibition of original First World War documents, a filmshow, re-enactors, drinks and nibbles are included. Cost: £14, early bird deal £12 if booking before 23 October. Book today by phoning 01962 846154 or online.
Matthew Goodwin, Archivist