On Armistice Day, 1918, Sarah Eliza Field (my gt-gt-grandmother) wrote a letter to her daughter, Lillie. Eight years earlier, Lillie had married a Norfolk shoemaker called Henry Sadler, and they lived in Norwich, 70 miles from Brightlingsea where Sarah lived. Henry and Lillie’s only child, Mona, was born in Norwich in 1916. I don’t know how often Sarah was able to see Lillie and Mona, but presumably during WW1, travel would have been difficult.
It’s not clear if Sarah wrote to Lillie on 11th November 1918 because it was Armistice Day, or if it just happened that the day she chose to write to her was the end of WW1. She starts off by saying the letter is “just a few lines in answer to your welcome letter”, and only after mentioning Spanish Flu (“this dreadful complaint is about ant it awful so many people dying”) and her sons Ernest, Willie and Harry, does she mention “we had joyful news to day that is joyful new to think that dreadful fighting is over.” She goes on to mention the loss of “poor Tom”, her own poor health – “I am like a white wash wall dear” – and settles up with Lillie for some tea she had been bought by her daughter.
Sarah talks about going to hospital, and the feeling that “there is something growing there.” She died of cancer only a few months later, in June 1919.
The typed transcription and a scan of the original letter are at the end of the page, but here’s some explanation before you start to read.
Spelling, punctuation and grammar… or not
It’s not just the content of Sarah’s letter that makes it an interesting historical piece; it’s also her unusual approach to writing. There are no full-stops at all in her letter – in fact the word “dear” seems to suffice as a natural break of ‘breath’. Her spelling is sometimes bizarre – for instance, “Feberday” instead of “February”, and she never captilises the letter I; even so, she writes in a neat, joined-up hand. Her grammar and spelling suggests dialect and accent influences: she writes “ant” instead of “and”, “as” instead of “has”, “had a suprized” instead of “had a surprize”, “he arm” not “his arm”, “he say” and “he go” not “he says” and “he goes”, “alway” not “always”, and “someing” not “something”. She says “is” when referring to a plural.
These unusual features aren’t all necessarily north-east Essex in origin. Sarah was born in Steyning, near Shoreham in Sussex in 1863. Her father, William Savage (1833-1914) was a Sussex boy with a Peterborough mother, and Sarah’s own mother (Sarah Louise Heywood, 1834-1903) was from Liverpool. In 1866 or 1867, the family moved to Brightlingsea.Sarah’s brother, Alfred, was born in Steyning in 1865, but in 1867 her sister, Alice, was born in Brightlingsea Sarah was about 3 or 4 years old. So what we see in Sarah’s letter are possibly echoes of north-east Essex, Sussex and even Lancashire.
It also suggests that she left school at a fairly young age; she may well have gone into service around the age of 13, or left school to help look after her family. Despite her lack of formal education, she presents a stunning simile to describe her state of mind over her illness – “i am like a white wash wall”.
Sarah mentions twelve people in a letter that’s under 600 words. They are:
- Lillie: the eldest child of Sarah and her husband Henry, Lillie Maria was born in Brightlingsea in 1884. She married Henry Baldwin Daynes Sadler in 1910 and moved to Norwich, where she lived all her life until her death in 1973.
- Mona: the only child of Lillie and Henry Sadler. She was born in 1916, and passed away recently. I remember her visits from Norwich when I was little. For many years, she lived with her companion, Rhoda: they met whilst working as nurses during WW2.
- Ernest: “Ernest is better he is calling off his club on tuesday that as made him look sadly.” This is mentioned just after her comment about Spanish Flu, so it’s possible Ernest had it but recovered. Nothing in the letter explains what his club was. Born in 1900, he was the youngest-but-one of Sarah and Henry’s children. His full name was Ernest Baden Powell Field. He married Kathleen Robertson in in 1931, then following their divorce, he married Dorothy Dunn in 1950. Ernest died in 1953.
- Willie: William James Field was the second eldest of the Field’s sons (see how he was identified from an unnamed photograph of a soldier). He was born in 1894, and seems to have been named after his maternal grandfather, William Savage, and his paternal grandfather, Henry James Field. William began his working life as a sailor, but served as a soldier in WW1, and in 1919 he married Gertrude Dilks in Nottingham. They were still living there in 1939, where William was now a postman. They eventually moved to Essex, where William died in 1982. From his mother’s letter, it seems that William had been wounded, as she refers to him needing “another operation” on his arm to remove a piece of bone. He appeared in the newspaper in a list of wounded soldiers in November 1916; this might have been when he received the wound to his arm.
- Harry 1: A legend in my family, Harry (1892-1970) crewed many famous yachts, including the Royal Yacht Britannia – where he lost an eye during an accident in a storm. He served in the Royal Navy during WW1. He was the eldest son of the Fields, but was their fifth child as four daughters had been born before him.
- Emily, Tom: Sarah writes about how relieved she is to receive news that day that the war had ended, “but there is some very sad hearts to day for them that will never return i have thought about poor Emily i do wish poor Tom had been spared to come home to her [dear daughter]”. I was initially confused by this as Sarah doesn’t use fullstops so it wasn’t clear if Tom hadn’t come home to “her” as in Emily or “her” as in Emily was someone who’s daughter lost her husband during the war.
I have however found out that Sarah’s daughter Emily Jane was widowed during the war. She was born in 1886. By 1911, Emily was a domestic servant in Lewisham. A year later, in Camberwell, she married a widower called Thomas James Mowforth, born 1880.Her name was given as Emily Field, rather than Emily Jane Field on the marriage certificate, hence I had overlooked her when I tried to locate the marriage the first time. His first wife had died in 1908 and they had three children. Emily and Tom had a child less than two months after their marriage, called Lilian. Tom, a father of four who was serving as a gunner, was killed at Passchendaele on 20 September 1917. He was buried at Poperinge cemetery near Ypres.
At the end of the letter, Sarah says, referring to Lillie’s husband, “i am glad he go to see Emily poor Emily she is alway hard done bye poor girl.” This suggests that Emily wasn’t living near her parents in Essex anymore, and that wherever she was living, Lillie’s husband could visit – he was in the Army himself during WW1 (see his entry below).
In 1920, Emily married John Thomas Hearne, a bachelor, and they had two sons. She may have died in 1961.
- Maggie: The youngest daughter of the Fields, she seems to have been the last daughter left in Brightlingsea in 1918 (Lillie had gone to Norwich, Emily was in London, Alice had died in 1899 and Amy was in Wivenhoe). Maggie was presumably running the house while her mother was ill. Sarah writes “poor old Maggie she as come in for the lot i don’t know what i should do without her”. She married Harry Copsey in 1921.
- Amy: my great-grandmother. Amy had married William Kemble in 1910 and moved to Wivenhoe. She appears in Sarah’s letter – “i wish i was well that seam such a job to go to the hospital dear Amy is coming with me”. Amy appears again when Sarah writes about the tea that Lillie had got her – “Amy is going to have some.”
- Father: Sarah’s husband, Henry William Field. He gets one mention at the end: “Father is talking of writing to him”, referring to Lillie’s husband.
- Harry 2: His name was Henry, but he must’ve been known as Harry to his family. He’s mentioned when Sarah says to her daughter “well dear i do hope you will soon have harry home again now and we can live in peice again”, and “i hope harry is better dad is talking of writing to him i am glad he go to see Emily”. He joined up in 1902, aged 18, and left the Army two years later. He and Lillie married in Brightlingsea – how they met, I don’t know, as his abode was Norwich at the time. He was called up in 1914 and fought in France, in the Norfolk Regiment. His papers say that he was 5′ 5″, with a tattoo of a lady on each forearm (one assumes he got these when he first joined the Army as a lad). He died in January 1945.
In the typed version of Sarah’s letter, I have broken the text into paragraphs and I have added full-stops. She uses little capitalisation, and although the letter “I” appears as a capital at the beginning of sentences in the typed version, in the original they are in lower-case throughout. The scan is a photocopy of the letter – the original is in Brightlingsea Museum.
I filmed a reading of this letter almost 100 years to the day after it was written, trying to capture how Sarah’s voice may have sounded.