Telling family stories through diaries and letters

Family histories, family stories, are low in the hierarchy of acceptable academic history yet an integral part of life stories and history writing. This article reflects on some implications of family letter-writing through letters exchanged between my father, his mother and siblings during the Second World War, when he and his brothers were in the RAF and the army. 

The letters pose questions of collecting, memory, identity, loss and place in one working-class family. They suggest the elision of boundaries sliding between public and the private and how the dynamics of a working-class family were re-created through a process of letter-writing. A process which has also involved thinking  ‘the emotional interactions between researchers and their materials’ which don’t feature that often in the academic ‘practice of history’. (1)

Some people throw-out, others collect. My dad collected. As older relatives died, he became the unwitting archivist of the family’s history, retrieving papers, letters, baptismal cards, postcards and small material mementoes – from whisps of heather collected on a coach trip to the moors to old tins. Emotional reminders of particular moments, memory boxes of his family and the district in which he’d grown up, and of how it had changed. (2)

What he collected included letters and pocket-sized diaries, saved in an old Oxo tin of the sort which reappears in the memories of hoarders and collectors from his generation. Alison Light recalled how Raphael Samuel’s file-cards were ‘packed uneasily into old Oxo tins’, teetering on dusty windowsills or lurking beneath chairs. ‘Since everything could, in theory, be reused, nothing could be thrown away’; a sentiment which my dad, a product of the straitened 1930s, would have approved. (3) 

In his case, the Oxo tin, photos and other bits of ‘stuff’ were saved in an old chest of drawers which had been moved to our house from his former family home on its demolition in the 1970s, a battered link to his early life, a repository of youthful mementos which had been packed away when he joined the RAF as a mechanic in the early 1940s. 

His diaries chronicled the ordinary leisure routines of a young man in his teens, matter-of-fact and literal, outlines of a daily life into which I plunged through my own memories of the local landscapes and people they described. Regular, familiar journeys which had helped imprint upon him his sense of place, family and neighbourhood.

The diaries’ stories of family scuffles, bickering and chats with friends were complemented by dozens of letters, sent to him during the Second World War, by his mother, brothers, sister, relatives and neighbours. Written  during the war’s early years, when he was stationed in Blackpool training to be a flight mechanic, they suggest how this family imagined itself during this uncertain period of unaccustomed absence. The act of composition, jointly written by the mother and sister left behind, conjured sons and brothers as they deliberated over what to include, streams of consciousness flowing  with little punctuation. Letters sent and received shaped landscapes of family life upon which to dwell in quieter moments, touched, folded and re-folded, read and re-read, handwriting scrutinized for characteristic lettering, tangible emotional comfort during anxious times.  Valued reminders of the sender as the evocations of absent brothers and sons which attended the letter-writing were renewed by replies, often shared aloud. 

The letters’ contents reveal how affection and relationships were sustained through humour, snippets of news about relatives and neighbours, casual reminders of the texture of everyday life left behind, a remembered landscape of family and place. The receiver – my dad – would have been well-aware of how and where the letters were written and their conversational tone complemented what I remembered from my childhood. I knew where they’d been composed, his mother and sister sitting at the back-room table, deliberating over what to include. I recalled similar ‘conversational collaborations’, my aunt sitting at the same table, writing down her mother’s words to some recipient, now long forgotten, listening, checking out, laughing. 

Letters took time to compose and sometimes included short messages from neighbours or relatives who’d dropped by while they were being written. The very act of inscription helped establish a sense of physical connection with those who weren’t there, conjured by writing in the present tense. Replies shared and mulled over, inspiring further stories and anecdote, mutual memories of fun and laughter.

Letters were a collective evocation of the recipient’s presence. The mother’s sense of keeping the family together was expressed through imparting news about each absent son and prompts for them to write to each other. Caught up in the glamour of dad being an RAF recruit, there were frequent pleas for him to have his photo taken in his new uniform. 

The written and the visual ‘bridged a gap of separation’ and forced a sense of being thought about and remembered. News about relatives and neighbours interwoven with casual reminders of the familiar touch of family life, which included regular references to the cat and her kittens.

The letters, bundled together, were more than their written content. They were rich layers of affection, a verbal and material tale of family relationships and feelings. The family knew who the writer was before the letter was even opened. The handwriting a comforting and valued reminder of the sender whose character I too could interpret, the distinctive flow of lettering combining with my own understanding of their adult personalities as uncles and aunts. 

Lou, the eldest son, shaped by family expectations as the first-born, his handwriting rather formal, large and stylized.  Aware that letter-writing had conventions to which he couldn’t always adhere, apologizing for the pencil and scrappy piece of paper he’d had to use for one letter, as impulse over-rode what he thought was expected:

            I hope that you do not mind me writing this letter in pencil, or on the pieces of paper, but I am away from my room at the present moment, when I decided to write to you, but still what does it matter as long as you hear from me, that is what counts.

I don’t have my dad’s replies, but can recall the ‘single authored’ care with which he wrote his own letters and postcards when we were on holiday, as children. Writing, looking up, mulling over what to write next, a quieter, more private form of composition than the letters sent from home.

Academic work with diaries or letters involves moving from an early relationship of distance to one of gradual proximity, seeking intimacy in order to understand.  My relationship with these letters and diaries  was a reversal of that process, a gradual distancing which began with transcribing my dad’s diaries shortly after his death. This journey moved through wanting to understand the knowable and unknowable boy who would become the adult I knew to an academic book, which threaded these personal sources into broader themes.

This working-class life didn’t fit with the heroic narratives of northern working-class history or the conditions of working-class life in poor parts of London and northern manufacturing areas. But just as dad was a product of his own time, place and background, so am I. How I used his material in my book reflected my sensitivities as to how this reserved man might be interpreted, or misinterpreted, the risks of ‘dissolving boundaries between what is public and what is private’ and dropping his personal life into the broader flow of historical memories. 

Judy Greenway has suggested that ‘In qualitative research, the creative juxtaposition of narratives – our own, and those of our subjects and our audience – can generate a positive methodological anarchism that relinquishes control, challenges boundaries and hierarchies, and provides a space for new ideas to emerge’. (4) In my case, an academic narrative moved me on from my dad’s complex mix of shyness and sociability towards the hesitancies and quiet ordinary lives of working-class boys in the 1930s. It took me a long time to find that particular voice, to draw away from the biographical to tell a different, broader story. My ‘academic self’ certainly contributed its own invisible dialogue with the voices contained in these family letters, which wove and repaired the fragile web of family relationships across the spaces of separation. (5) Understanding these voices drew on my ‘insider knowledge’ of the biographical background and contributed a more nuanced context through which to untangle the ‘confluences’ of social upheaval ‘separation, memory and emotion’ which affected one family during the war.

Edmund de Waal, taking a somewhat sideways route to trace the history of his much more illustrious family in The Hare with Amber Eyes describes the ‘slightly clammy feeling of biography, the sense of living on the edges of other people’s lives without their permission. Let it go, let it lie. Stop looking and stop picking things up, the voice says insistently. Just go home and leave these stories be’. Of course, we don’t. We just find different ways of telling them.

Melanie Tebbutt, October 2019

© Melanie Tebbutt


(1) Judy Greenway, ‘Desire, delight, regret: discovering Elizabeth Gibson’,  Qualitative Research 8 (2008), p. 323.

(2) Michael Roper, ‘Slipping out of view: subjectivity and emotion in gender history’, History Workshop Journal (2005) 59, pp. 65-6.

(3) See Alison Light (editor) ‘Introducing Raphael Samuel, in Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory: Island Stories – Unravelling Britain, Vol. 2.

(4) Greenway, “Desire, delight’, p. 324. 

(5) Vera Sheridan, ‘Letters of love and loss in a time of revolution’, The History of the Family, 19:2 (2014), p. 263.

(6) Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (London: 2010), p. 346.

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