When Ernie Broom and his wife Deirdre found a small wooden box on top of an old family wardrobe in Clapham, London, they opened a treasury of memories and stories, all with their roots in Alnwick.
Inside were dozens of beautifully preserved postcards sent largely by servicemen during the First World War back to a haven of tranquillity a million miles from the harsh realities of battle.
That haven was a tearoom in Market Street run by ‘Miss Thomas’ and her teenage niece Maggie, who offered a sanctuary to the soldiers before they were sent off to war.
Many of the postcards are photographs of the young men, proudly posing in their uniforms, ready for their turn at the front; some are sent from France and are marked, On Active Service; some have been stamped Passed Field Sensor; many have poignant messages to Miss Thomas and Maggie; but they all have one thing in common – they represent an incredibly sad episode in this country’s history.
Did those young men know what was ahead of them when they wrote their excited, cocky messages to the café staff? How many of them made it back safely to their families? How many were damaged physically or scarred mentally by their experiences?
Most of the cards are simply addressed to Miss Thomas, Confectioner, Market Street, Alnwick, Northumberland. They are likely to be from soldiers stationed at the Alnwick Camp in the Pastures or from local lads.
Getting on for a century after those postcards were being pinned to the tearoom wall – and some bear those particular battle wounds – the moving collection was unearthed by Ernie and Deirdre.
They were stored away by Deirdre’s father, Albert Wakley, who lost his wife, Margaret, nee Wood – the Maggie from the Alnwick tearoom – when she died at an early age, taken by breast cancer.
When he subsequently passed away in 1991, the precious box was discovered and the memories unleashed.
Ernie empathised with the sentiments in the cards and the young men who had written them, as he had served in the RAF in the 1950s.
“I was lucky enough to be ground crew and never saw any kind of action, but you form really strong bonds with your comrades and when they are killed it must have been terrible,” he said.
Ernie and Deirdre had planned to make the trip from their home in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, to Alnwick to share their discovery and pass them onto a museum, but Deirdre fell ill and time was short. She died, of pancreatic cancer, in 2001.
But Ernie, now 81, always dreamed of making the same journey north he had made a couple of times with Deidre some 50 years ago to visit her relations in Boulmer.
And last week his dream came true when his son Michael, 51, and two daughters, Karen, 58, and Ann, 56, drove him up for a Christmas present.
Ernie called in at the Fishing Boat Inn, Boulmer, where he was flabbergasted that pictures of two members of his wife’s family, were still hung on the wall as they were half-a-century ago.
“My wife’s mother Margaret had an aunt Martha who lived at Boulmer and Deirdre’s uncles Jimmy and Charlie Carse both lived there. Jimmy was a coxswain of the local lifeboat. We thought it was amazing when we saw a picture of Jimmy and probably a cousin. L Carse, in the pub the last time we were there, but to think they are still there 50 years later, incredible,” said Ernie. “We don’t really know much more about my wife’s family and would love to hear from anyone who might know them.”
Ernie never actually met Margaret because she died when Deirdre was just seven. She was born in Alnwick and was practically adopted by her aunt, Miss Thomas.
Ernie said: “Miss Thomas was obviously well respected in society at the time because she was invited to the then Duke of Northumberland’s coming-of-age celebration.”
After working at the tearoom, Margaret trained to be a nurse, spending some time at the Moorfields Eye Hospital in High Holborn, London. It was here that she met Albert, who was head porter. The couple married and Margaret moved to the capital.
When she died, Albert sold five properties – 27 Market Street, 8 Bondgate Without and 16 Howick Street, all Alnwick; 8 Bridge Street, Morpeth; and 63 Osbourne Avenue, Jesmond.
The houses were sold through the solicitors Wade & Son, who were based at 32 Bondgate Without, Alnwick, the current Northumberland Gazette building.
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Here are some of the messages on the postcards sent to the tearoom at 27 Market Street, Alnwick:
Dear Miss Thomas: Have just received the paper, thanks very much for same. I wish our Colonel would hurry up, the war will be finishing before we get there and I would like to get to France, even if we didn’t fight. Stanley (November 10, 1915)
On active service: Beastly rotten weather here at present; but too busy here to worry about it. Kindest regards, WA Moffitt (Rouen, France; Monday, January 17, 1916)
Dearest Maggie: Whatever in the world is wrong? Found another boy! Never even answered my last letter or card. Do write and let me know if you receive this in haste. Yours, Billie xxxxx (September 4, 1917)
Miss Thomas: We have been inspected by the King and Kitchener and it’s a pretty good job that they don’t come every day standing there just like a lot of tin mugs then having to march back again from the Town Moor. P.S. Hope you’re still getting along alright with that girl of yours laid off. (Cramlington; May 20, 1915)
On active service: Wishing you a very Happy Xmas and health and prosperity during the coming New Year. Yours Sincerely, WA Moffitt (France; 1916)
To Miss Maggie Wood: With all kind wishes and heaps of other things, from Sgt Thos. Trevor Bosbury (Alnwick; August 2, 1918)
Miss J Thomas: Possibly you will think I had forgotten to send a card as promised. We are having beautiful weather and also a good a time as possible. Hope all is going well with the business these awful times. Trusting you are keeping well. Yours sincerely, WW Simple (May 30, 1917)
France 1916: Wishing you a very Happy Xmas and health and prosperity during the coming New Year. Yours sincerely, WA Moffitt
Dear Miss Thomas: Sunday, hoping you are still alive and keeping well as this leaves me at present. I often wonder if Maggie has poisoned anybody yet (bad girl) and also tell Mrs Dickson that I am asking kindly after her. We are moving through next week to a place called Sutton Veny. Yours truly, R Cockburn (September 26, 1915) [Sutton Veny, being close to Warminster and Salisbury Plain, was a location to barrack and train troops before they were deployed to northern France.]
On active service: A Happy Xmas and prosperous New Year from ‘Somewhere in France’. WA Moffitt
Dear Miss Thomas: Please accept my most sincere thanks for your kindness to me in sending me your parcel. It was a great surprise and I did full justice to it. Please thank Maggie for her hand. I seen Jim and he is kindly asking after you. Kind Regards, Vincent (19 May 1915)
To Aunt: With my kindest regards, from John, BEF [British Expeditionary Force, the British field force sent to France in the First World War], May 29, 2018