My maternal grandparents, William and Anne Gray, had eight children, three born in Drogheda, Ireland and five in Liverpool, England. My grandfather died in 1941, leaving my grandmother a widow for 54 years. One by one, all their children left home and started their own families. My uncles Johnny, Harry and Eddie and my auntie Mary, all settled in Australia. Of the remaining four, two settled in the south of England. My mother, Anne (Nancy) and her brother Vincent (Vinny) stayed. Eventually, after Vinny’s death, my grandmother, or Nanna as we called her, moved into my parents’ home, where she died in 1995, aged 96. Born almost at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1899, she lived through the Irish civil war, emigrated from her homeland, lived through two world wars, worked in munitions and was bombed out three times during WWII and only retired once in her seventies. She knitted, baked and completed crossword puzzles, and saved up for the holiday of a lifetime.
In 1975, after years of planning, Nanna set out to visit her four children in Australia. With the fanfare of a minor celebrity, she had several generations of our family see her off at Lime Street Station, Liverpool. It was witnessed by a photographer from the Liverpool Echo and one of their reporters. Accompanied by my brother Joe, she travelled by train from Liverpool Lime Street to London Euston and then made her way to Heathrow Airport for her flight to Sydney. In total, she was away six months.
My Nanna was particularly close to my Mum and they corresponded regularly while she was away. Mum documented family life; with her own eight children there was always plenty to report. Nanna reciprocated, documenting her Australian adventures. Sometime after Nanna returned, she handed my Mum a bundle of letters, saying, ‘Here are your letters back.’ Mum duly stored the letters and they were forgotten about for decades. Sadly, apart from one ‘gem’, Nanna’s letters to my mother have not survived.
Years later, Mum showed me the letters, kept in an old Brooke Bond tea tin. I begged to be allowed to read them. Already known as the family historian, Mum agreed and they came home with me. I still have those letters. I pulled them out of my family history box last week and took instant delight reading them.
Tucked inside the first envelope, date stamped: Liverpool, 21 May 1975, was a cutting from a newspaper bearing the headline, A 12,000–Mile Trip To Meet The Family. Only three paragraphs long, the sepia-toned report describes my grandmother as a sprightly 76-year-old, who was off to visit relatives not seen for over 30 years. It quoted her as saying “’I have been looking forward to going to Australia for many years now.’” There was no accompanying photograph, but the letter explained that there was an industrial dispute at the newspaper and so the photos were not published. My Mum rang the Echo and was told she could have the negatives to be developed and then return them, which is how we have the wonderful photos of the family seeing Nanna off on the first step of her journey.
The second letter, filled with the comings and goings of a large family, was accompanied by a small note, on one side my brother had written a brief missive, and on the other, my five-year-old self had written in, (I think), a charmingly childish hand, ‘Dear Nanna I hope I you like Australia Ruth’. On the back of another letter I had drawn two flowers and stated ‘I love you Nanna.’
My favourite letters though, are written by myself and my twin and are without the embellishment of punctuation! One, postmarked 22 August 1975, reads, ‘Dear Nanna I can read now From Ruth. When you home I will bring you flowers.’ Underneath my lines, my twin wrote; ‘Dear Nanna, I will buy you some new clothes From Rachael.’ I suspect in five-year-old minds clothes trump flowers!
The other, from me again, bears the words ‘Dear Nanna when will you come home I love you Nanna.’ Below, I had drawn a house with flowers in the front garden, possibly to entice my grandmother back to our welcoming home.
With a free-flowing narrative these letters offer a retrospective glimpse of family life during 1975. My mother told my grandmother day-to-day chit-chat that I find enthralling as it is my history, discussed Deidre’s marriage to Ray in Coronation Street and commented on the funnier side of life, like when out of sight, greedy twins ate a strawberry tart each and then licked the cream out of my sister’s and mother’s cream cakes to boot!
As a resource of social history, they highlight the impact on a family when Britain was going through a tough recession, employment was hard to come by and when my father had to take work as far away as Burnley to support us. They illuminate characters in our wider family, in the days when our house was open to uncles, aunts, cousins and friends, who needed no invitation to visit. They document my uncle’s divorce and its impact on his children, illuminating the struggle of a single father in an age when this was unusual.
They also demonstrate love for the matriarch of the family, who, in her absence, was greatly missed, and was held in awe by her and my parents’ contemporaries, as she dared to travel 12,000 miles on her own. This ensured that my mother was repeatedly asked for updates on my grandmother’s experiences, which were outside the realms of many peoples’ dreams. Maybe that was what appealed to the editor of the Liverpool Echo when the small report of my Nanna’s travels made the news.