Keeping a Diary is something we should all do…

Walking around to the back of the farmhouse I saw my old dear friend stoking a garden fire but the fuel was not the usual garden trash.  She was burning dozens of small hard-covered books. To my utter despair she told me she had decided it was time to start sorting out and getting rid of all the accumulated junk.  Why she had decided that over fifty diaries, dating from the early years of the second world war, came into the category of ‘junk to burn’ is a salutary lesson to us all.

What inspires an individual to daily commit to paper their thoughts. recollections, opinions, happenings and views on their life is as various as the content.  I have kept a diary since I started dry stone walling, mainly as a record from which to work out my daily rate of earning, to assist in compiling invoices and tax returns but it also serves to remind me of the sites where I built. Most importantly, in today’s climatic changes, I record the daily weather.  Already I find it fascinating to look back over them, already I am surprised at how much I don’t remember !  Imagine then the invaluable content of those burning books.  She had kept a daily record of  what was done on that farm, who called, what was bought or sold, how much hay was won from a particular field, how many eggs a particular chicken laid, how many lambs, how many bushels of oats, who was paid how much for helping out.  Nothing personal, nothing controversial, nothing at all of interest really.  Or so she thought, “no-one (in her family) is interested” she duly explained when I voiced my horror.  Oh contrare Mrs D !  Oh contrare !!  What an archive of fascinating facts relating to life on a Welsh upland farm through the dark days of the war when the local Agricultural Executive Committee (the ‘War Ag’) dictated what and where, when and how much, was to be grown.  What an economic fact-file of prices and produce, of land-use record and of weather, those books revealed.  She had diligently kept them as an aid to the farming business and felt that they were of no interest to today’s farmer, her son, and certainly of absolutely no interest to her numerous grand children.  How wrong she was, each of them were as shocked and distraught as was I.

A diary is an easy thing to do, it can become as normal as brushing your teeth at the end of the day, or in my case, as having a cuppa on arriving home – a good time to write it all down.  A diary is short, sharp, succinct.  It is not a journal, although many folk have kept very detailed and emotional diaries while others have used theirs more as a journal.  In these parts the famous diarist was the Rev. Francis Kilvert, who wrote of his daily life as a vicar in several of the local parishes.  Journals, as far as I understand them, are a record often written down some time later and record and reveal more of the inner thoughts of the writer albeit they relate to factual happenings in day to day life.  They are probably more interesting as a read for generations who come after but a simple diary, a record of the day to day banality of life, is of equal merit.

The current fascination with genealogy is testament to the importance of keeping as many records of family life as is feasible.  Now that the British census no longer records origin of parents nor does it record the occupation of individuals, future researchers will be denied much that puts flesh on the mere statistical bones.  It therefore seems even more important that diaries are kept and  safeguarded for grand children and the generations to come.

One of my New Year resolutions is to be more diligent in recording my life in my diary.  This is in part due to recent examples of how poor my memory is, not just on events of many years ago but on those a few moths ago, and also because of the many re-connections I enjoyed in the last year.  As a rule I’m not too into’going back’, even to times that were full of mad happiness and enjoyment.  I like the odd get together with old rugby chums, occasional family meets, as at a recent funeral. and I’ve certainly enjoyed meeting up with old college friends.  The common and shared experience of the time is a bond that transcends all that occurs in the interim.  The thing to remember in all such happenings is that people we knew ten, twenty, thirty and more years ago, friends we got smashed with, team-mates we played with and others we endured hardships alongside, have all had their own lives and are now different to those younger versions we knew.  We are also changed and full of different life experiences and thus the point of contact remains that moment in time all those years ago.  Memories too can often be different, even of the same event, how useful, in addition to those old and now shocking photographs, would a written record be !  I took the advise of a friend who is a serial journal keeper – is that a journalist ? – and diligently wrote on my two lengthy trips to the states.  On my first visit, the Smithsonian Festival, I actually kept a ‘video diary’, how modern.

We have entered a period of historical remembrance for those who endured the ravages of the Great War   The dead are honoured, as are the survivors of those dreadful battles, so too the families and loved ones who were left at home.  All are now to the forefront in family histories.  So it is with me; a diary of a relative I never knew, who died in a foreign field a century ago, is now a treasured heirloom.  I wrote of my visit to the graves of two great uncles who lie in ‘Flanders Fields’ in an earlier series of posts.  One of those great uncles had kept a regular daily diary, as did most men at the time, which somehow survived and was returned to the family.  It is no great tome, it reveals no lucid inner thoughts on the meaning of life or love, it bears little of interest to an enemy or a friend in reality.  It is however a record of endurance and fortitude un-recognised by the writer; he most probably would have thought it of no interest to any but himself, had he lived it too would have long since fuelled a garden fire.  He didn’t live but thankfully his diary survived, its interest is purely ephemeral, one day after another, a story of an ordinary experience no different from thousands of others.  The real fascination lies in the DNA of the writer and the fact the diary still exists and that is why we should be following suit.

The cover of the book that reveals the diary of Richard George Cantle of Five Locks, Pontnewydd, Cwmbran.

The cover of the book that reveals the diary of Richard George Cantle of Five Locks, Pontnewydd, Cwmbran.

Richard George Cantle was my maternal grandmother’s brother, my great uncle.  He was called ‘Dick’ and was one of the first soldiers to serve in the newly formed Tank Corps in mid 1917.  Prior to that he was an infantryman in the South Wales Borderers.  His diary for 1915 has been photocopied and produced in a readable format by a relative, in all there exists diaries for 1915,1916,1917; the diary for the first two weeks of January 1918 probably perished with him in the dreadful fire which ultimately claimed his life.  Petrol engined 1st World War tanks were extremely volatile…

This is how the diary was written, in pencil on a pro-forma diary supplied in rations by sponsored by the various companies whose foodstuffs were included.

This is how the diary was written, in pencil on a pro-forma diary supplied free and sponsored by the various companies whose foodstuffs were emblazoned as adverts.

The pencil written diary is a typical example of a free diary which was commonly given out as a marketing gimmic by manufacturers.  Companies such as ‘Dee & Ess’ (D&S) who manufactured cocoa and the Mazawatee Tea Company Ltd. who supplied chocolate and chocolate drink as well as tinned coffee and, of course,  tea !

The diary is set out in lined form with seven days to a page and one spare section.  The diary was clearly originally intended as an accounts diary and retains the £. S. D. (Pounds, shillings and pence) columns on the right hand side.

When we remember how few ‘ordinary’ working men could read and write in the early twentieth century, the diary of Richard Cantle is a rare record.

It begins on Sunday, January 10th 1915, four months after the beginning of hostilities.  Dick’s company were in the thick of the fighting east of Ypres.

Entries as they are written:

Sunday 10th January – 1st Sunday after Epiphany.

Seargant Parsons shot + died of wounds.  Relieved the same night.

Monday 11th.

Billeted with Madame + Marie Good Billet.

Tuesday12th.

Orderly to Mr West* (?) to help with the Rations

*Mr = Lieutenant

Wednesday 13th.

Seargant Paret died of wounds. Drunk on Rum

Thursday 14th. – Saturday 23rd is missing possibly as resting in the rear.

Sunday 24th.

Went in trenches, had a rough time

Monday 25th.

Dangerous work with pump in trenches.

Tuesday 26th.

Germans shelled but no-one killed. Relieved same night.

Wednesday 27th.

Billited in Ploey Street.  Good billet.  Kaisers birthday !

Thursday 28th.

Helped with the Rations.

Friday 29th.

Helped with the Rations.

Saturday 30th.

Stand-to at 10.  Nothing doing.

Monday 31st.

Mackintoshes issued.

 

Richard George Cantle- grave of

The small Commonwealth Graves Commission cemetery on the Bicquoy Road near Ficheux, east of Amiens in the Pas de Calais region. The final resting place of Great Uncle Dick. Remembered with Honour.

Great Uncle Dick survived from January 1915 until 12th January 1918 when, at the age of 26, he died as a result of injuries received in his burning tank.  The chores of giving out rations, the uninteresting fact of being billeted with Madame and Marie, the brief announcement of deaths or no deaths, the banality of the issue of Mackintoshes, just a record of everyday happenings in the trenches in 1915.  We can only imagine that which he chose not to record – just in case someone else was to read his diary …

I ask your patience dear readers as it is my intention to record the diary month by month throughout this year; it is my way of commemorating and honouring.

Medals and Queen Mary sweet tin.

The posthumously awarded 1st World War medals of Richard George Cantle, kept safe in his brass sweet tin which Queen Mary sent to all troops to celebrate Christmas 1914. In less than 3 weeks he was dead.

As well as diaries and journals there is, of course, a more valuable and far more personal record of an individual’s thoughts and feelings.  Letters !  When did you last receive a letter ?  When did you last write a letter !?  The art of letter writing, indeed the art of writing, is a disappearing one.  This confounded key-board has emasculated my ability to control a pen.  The last ten years has all but ended the joy of an unexpected letter from a far-away place.  What ever happened to Pen-friends !?  How does a 21st century schoolboy or girl experience the excitement of  receiving a letter from some far-away foreign clime ?  I presume the hobby of stamp collecting has gone the way of hop-scotch and skipping …

One section of society where ‘letters from home’ are still hugely important and eagerly anticipated is in the armed forces.  A small envelope brings much joy and the ability to read and re-read at will whilst holding the very paper that the writer held has a value greater than the written word itself.  Of course modern means of communication has crept insidiously into that domain; the instant email or facebook post, the text and the mobile phone-call all now play an important role in maintaining morale.  Imagine, if you can, the absolute thrill of a small hand written epistle breaking into the hell and drudgery of a 1st World War trench.  Imagine too the relief of the parents and family back home when the clap of the letter box resulted not in a brown GPO telegram but a buff British Forces Post Office envelope and a pencilled letter from a much loved son.

Some years ago I came across such a letter; it was stuffed into the back of a drawer in an old satin-wood dressing table I was examining in my regular antique centre over in Trecastle.  The Junk-yard Angel on duty did me a deal on the dressing table and I thus acquired the letter…

Letter to mum, October 1915

The letter from ‘Bob’ to his mother, posted in Aberdeen in October 1915, it lay undiscovered in a dressing table for 90 years.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

 

Dear Mother,

Many thanks for the cake etc. We had a fine treat.  I also had another parcel of sweetmeats, so you may bet I had a feed.  

The pillow is jolly handy and very comfy but the first night I used it, when I woke up in the morning I found the fellow who sleeps next to me with my pillow under his head.

 If I get my commission I will get a fortnights holiday to get my outfit and of course I will come home.  If I am successful I will get it in about a month or 6 weeks.

Have you settled on the flat at Eltham yet, let me know the address and when to start writing there.  I wish I had been in London to see the Zepps. it must have been a fine sight. *

If you could send me Jimmy’s old football nickers which he bought and never used I would be much obliged but you might cut an inch or two off before you send them.  You will find them hanging in the cupboard of my  bedroom.

I received my birth certificate this morning and gave it in with my papers to the colonel for his certificate.  I had to go up to Reith this last weekend and get a letter from the colonel of the 3/6th “the regiment”  I want to get a commission in saying that he would be willing to have me.  I got all right without any trouble and also had a good weekend.  Will you send me Miss Perry’s and Mr Richards’ address and I want to write to both.  I am very comfy now that I have settled down to the new diggs.  I have 4 blankets an overcoat and an air pillow so could one be more comfy in the army.  Well good by and send another German cake some time or other.

                                       Your affectionate son

                                                   Bob

 P.S.  I am sending a little thing for Jimmies 21st and if he should not be at home this weekend please send it on to him.    

      * The Zeppelin raids on London began on 31st May 1915.  Reports on numbers killed in that first raid vary from 7 to 28.  Raids continued throughout 1915 and not just on London.

Pencilled letter home 1915

Written clearly in pencil nearly a century ago, a simple letter from a son to his mother …

Included with the letter to his mother Robert wrote a short one page each to his sisters Agnes and Kitty.

Dear Agnes,

Many thanks for your kindness, I had a fine treat these last few nights it is nice to have a birthday.

I wish the Zepps would come up here for I am longing for a bit of excitement, but they are too frightened to come near the Gordons.

What regiment has Eddie joined and how does he like soldiering ?

I am hoping to get home in a week or two and then we will have a spree.

Well so long and be good.

Bob.

  

Dear Kitty,

Thank you very much for the hankerchiefs they are very nice and useful.

I had a nice weekend in Reith this last weekend and when I got back on Monday night I had parcels and letters innumerable awaiting me.

I am trying hard for a commission and if I get it I will be very much surprised but I hope for the best. I expect you will be proud of me if ever I become an officer.

How does work go down with you, I suppose you have a good time with the officers.

I have got a song for you and am inclosing it in a parcel of clothes. I hope you will like it.

Well good bye for the present.

Your brother Bob.

 

Robert Alexander Monkhouse did achieve his ambition of becoming an officer in the Gordon Highlanders.  In 1917, 2nd Lieutenant Monkhouse of 31 Manor Park, Lee, London, was killed in action.  A letter which he pencilled to his mother in late 1915 contained nothing of interest, just a little chit-chat of family talk around the sending of birthday presents and requests.  A hundred years later it takes on a wholly different level of interest.  Write more letters and keep them safe !

As for Welshwaller, he’s written more than enough for one day !                                                                                             

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3 Responses to “Keeping a Diary is something we should all do…”

  1. Val Says:

    This was a lovely post . I have kept diaries /journals sporadically b for years~ but more importantly , have always had a real interest in the stories of others, my grandparents, my parents but never just confined to biological family , but the greater world outside . One type of long time favorite reading matter has been both compilations of people’s diaries kept over centuries or the diaries of individuals such as the Rev, Kilvert (a perennial favorite) or Parson Woodforde , Dorothy Wordsworth (have you ever read her diaries or any excerpts?) John Evelyn and of course Pepys~ but many others as well.both older and newer. Coming across old letters in junk shops or estate sales is always exciting to me as you never know what treasures you will come across~ (old photos as well ) Whole other worlds, ideas and experiences contained within~ glimpses into the lives of others outside our own experience or time can be so interesting , enlightening and revealing. I am still a inveterate letter writer , if only I still had some recipients who liked equally to write. It has dwindled down to almost nothing these days with emails being the preferred method of communication. I greatly miss letters on paper ~ nothing is quite as welcome as a real letter in the post. Having lost my mother just 2 years ago now, the full impact of just how much access to information I really cared about and am interested is forever gone . There is no one any no longer there to ask or remind me of what happened at a certain time or place or with whom or how such and such a person was related ect. I listened to her stories and tales for years but realise too how much of it went in one ear and out the other or only half recalled now I thought I had forever to ask again the stories of family. This is a lesson I have learned the hard way~ we never know when or how long anyone will be there to ask and converse with about the things we may really want or need to know~ My mother was a repository of so much that was family history as she cared deeply about her own and passed this on to me. I now try to write and organize what I sincerely hope my own daughter will wish to know at some point. It is our connection to our past and determines to some extent our future as well ~ at least in terms of who we feel we are , where we come from ect. I moved all my life and yearned for some sense of connectedness to a place and people ~ my mother and father’s roots and their stories and my grandparents stories gave me a sense of where I sprang from and were all I had in terms of roots~ I treasure what letters, photos and other paper ephemera I do have . Thank you for this interesting and thoughtful post. Oh! and were any of your friend’s diaries rescued from her fire?! I hope so. All the best to you.

    • welshwaller Says:

      Lovely addition to my thoughts Val, thank you – ever thought about blogging !? Unfortunately none of those farm diaries could be saved, a real shame. I did however, have some years to extract from her many of those memories of the farm and I have that archive, we were great friends and it was a sad day when she finally passed away.

  2. Val Says:

    I am glad to know that you at least have some of her personal memories to draw from. These are the things that sustain us I think when people and times have passed on. Will you ever incorporate any of them in book form? I am flattered to be asked if I have ever thought about blogging~ I toyed with the idea initially, back before they were even called blogs in 2000 when I first got a computer, but not sure I have anything particularly unique to contribute to the “blogesphere. ” I am sure your blog must be one of a kind in several respects. Surely no other Welsh “wallers” with a blog nor none quite as eloquent, entertaining, and mufti-dimensional as yours. All the best to you.

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