Part 2. Christmas On The Moor
Following Part 1. A Discovery At Christmas, this is the second in a series of three short memoirs, revealing the contents of a locked box that my father carried his whole life and telling the story it contained, which I discovered after his death.
Gwladys Brown, 3rd September 1917, aged 22
After Peter, my father, died in October 2001, I collected all the old photographs in the house and attempted to identify them, but there were many people from the time before I was born whom I did not recognise. I arranged those who were familiar to me in a series of photo albums, while those who were unknown were reluctantly consigned to a box.
At Christmas that year, when I opened my father’s padlocked document chest and discovered a series of letters from Gwladys Brown, revealing that she had been compelled to give him up as a baby – a secret so painful that he carried it his whole life - I returned to the box of photographs seeking pictures of her. Labelled in Gwladys’ own handwriting that I recognised from her letters, I found this photograph of her looking so bright and full of life, and it was a curious sensation to recognise my own features in her face. This image of Gwladys had always been in our house but I never looked at it before because I did not know who she was.
Now that Gwladys is present in my life as my grandmother, the intimate quality of this photograph fascinates me and I find myself scrutinising it to ascertain the precise emotional timbre of the picture. Even though it was taken six years before she gave birth to my father, I cannot separate the portrait from this event and I equivocate between seeing composure and uncertainty in her beautiful features. Most of all I am consoled to recognise the sense of dignity and self-possession apparent, reflecting the courage and strength of mind revealed in her writing.
Among the dozen of Gwladys’ letters to my father’s adoptive mother that I discovered in his box were a series written from Hawkmoor Sanatorium, Bovey Tracey. I found that once Gwladys had returned to her work as a housemaid in the employ of Mrs Dimond, after she had given birth to my father in 1923 and a friend had agreed to adopt him, a further crisis overcame her. At first, when Gwladys wrote repeatedly of “feeling bad” I understood this as a reference to her grief but, once I learnt that Hawkmoor was a hospital built at the edge of Dartmoor for patients suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, her language took on its true meaning.
Gwladys’ account of her bizarre treatment at Hawkmoor, which included sleeping in unheated chalets in winter with the doors open to admit rain and snow, makes you wonder how she survived such harsh therapy in her vulnerable condition.
Dear Mrs -, At last I am writing to you as I promised to. Well dear, it is lovely place up here & such nice views you can see right down on the moors. You will be pleased to hear that I am much better & my cough has gone thank goodness. I don’t take medicine, they just keep you out in the air all day. We all have to go for a long walk every day. You need some strong shoes up here as the walks we go on are so muddy and stones, it cuts your shoes awful. I am getting quite sunburnt. Must tell you I had nice company when I got out at Bovey Station, she was going to Hawkmoor as well so it was nice to have company. There was a car at the station waiting for us, so we had a lovely ride. It is a good three miles from the station. I have breakfast in bed for a bit, must tell you we have to rest before dinner at 11:50 to 12:50 & again before tea at 4:50 t0 5:50. We have breakfast at 8 o’clock, dinner at 1 o’clock & tea at 6, bed at half past 8. We see the Dr every morning & get examined every month. There are such a lot of women & they are so jolly, & such a lot of men. It is pitiful to see some of the men up here, poor things, & a lot of them are married. We had 3 more came in today, so they are getting full up again now. I expect I shall only be here for 3 months. How I would love to see you all, but I must wait until I come back & then I will come up & see you. How are you getting dear? How I do think of you, as you have been a good friend to me, like a mother. It do seem hard to get down bad like this through hard work. Well dear there is only one post out a day here & that is 4 o’clock. So we have to write pretty early to catch post as the time goes so quickl. By the time we have been for our walks & then rest hours, it don’t give you much time. I do hope you will write to me as I don’t get many letters. I do wonder how little Mary is getting on. Well dear, I must stop now as I shall miss the post. Hoping you are keeping well & dear little Peter. My love to you all, Evelyn, John, Mr – , also dear little Peter from Gwladys xxxxx Hoping to hear from you soon dear. I will write again when I hear from you xxx future
My Dearest Mrs -, You will think I am unkind not to answer your last letter but really dear I have not been very well. I caught a nasty chill & had to stay in bed a fortnight, but glad to say I am much better & about again. What would I give to see you again. Am longing to come home & see you. I don’t think I shall be home for Xmas. Must tell you it is a bitter cold place here in winter. We sleep out in the open & when it rains it comes right in & you are not allowed to shut any doors & the wind nearly blows you out of bed. We have had dreadful weather, rain every day. We had a lot of snow yesterday. It is so pretty to see the children playing with the snow, it makes me think of dear little Peter. I do think of him such a lot in this cold weather wondering how he is keeping, bless him. It is awful here, no fires at all, have not seen a fire since I left home. I guess you have got a lovely fire now. I can just picture John sitting around it. I don’t know what sort of Xmas they spend here. Have you made your Xmas pudding yet? I hope you will send me a little bit to taste. It will seem more like a Xmas to me if I taste a bit of pudding. Glad to say I am putting on weight so I must be getting better…
My photograph of the view from Haytor towards Bovey Tracey at Christmas 2002
You may also like to read the beginning of this story