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Part 2. Christmas On The Moor

December 29, 2014
by the gentle author

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

Part 1. A Discovery at Christmas

17 Responses leave one →
  1. Martin G permalink
    December 29, 2014

    Reminds me of my Mum asking me to collect a copy of her birth certificate back in the 1980s so she could apply for a passport. She never had a birth cert in the first place. So, off to Acton Town Hall to collect one. An easy task you might think until the registrar appears and asks to see the applicant in person. Full of practical explanations as to why they wanted her, my Mum duly appears.

    She discovered that the registrar has to give a true replication of the birth register. This contained information that changed her life – she learnt that the column on the BC “Father” had been replaced with the word “Occupier”. It turns out she born out of an affair. When asking her what was so wrong she replied she was a “bastard”. she loved her Dad, and was a private evacuee in WW2 to a farm in Old Warden courtesy of here Dad. A moment that changed her life.

    She was such a beautiful woman in all aspects.

  2. Susan permalink
    December 29, 2014

    Gentle Author, my heart breaks to read this. Her fortitude and cheerfulness in the face of such terribly trying circumstances is nothing short of overwhelmingly courageous. The only tiny blessing in all this – beyond the fact that she somehow seems to have survived her “cure” – is that she apparently had some contact with Peter. I wonder if she ever saw him, or simply had to be content to pass on her loving messages.

  3. joan permalink
    December 29, 2014

    There is a very good book on TB in the UK ‘Below the Magic Mountain: A Social History of Tuberculosis in Twentieth Century Britain’ by Linda Bryder (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1988) It has a photo of some of the open air shelters at Papworth Sanatorium – which the caption tells us remained in use until after WW2 – and much on the perceived benefits of various forms of treatment. It has a couple of mentions of Dartmoor Sanatorium – don’t know if that is the one your letters refer to. My grandad was one of many Irish immigrants who suffered from TB in a later period. Of course, sadly, we’ve seen a more recent resurgence of what my grandad’s generation called ‘the white plague’.

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  4. December 29, 2014

    A very moving story of a lifetime!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  5. Jane Gadd permalink
    December 29, 2014

    This story is so poignant and moving. How times have changed – mostly for the better, I’m glad to say. First- hand social history at its best.
    How bitter-sweet for you, Gentle Author. Thank you for sharing this .

  6. david verguson permalink
    December 29, 2014

    A touching story. Has any attempt been made to located Gwladys on the 1911 census? It would take the story back generation.

  7. December 29, 2014

    Really unbearable, Gwladys seems so gracious in her suffering.

  8. December 29, 2014

    What a great story. Glad that Gladwys recovered, even though the treatment was very hard. She must have had a very difficult life. Valerie

  9. Sarah Thompson permalink
    December 29, 2014

    Dear Gentle Author,
    So many similarities to my father Frank’s story, even the connection to Bovey Tracey!
    How sad that Peter couldn’t share this with you during his life time. Thank you for sharing his story with us all and Gwladys’ heart-wrenching letters.
    Happy New year
    Sarah

  10. Victoria permalink
    December 29, 2014

    Gwladys’ clearly had a gift for writing, both in her daily observations, which she recounts so vividly, and her ability to convey emotion through the written word. Perhaps your own talent for writing has come from her.

    I know that exposure to cold air was regarded as a treatment for TB, and like some of your other readers, I too had relatives who were sent to recuperate in sanitariums. It sounds as if the treatment in her case was a fine balance given the weather and she went on to develop a chest infection. There’s a rather haunting story by the writer Marghanta Laski called the Victorian Chaise-Longhue that compares the prognosis of a diagnosis of TB during the 1950s to a century earlier; it’s story that has always stayed in my mind as I’ve been hampered by serious chest infections during my adult life. I’m so pleased that Gwladys was able to benefit from a more modern approach to treatment for TB and hope she went on to lead a happy life, in spite of being expected to relinquish her son.

    Very much looking forward to reading the final instalment of the memoirs.
    Victoria

  11. Laurel permalink
    December 29, 2014

    You might enjoy reading Thomas Mann’s book “The Magic Mountain” which was from this era and was all about a tuberculosis sanitarium. They had to always be in the open air.

    I hope you have good luck tracing more information about your birth grandmother. Geneaology is such fun. Go on familysearch.org or ancestry.com

  12. Jane permalink
    December 29, 2014

    I read your posts sitting in bed drinking my early morning tea, across the Channel, and feel connected to home. This account of your family history is very moving, thank you for writing about it.

  13. Erica W. permalink
    December 29, 2014

    My maternal grandmother (born in 1901) also had TB and spent time in a santorium here in the US. She also worked as a servant in the home of local well-to-do merchants (owners of a department store chain that was the fanciest local store). She had some of those “exposure to the elements” treatments, too.

    My dad was a foster child (ward of the state) who never knew his birth parents and was born out of wedlock (in NYC) in the 1930s. He bounced from foster home to foster home. I’ve tried to find out more about his relatives but have hit a brick wall.

    I’m reading your posts about your own roots with a great deal of interest and all the sympathy in the world.

  14. Riha permalink
    December 30, 2014

    As to leaving the doors and windows open in the TB ward…

    My step-great-grandmother (“Oma”) had pulmonary TB as a small child. She too was sent to a sanitarium at only five years old. This would have been around 1910. Her most vivid memories are of sleeping outside on the porch, even though there was snow on the ground! She and her fellow patients, however, were well insulated with warm quilts and fur blankets.

    Why leave TB patients out in sub-zero weather?
    Because it killed the germs.

    In an age before vaccination was commonplace, about the only known way to kill TB germs was by removing them from an environment in which they could survive. TB germs like it warm and damp, and by placing a patient in an environment where the air they breathed was extremely cold and dry, the germs would freeze to death.

    It must have worked. Oma lived to be 87 before she went home to the Lord.

  15. Barbara permalink
    December 30, 2014

    The pain of having to give up ones child must be unbearable. How many women were forced to endure this pain we will never know . It must have been a great shock for you t0 discover those letters and how sad that you were not able to speak with your father about them . But, these twists and turns in life are what make us who we are and perhaps it is no coincidence that you do what you do so well with other peoples stories ??????
    Love
    Barbara

  16. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    December 31, 2014

    What a wonderful thing, gentle author, to come to this understanding of your grandmother’s endearing love. I suspect those letters would have sustained your father whenever he took them out.

    To own the photo of Gwladys’ serene face must be a absolute treasure. She was beautiful.

  17. January 1, 2015

    Gwladys is alive to us …

    If only she might have known how very many hearts would open to her through a grandson’s story … perhaps, she knows now.

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