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From Newport to the Somme: Island First World War letters under the microscope

Bob Brimson and Mabel Attrill shortly before their marriage. <i>(Image: County Press/Richard Brimson)</i>
Bob Brimson and Mabel Attrill shortly before their marriage. (Image: County Press/Richard Brimson)

IN 2013, a remarkable discovery was made in a Victorian house in Newport on the Isle of Wight that had been home to the Brimson family for many years.

A collection of nearly 400 letters was discovered in the loft, written more than 100 years ago, between Ernest 'Bob' Brimson, a soldier, then serving on the Somme, and his fiancee, Mabel, known as Mabs, and also between other family members back at Newport.

Besides war news, the letters contain a wealth of local history.

Throughout the war, Mabs wrote to Bob from her home and father’s pub, The Bedford, on The Mall at Newport.

Isle of Wight County Press: The Bedford, or Bedford Inn, Mabs’ home on the Mall on Carisbrooke Road, Newport, seen in the 1960s.
Isle of Wight County Press: The Bedford, or Bedford Inn, Mabs’ home on the Mall on Carisbrooke Road, Newport, seen in the 1960s.

The Bedford, or Bedford Inn, Mabs’ home on the Mall on Carisbrooke Road, Newport, seen in the 1960s. (Image: County Press)

On September 27, 1914, she wrote: “Upward and his pals still come in in the evening.

“We get all soldiers up to 7.30.

“Ben Sykes, Frenchy Flood and Mr. Chaplin were in last night.

“They were wedged up in a corner while a crowd of soldiers took possession of the rest of the room.

“It was pay-day. There was a racket when they all tried to sing at once!”

A few days later, she wrote: “My dearest boy, it seemed as if you were here on Monday.

“I had such a grand dream about you. I couldn't shake it off all day.

“Our bell has vanished out of the bar parlour again. We must tie the next one on.”

Isle of Wight County Press: This hut at the bottom of Hunny Hill was once the offices of the Freshwater, Yarmouth and Newport Railway, from where Doris wrote her letters to Bob. Latterly home to the Red Cross, it was demolished when Sainsburys was built. Image: County Press/Roger Silsbury.
Isle of Wight County Press: This hut at the bottom of Hunny Hill was once the offices of the Freshwater, Yarmouth and Newport Railway, from where Doris wrote her letters to Bob. Latterly home to the Red Cross, it was demolished when Sainsburys was built. Image: County Press/Roger Silsbury.

This hut at the bottom of Hunny Hill was once the offices of the Freshwater, Yarmouth and Newport Railway, from where Doris wrote her letters to Bob. Latterly home to the Red Cross, it was demolished when Sainsburys was built. Image: County Press/Roger Silsbury. (Image: County Press)

Immediately following the outbreak of the war, pub opening hours were restricted to between 6.30pm and 9.30pm.

The Bedford’s trade suffered, as Mabs told Bob on October 27, 1914: “The Hants Regiment are leaving the Island this week.

“There is a rush and scramble from 6.30 till nine o'clock every evening now. I don't know how it will be when they leave.

“If it wasn't for the soldiers, we should have scarcely any trade at all. I keep on wishing you were safe here.

“Never mind my love, I will write again soon. From your loving Mabs.”

On October 7, 1914, Bob’s mother wrote to him: “My Dear Bob, I posted off the County Press to you.

“George Urry tells Minnie his chum was shot down at his side and killed.

“A close shave for George, wasn't it? Do you think the war will last much longer?”

For George Urry it was his last close shave. Kath, Bob’s sister, wrote to Bob on February 17, 1915: “I suppose Mabel has told you about poor old George Urry.

“It was Saturday morning when Mrs. Urry came staggering round here – she could hardly stand – with a letter in her hand from his Sergeant Major to say George had been shot through the head.

“Died instantly of course. She made mother read it to her, poor woman. She was dreadfully upset.

“And poor Minnie, too. She'd had a letter as well, and one that George had written to her, ready to post.”

Bob provided the sad endpiece: “September 25, 1916, Dear mother and father, we have moved to where George Urry was killed.

“I’m going to have a look for his grave and see how it is kept up. I was also very sorry to hear of Dick Murphy being killed out here. He has such nice kiddies, too.”

On a brighter note, Doris Brimson, Bob’s 16-year-old niece, a confident and witty writer, wrote to him from her home at Melbourne Street, Newport.

The Island’s railway companies at that time had a terrible reputation, one of the lines being referred to as “a dustbin on wheels.”

One particular line was referred to in Doris’s letter to Bob in December 1916: “There wasn't half a nice concert at the Drill Hall. They took off the Freshwater railway line a treat.

“The man says, ‘I was on the 11.39 to Freshwater. Suddenly the train stopped, then there was an awful crash (the man at the piano touches the top note so as you could just hear).

“Carriages were piled on top of each other. The guard got off to investigate and found – a fly on the line!’”

Ironically, in early 1917, Doris left school to begin work as a clerk for that very same railway company, in their office at the bottom of Hunny Hill, from where she wrote to Bob in her spare moments – and she seems to have had plenty of those.

On February 18, 1917, she wrote: “Dear Bob, it's quite decent down the office.

“There is a fire to roast chestnuts on. One of the other clerks brings bull’s-eyes and I provide the chestnuts, then the fun begins.

“This all happens when the manager goes home to dinner at 12. He doesn't come back till half past two so Miss Scamill, Gordon and I are left on our lonesome.

“Don't we work too! Gordon has a yarn over the telephone with his pal on the Central Railway and uses the phone and forgets to pay.

“Miss Scamill, the other clerk and I, read and eat. Fine, isn't it? And I go home at four.”

For those who would like to read the full collection of fascinating letters, they can be found in "From Newport To The Somme," by Alan Stroud and Richard Brimson, available to order from local bookshops.