Pensioner amasses UK's biggest collection of handkerchiefs - a staggering 4,500 of them

·4-min read

A pensioner has amassed the UK's biggest collection of handkerchiefs - a staggering 4,500 including one from the Somme and others containing secret escape maps.

Brenda Mathews, 76, started collecting hankies aged eight, when a friend brought her one featuring a printed seaside view as a souvenir from a holiday to Sussex.

It sparked an obsession further fuelled when tissues replaced cotton hankies, prompting the mum-of-two to start snapping up commemorative ones.

Writing about them in magazines and giving talks about special sets inspired people to begin sending them to her - along with their often incredible stories.

One favourite is a brown hankie from WW1 soldier Frederick William Taylor, bearing his initials, and taken to wipe his brow at the battle of the Somme.

Brought home, it was treasured by his widow who gifted it to Brenda 15 years ago.

Some commemorative hankies feature maps of the Maginot and the Siegfried lines, where allied and enemy forces fought.

One of the oldest hankies is large and beige, with a red border, from 1886, called a Fulton's military handkerchief.

Used for imparting military instruction to infantry, it contains life saving tips like how to shelter and trumpet calls.

A fundraising hankie in the collection is from 'The Absent Minded Beggar Fund' started by the Daily Mail, to support families affected by the Boer War, in October 1899.

Sales of it raised millions for a hospital to be built in Hampshire.

Gran-of-six Brenda has amassed her hoard from charity shops, antique fairs, and donations, with help from husband, Peter, 86, who worked as a railway personal manager.

The former secretary said her interest in wartime ones is partly due to her being born on the day American forces dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima.

Brenda, from Burgess Hill, West Sussex, said: "It's so special that people bring these stories to me.

"I love to bring them to others to help people appreciate what went on in the past.

"I feel very privileged to have been entrusted with these touching and fascinating mementoes by their owners.

"I've been lucky enough to be given some fascinating hankies that people have treasured over the years, and that encapsulate life-changing moments for them.

"I've really enjoyed all the research, and had so much fun collecting them.

"I think it must be the largest collection in the country.

"I wish that there was a museum that I could entrust them to."

One WW1 hankie is folded into an embroidered silk postcard addressed to a Miss E Bramley at the vicarage in Dorking, with love from Alf, and it says 'Souvenir of France 1915.'

Two silk hankies in the collection were one of the last gifts given to a woman shortly before her new husband died at sea during World War II.

He brought the gift for her from France when he came home on leave on February 22 1940, and the couple married two days later.

Mr Ratcliffe died when his ship, the Lancastria, was bombed on June 17 - a tragedy so terrible that Winston Churchill banned public knowledge of it.

Mrs Ratcliffe donated the hankies - one with a butterfly motif and the other with flowers - to Brenda in 1999.

Many second-world-war airmen are thought to owe their survival to maps of enemy territory printed on hankies, called escape hankies, designed by Clayton Hutton.

These hankie-maps, made of parachute silk, were more durable than paper and didn't rustle.

Brenda was given a pink hankie with flags printed on about ten years ago: a 1944 souvenir from Belgium which was sent home by a second-world-war soldier Len.

 The accompanying letter said, Len opened up the Belsen concentration camp, freeing captives at the end of the war.

Another hankie which was hand-painted by a prisoner of war, was found by Peter at an antiques fair in 2001.

In the centre of the large white hankie the prisoner,  thought to be William Lamb, has painted his ship, the SS British Strength, which was sunk by German battle-ship the Scharnhorst, also pictured, in 1941.

A third ship painted on this hankie is the German prisoner-of-war boat, the Altmark, where William is believed to have been taken before being transferred to one of the prisoner-of-war camps Marlag, and Milag Nord: named on the hankie.

There are also two hearts painted on, with 'William' in one and 'Ruth' in the other, plus Merchant Navy logos.

William's sister got in touch with Brenda when she read about the hankie in 2003 after Brenda had a letter published  in a magazine.

Brenda, mum to Stephen and Carolyn, keeps her collection flat inside special pockets Peter made from LP-record sleeves.

They occupy two four-drawer filing cabinets and a dozen suitcases at their home.

The collection also includes hankies from Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, some from previous Olympics, special hankies containing powder puffs that were used for ladies to powder their noses at dances, and red hankies that were used to dab lipstick or rouge.

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