Natasha Hirst, HLF Archives and Libraries trainee at Stockport Local Heritage Library and Archives, shares a wonderful discovery from their archives. These letters and poems really bring the correspondents to life again, nearly a century after they were written.
When I started cataloguing three boxes of archives labelled ‘Miscellaneous Schools’ I never expected to find anything we could use for the World War I centenary.
The collection itself is fascinating, but amongst it was a discreet white envelope labelled ‘WW1 letters’ and inside was a bundle of letters which were written by serving soldiers back to their old headmaster, Joseph Goodison.
There are twelve letters in total, there is at least one letter written during each year of the war, the experiences and depth of description vary greatly from soldier to soldier, and the letters were sent from several different fronts.
Joseph Goodison was the headmaster of Higher Brinksway School from 1884 to 1924, his obituary in the Stockport Express in 1935 described him as having a “wonderful and extensive influence” over his pupils, his “kindly counsel was a precious heritage” and “he loved every child in the school”. The newspaper also reported his attributes of “kindness, generosity, justice and fair play” all of which make it easy to understand why his old scholars chose to write back to him. The letters themselves also offer some clues, with J. Duxbury writing “[my niece] said he always reads the letters to us that he gets from the soldiers” and H. Wild wrote “the reason I write to you, is that I know how you like to hear from your old scholars”. There are also mentions of Mr Goodison having sent the soldiers newspapers, and their having received parcels from St John’s Methodist Church, where Mr Goodison was an active parishioner. Mr Goodison’s only son Frank was also a soldier in WW1, and some of the letters mention him, sending their best wishes.
Frank Goodison with the football team, Higher Brinksway Council School c. 1909
An eye-catching letter was written by Private John Goudy, writing from France in November 1916. He encloses a carefully written poem, from the accompanying letter we can gather that Goodison requested he send it. He wonders if it is worthy of publication, and comments that the weather conditions are severe. Goodison clearly liked the poem, as he read an extract from it during a speech he gave at the National Union of Teachers’ meeting in 1917. In his notes for the speech he wrote “A Stockport lad who fought with so many other Stockport lads at Thiepval… sent a poem which he composed in his earliest free hour after Thiepval battle, to his former teacher.”
The poem reads:
The hell was born,- on a July dawn –
“To win or die our youth was laid”,
On that red morn, o’er dew just born,
Neath early sky our charge was made.
Pleased, – the Carnage Spirit
O’er shells that fell,
On Thiepval’s dead,
And weeping o’er the sea,
And the mournful Spirit
Of an absent bell, -
“Tolled to the tread
Of sleeping o’er the lee.
The pine trees fell, in the Pine Trees’ Dell, -
Loud did thunder Britain’s mighty guns,
Thro’ shot and shell, – with Hero yell,
Thro’ the thunder Britain’s might sons.
The carriage spirit smiled
With it’s grinning head.
On fierce hell,
Raging on and neath the sod,
And lips of morn that smiled –
At Eve were dead, -
“And heroes fell
On earth – To rise to GOD.”
John Goudy – France, 1916.
Goudy’s poem speaks of Thiepval, a French village on the Somme which was occupied by the Germans as a fortress. It was attacked by the British on the 1st July 1916. The village was completely flattened by the bombardment, but the Germans occupied the deep cellars of houses, so their machine guns were protected and they put up a strong resistance. There were heavy losses, and it was September before Thiepval was taken. One of the largest memorials to the missing is located at Thiepval.
A little about the poet…
We have found that John Goudy was born in 1893, the son of John Smith Goudy and Margaret Leatham. His father was an Irish-born wheelwright, and the family moved from Ireland to Kettleshulme somewhere between 1886 and 1891. They then moved to Whaley Bridge, before moving to Stockport, and at the time of the 1901 census were living on Vulcan Street.
Aged 18 John was a boarder with a family in Levenshulme, Manchester, and working as a general clerk in the basket industry. On the 13th March 1915 he enlisted in the army, he served in France in 1917 in the Army Service Corps, and he was discharged on the 5th August 1918, at the age of 25, as no longer physically fit for war service. He was awarded the Victory and British medals.
This wonderful collection of letters offer a snapshot of life for the young soldiers, as they wrote with nostalgia to their old headmaster – it seems that all of the soldiers returned from the war (including Goodison’s son) and their letters will form part of an exhibition for Stockport’s WW1 centenary.
Natasha Hirst, HLF Libraries & Archives Trainee, Stockport Local Heritage Library & Archives