Letters Like Buses

Envelope date stamped 18 No 14 addressed to Miss Crawshaw, 29 Strathleven Road, in pencil as usual – letter inside dated 15.11.14

Dear Till

Many thanks for you welcome and interesting [and interesting repeated and crossed out] (excuse the double tap, for the Bhoys and having a joke and of course I am listening to them at the same time as writing to you) letter. I was pleased to hear from you, for I look forward to your letters every day. Well I was beginning to wonder when you was going to send the parcel, for you had mentioned it so often in your letters, although I knew you would send it sooner or later.

I have wrote to Tom sent him a PC yesterday. So Wallie as got a uniform and he is alright, I bet he fancies his luck. Have heard from Jess she is getting on alright, no the suit wasen’t for that but if this hadn’t have turned out, I expect it would have been the case sooner or later. Yes I expect the Lord Mayor’s Show was different to other years it was I believe a military affair so you couldn’t black your nose and see it, hard lines on (a?) Wartie (?), never mind better luck next year.

Yes I could just go some fried spuds nearly forgot what they are like roll on a long time. No I haven’t received those Cigarettes yet from him, what’s happened to him. Glad to hear that you are all in the pink at home and that Aunt is still patching up her Tatts (Totts?), remember me to Tango, give her my best regards and also to old Uncle. Tell her to look sharp and write for tell Aunt I have been expecting to hear from her and Uncle Matt.

Well Till we are having it perishing cold out here especially at night in the trenches it snowed for a while yesterday, so you can guess what it’s like out here. We are still making good progress although they are putting over shells as fast as they can and the villages and towns are on fire so you can guess what it is like, we have been mixed up with the London Scottish so you can guess where we are, that’s if you read the paper and see where they have been. There is a lot of Indian Troops out here and the Gurkhas are the Bhoys for they get mad at them and the Germans shake when they see the darkies with their knives in their hands coming after them they have no fear in them when they start.

You know I mentioned to you that I went to a wedding in Belfast, well I have had a letter from her to say that he is missing and that she has not heard from him she asked me if I could tell her anythink, I have wrote and told her all I know. You see Till it is like this when a big battle starts and our fellows get wounded by bullets or a bit of shell they are sometimes unable to move unless helped, and it is impossible to get to them and so there they have to stop until it gets dark or else you would very likely get hit yourself and when they are got some are in a terrible state and others are missing very likely captured by the enemy so you see how it is. The place is full of spies and one has to be very careful what you do and say, for they even get women to go round to find out things and your positions, so you can guess what it is like. One of our fellows has been awarded the French Legion of Honour and the day it got read out he got killed worse luck.

I am getting on alright up to yet but have got a nasty cold in the kidneys but thats only half ones (mes?) luck. I have not heard from Tom yet but hope to before long, Don’t forget to tell Muff to drop a few lines and ask her about the cake what she is going to send. Now I think this is all the news  this time, for I am just going to have a bit of Tommie, trusting this letter finds you merry and bright and hope to hear from you soon

I remain

Your loving Brother



You wait all month for a letter and three turn up at once.

This is one of Frank’s chattiest letters yet. There’s a lovely burst of life in the opening paragraph where Frank is distracted by some nearby banter and writes interesting twice. The phrase “double tap”, used to denote a crossing out, is a strange one. Could it mean firing a gun twice? I can’t find out any other uses of the phrase, other than drumming and shooting.

Wallie, whom I am assuming is Frank’s cousin Walter Matthew Coulson Webster, was only 14 at this time so I am assuming he signed up for the reserves. He didn’t enter active service until his 18th birthday in 1918 when the war was nearly over. If Wallie isn’t Walter then is he connected to Tom somehow?

Mabel has asked about whether Frank’s suit is for a wedding. He responds quite philosophically about his situation and reveals that he was serious about this relationship and that marriage was the next step. I am more keen than ever to find out what happened to Jessica.

The Lord Mayor’s Show was, indeed, a military affair in 1914. You can watch the show on YouTube and I’ve embedded the first part below. I am not sure what Frank means by “couldn’t black your nose and see it”. Perhaps he thought that women weren’t allowed? Does “black your nose” mean camouflage yourself? You can clearly see men, women and children in the footage. The cryptic “Wartie” could possible be “wartime”. Again, I don’t have the original letters so it’s impossible to see if this is  a transcription error.


Those fried spuds sounded so lovely that I had some for my tea. I imagine poor old Frank’s diet has been pretty poor – he must be desperate for a decent meal. I think we can finally agree that Caroline Webster is indeed Tango. The whole paragraph is about her and Uncle Matt. Quite what she’s doing with potatoes in November is beyond me. Perhaps she’s preparing the patch for next year?

More about the letter tomorrow.

The Dorsets enjoyed a fairly quiet day engaged various activities around Hill 63. Major Fraser, the man next in line to command the Dorsets was away acting as the Brigade Transport Officer; although which brigade exactly isn’t immediately clear. I’m assuming the 11th Brigade. So Captain Harold Sutton Williams, a native New Zealander and hero of the Dorsets’ rearguard at Mons, stepped into the breach as CO for the time being. At 9.32pm 11th Brigade was informed by 4th Division HQ that the Dorsets were to be held in readiness to return to 5th Division at Bailleul.

The mysterious Brixton Bill

Envelope addressed to Miss Crawshaw, 29 Strathleven Road, date stamped APO 12 No 14 – letter inside dated 13.11.14

Dear Till

How pleased I was to receive you welcome and interesting letter which I received alright. Glad to know that you received my PC quite safe. Wallie is working in the City I bet he fancy his luck a what. So Muff received my letter alright I have not heard from there since and I have forgot the address, don’t forget to remember me to them all, and let me have their address and also Toms I have not heard from him yet. Have answered your Bert’s letter, but have not received the cigarettes yet buck him up. How is Ciss going and did she receive my PC have not heard from her since. Glad to know that all are in the pink at home and that Uncle Matt has got plenty of work, how is Albert still doing the Tango remember me to him and tell him I will drink his health when I see him which I hope will be soon. I have just has two letters from Jess she has been ill this last two or three weeks but am glad to hear that she is getting on alright now. Her mother is knitting me a pair of socks, which she is going to send out.

Yes I expect it is alright on that records, yes I know the song well, we did have a good reception when we arrived in France but we have had some bad times since, and lots of these fellows you can hear singing have gone since then worse luck. How are you getting on still mucking in at Stewarts and still in the pink, you say Aunt is getting on alright and still sorting out her tarts (totts?). Pleased to hear Till that you are going to send me out another parcel, I shall be pleased with the Colegates and the other. What do you say that you are always wondering what I am doing, well it would be a job to tell you, but all I can say id that I am getting on alright and still in the pink, of course we have a few Jack Johnsons come over us at times and they make you get out and get under, the damage they do, is well, they make a hole in the road which you can get into easily they go in for most of their time in wrecking towns with their big shells and busting up churches and graveyards, they are a wicked lot, and we shall finish them up before we have finished, but it will take time and a long time yet, thats my opinion. Ask Uncle Matt if he ever knew the Snellings, only Bill Snelling is out here and he mentioned that he knew the Websters.

Well Till dear the weather out here is getting very cold and also we are getting some wet weather which makes things very uncomfortable, but still the Bhoys are sticking it well. So May got married at last well I didn’t expect she would have got married to him anyway they are a good pair. Remember me to Doris when you next write. Now Till I think this is all the news. Ho (No?) just a minute you ask what I would like for Xmas well Till I would like some underclothing and things like that only tell Aunt not to forget a bit of Xmas duff, only it won’t be any good posting it just before Xmas as I won’t get it so you will have to allow for that. We have seen a good deal of France and Belgium since we have been out here and there are some lovely towns out here. Now I think this is all the news this time trusting to hear from you all soon and remember me to Tango and old Uncle and all at home.

I remain

Your loving Brother

Frank xxx

12th November 1914

Todays’ letter is actually dated 13th November. I am publishing it today because I think that Frank has got the date wrong. He can’t write a letter before its posted: the envelope is stamped 12th November. We can’t blame him for a small mistake. He’s now been in the field for ten days without relief.

I will be returning to the letter over the next couple of days. I’ve done a bit of hunting this evening for Bill Snelling mentioned in the letter and it has started something of a mystery. I have found a William Joseph Snelling born in Lambeth in 1888. There’s also a William Joseph listed in the 1911 Census as living in barracks in Frimley with the Dorsetshire Regiments. Easy enough I thought. But there’s also another William Joseph Snelling, from Blandford, who signs up for the Dorsets at the outbreak of the war and I think their documents have become muddled. Brixton Bill disappears off the face of the earth. I need to untangle them a bit more before I can give anymore information about him.

In the war diary, the Dorsets were again troubled by the “light gun” which seems to have pinpointed the Battalion HQ on the lower edges of Hill 63. The History of the Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1919 claims that it was 5.9 howitzers that was plaguing their trenches at this time. I wouldn’t call them exactly light. Funnily enough, Frank makes a comment in his letter about Jack Johnsons which is often used as reference to the black smoke given off by bursting high explosive shells fired by the 5.9 inch howitzers, so perhaps the “light gun” reference in the Dorsets’ war diary is a joke?


A train journey without a destination

7th October 1914


The Dorsets paraded at the ungodly hour of 3am and marched north through the Bois de Compiègne in order to preserve secrecy. Then began a day of complicated movements, confusion and delays. I’ll try to explain it as simply as I can without inducing sleep.

Such a large amount of Allied troops were moving along the line that it put tremendous strain on transport systems. The 15th Brigade was assigned four stations along the line. Compiègne, Le Meux, Longueil Ste Marie, and Pont Sainte Maxence. The Dorsets entrained at Compiègne.

The Dorsets still didn’t know where they were going. I think they were probably hoping to get far away from the German guns. But rather than a long train journey they were disappointed when they pulled into Abbeville, stopping briefly in Amiens after a journey littered with stops and delays.

Abbeville station was overflowing with arriving troops so they were sent back along the line to Pont Remy where the Railway Transport Officer immediately tried to send them back to Abbeville. By now the trainline was so snarled up with traffic that this proved impossible. I imagine senior officers were now at the end of their patience with trains and so the Battalion started to detrain.


A few notes from yesterday’s letters

Frank’s letter is very playful. He has a really cheeky sense of humour and clearly loves winding his sister up in a good natured way, like all brothers do. Today we’re looking at names in the letters.

Who is Ciss? Is this their sister, Doris? Does he mean to write “sis”? Frank assumes that Mabel is in touch with her so it could well be this simple explanation. Ciss would also be a contraction of Cissy? I cannot find anyone of that name in the immediate family.

Muff now turns out to definitely be someone else other than Caroline Webster. I thought this might be the case from the language in the last letter. Frank writes “Heard from old Muff she wrote me a letter from the old people and hopes I am alright and trusts to see me soon”. Can we assume that Muff is an older member of the family? And is she a Crawshaw? I’m not sure. The most obvious person to investigate first is the maternal grandmother, Phoebe Webster, née Oakley. She’s living in Tottenham in 1911 with her husband Matthew and youngest daughter Lilian. She would have been 72 by October 1914. Is the “old people” an old people’s home? Or could it be that the person is living with the old people. If this is the case then Muff could be Lillian Webster. She would have been 25 in October 1914. Geoff’s notes indicate that he knew an Auntie Muff in the 1930s, so it can’t be the grandmother, surely? I’ll do some more rummaging around Lillian Webster when I get more time.

“You and Aunt are still Tangoing it I would if I was there”. I wonder if this is a reference to the dance craze of the time? The tango was sweeping, or should I say striding, through the Capital on its way up from Paris. Commercially astute tea rooms and restaurants had started putting on Tango Teas, afternoon tea with a demonstration of the tango by a professional dance couple. The excellent Edwardian Promenade blog does a much better job of describing the tango phenomena than I will ever do.

Another name to track down is “stammering Sam”. I think this one is easier to solve. Frank follows this line with “You know that old saying follow in Fathers footsteps”. Their father’s full name is Frank Samuel Crawshaw. Was he also known by his second name? It wouldn’t be a surprise knowing this lot. We find out that Frank Senior probably had a stammer. It’s a bit cruel of Frank to tease his father’s affliction but it appears to be a genial comment, not a barbed one.

“Remember me to Wallie and thank him for his Bovril”. Wallie is Caroline and Matthew’s son, Walter Matthew Coulson Webster. Born in 1900, he’s only 14 at the time of this letter and was just starting work. We’ll hear more about Wallie in the future.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the strange goings-on at Number 60.