Alan Crosby: Signed, sealed, delivered... lost?

By Jon Bauckham, 24 September 2015 - 3:07pm

Watching a sneak preview of Frank Gardner’s episode reminded Alan Crosby just how precious family letters can be

Dr Alan Crosby is the editor of the Local Historian and a columnist for WDYTYA? MagazineThursday 24 September 2015
Alan Crosby
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Will the death of letter-writing prove problematic for future family historians?

I was lucky enough to see a sneak preview of Frank Gardner's Who Do You Think You Are?, which includes a very moving and emotional section dealing with Frank’s discoveries about the deaths of some his ancestors.

Finding out about these circumstances included investigation of familiar sources, such as the 1871 and 1881 censuses (which proved to be a little bit ambiguous) but key information was provided by a series of letters, which helped him to piece together the story.

I am the fortunate owner of a collection of 40 letters, telegrams and receipts which were written by my grandparents between 1918 and 1931, telling the story of their marriage and its disintegration. They are priceless treasures for me – I remember crying when I first read them, many years ago, and they still move me deeply.

But apart from that, there’s nothing. I don’t have any other family letters at all. How many of us are lucky enough to have bundles of letters, giving insights into our forebears and their lives in a way which no official documents can? I know myself that reading letters gives a sharp immediacy and a sense of real connection which is like no other. No census return, no death certificate, no register entry can convey that feeling.

And nearer our own time, letters almost disappear as a source. For ordinary people the telephone – very often acquired in the 1950s – put an end to letter-writing. My mother, newly-marred and living in the south of England, wrote to her mother in Manchester every week during the ‘50s, and grandma wrote back. When they were connected by phone, the writing ended.

The letters don’t survive. A big chunk of my family history is gone.
 

Alan Crosby lives in Lancashire and is editor of The Local Historian. He is an honorary research fellow at Lancashire and Liverpool universities

 

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Five things you didn't know about Frank Gardner
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