At Christmas a couple of years ago, I sat down one morning decided it was time to start writing down what my parents knew of their parents history. They were all gone by then, but it struck me that there was much of their lives I had never known. The scant facts I knew could be fascinating; my maternal grandmother was at Bletchley, my paternal father worked on radar during WW2. However, due to lives cut short there were never any great tales told to me of ‘what happened in the war’ on my mum’s side, and neither they nor my father’s parents indulged in what they perhaps saw as boasting whilst alive.
The notes I took that first attempt were short, and filled with questions. Did Granny Good go to Bletchley in ’41 or ’42? How did she get there? Where did Grandfather Good serve in the war? How did he meet some of the more famous people mum remembers from her childhood? There were no answers to hand. I decided that it was probably about time someone try to write more of the history down and test it against the remaining evidence, and grudgingly I realised that someone was me. A good part of this also needed to involve scanning and archiving what remains into a digital form, not least so that I can study it when I’m not at my parents.
So in the middle of March I sat down at my parents and started to look through everything. The good thing is that both my mum and her ancestors kept a lot. The bad thing is that with one thing and another we’ve never gone through them. The rough initial inventory was one old suitcase stuffed full of correspondence, two boxes full of slides, and another couple of boxes of photographs. Setting up to start archiving and reviewing all of this I realised I was missing the scanner power supply. Off we went rifling under beds and in drawers and before we knew it we found some old notebooks and a large wallet. I open the wallet and look through, in seconds I’m holding a letter complete with this passage:
Yes – typical – in about half an hour of effort for the first time I have a clear letter that lets us know when and how my granny made it to Bletchley. And it’s been sat in a drawer of a room I’ve slept in several times for many years. Irritating and yet rewarding to have finally found it, though there was plenty more. No diary to clear everything up, but plenty of scattered fragments to help fill in the details. Having known less about him, my grandfather’s surviving wartime documents were even more interesting. There were sections of his naval history, and plenty of notes on radar, but it was his photos of Bermuda and his radar work that fascinated me.
So very quickly, I had all of my war questions answered. I knew where they were and when, and I now know what threads to follow up to see if I can get more detail. All told I wound up with a few hundred photos, and a few hundred pages of correspondence to review, more than enough to keep me busy before I even try to look into official archives. Now to draft up the first version of a biographical history.