A post from catalogue volunteer, Roger.
The Record Office recently purchased several letters and postcards at an auction which illustrate aspects of humanitarian work during the First World War.
Margery Eleanor Swanwick (1880-1959) a resident of Whittington, Chesterfield was active both in providing parcels of food and other comforts to Allied soldiers imprisoned in Germany, and in supporting Belgian refugees accommodated in Chesterfield. This post concerns her support of a number of prisoners of war.
Surviving documents include postcards and letters sent to Margery Swanwick. The postcards, purposely printed by the German authorities, convey messages of thanks from four prisoners who received parcels. There are also four letters from organisations involved in the despatch of parcels and one letter from the wife of a prisoner.
It is not clear from the documents how the four recipients of Margery Swanwick’s parcels were selected: the beneficiaries were not from Derbyshire. The collection includes two postcards sent by William Marshall, a private in the Sherwood Foresters Regiment, whose expressions of thanks give no biographical details.
There are six cards from William Leonard Gothard, also a private in the Sherwood Foresters Regiment. His home was at Old Westwood, Jacksdale, Nottinghamshire. He was so grateful to Margery Swanwick that he had his wife write a letter of thanks. William Gothard had left home in August 1914, just a week after the birth of his first child, and was taken prisoner two months later. It is clear that Margery Swanwick corresponded with both William Gothard and his wife, and there are indications that Margery Swanwick may have visited Mrs Gothard.
The third English prisoner to receive parcels from Margery Swanwick was William Marke. He tells of his birth in Hanwell, Middlesex; he joined the East Sussex Regiment in 1904 and was later a gymnastic instructor attached to the Devon and Cornwall Light Infantry at Bodmin where he met his wife. He writes of his two daughters, one of whom he had not seen.
Intriguingly the fourth recipient of parcels was a Russian soldier, Alex Petrow. Five of the postcards sent in his name convey a printed message in German acknowledging receipt of parcels. A sixth card contains a message of thanks written on Alex Petrow’s behalf by a fellow prisoner.
The cards illustrate the range of goods sent in parcels and convey not only thanks but specific requests. The Russian soldier’s fellow prisoner confirms that “socks and underclothing would be of great comfort – winter is now here and very cold.” William Gothard asked for, and was sent, a French dictionary: “I am endeavouring to master the French Grammar in my spare time.” His parcels also contained a sewing kit and a small heater, for which he later asked for refills. William Marke was appreciative of a spirit lamp. He politely asked for biscuits to be replaced by bread. He even asked for, and was sent, specific physiology and anatomy textbooks “for which you will have to write to the Board of Education.”
In December 1916 came a substantial change. The sending of parcels was formalised. It was no longer open to private individuals to choose items and to send parcels themselves. Parcels were assembled and packed at depots established by organisations such as regimental associations. Margery Swanwick’s role changed from sending items of her own choice to making a regular financial subscription. The document collection includes four letters from organisations concerned with these arrangements.
Two of the prisoners continued to correspond with Margery Swanwick. They regretted the changed arrangements. William Gothard wrote: “the parcels under the new scheme arrive regularly but they are not like the old home ones.” William Marke regretted the loss of a personal link: “the parcels under the new scheme are quite good, although they have not the pleasing effect the ones packed by yourself had. You know we miss those fancy things that we have been used to, which we know has pleased our friend in packing.”
The writers expressed hopes for the future. William Marke was thinking about his Army work after the War: “I am sure [the physiology books] will help me considerably in my branch of the service when the war is finished.” William Gothard’s wife was looking forward to when “this terrible war is over, and he is safe home again.”
Detailed descriptions and transcriptions of the postcards and letters can be seen in the Record Office catalogue under reference D6287/5.
Addendum: Thank you to Roger for his admirable work in transcribing these letters, several of which are in French. We are very grateful.