When clearing out a family home before lockdown, we discovered many, many interesting things. There were some old children’s books, some wonderful woodworking tools, a wooden wheelbarrow (constructed using some of those wonderful woodworking tools) and three diaries.
The oldest of these was from the 1880s and written in Flemish. We’re still working out how we can get this one translated.
The next one was written in the early years of WWI, by my teenaged great-uncle, a refugee from Brussels living temporarily in England, within walking distance of Harefield, Australia’s hospital base.
The third begins in January 1917 in French and then halfway through, in late 1918, switches to English, includes a (very brief) mention of Armistice Day and continues through to the end of February 1922 when he arrives in Australia.
I’ve discovered a biscuit company that was once the biggest manufacturer of biscuits in teh world, and learned that opera houses were sometimes given over to showings of ‘the pictures’. I’ve discovered that recovering soldiers were grateful for the company of a teenager and his sisters in a ‘normal’ home.
The diary is mostly written with a dip pen, although there are later sections in pencil. There are a couple of images – which I think are copies of political cartoons. The handwriting is beautiful but sometimes hard to decipher. It’s hard to know whether that’s because English is not his native language, and certainly there are some spelling, punctuation and grammar oddities, but sometimes the change in handwriting is showing his emotions. In the sample above, he has just been given approval from his father to travel to Australia and the writing is excited and very easy to read. At other times, when he is sad, or grumpy, the words gallop or fall across the page with letters omitted, capitals dropped and punctuation almost non-existent.
There are sections where it’s clear he feels compelled to write something, anything, and others where he waxes lyrical and includes poetry. There are also times it feels a little uncomfortable to be reading his written-down thoughts.
I never met this great-uncle, although I met his three children in their later lives. I know stories of his later life via them and via my father, his nephew. All my knowledge of him has been filtered through others. This is something quite different.
He was brother to my lovely grandmother, and friend to my soldier grandfather. Through his words, I meet my grandparents as they meet and get to know each other. Ahead in the pages, is the story of their marriage. It’s quite a lot to take in, really. So I’m taking it slowly.