(These letters were received by First Officer Elizabeth Rendell while she was serving in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (or Wrens) during the Second World War, and are now held in the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London. Her replies have not been found and presumably do not survive)
White Horse Farm
12th September 1939
Here I am safe in the country! A long journey, two different trains and then a bus and finally a farm cart, but I didn’t lose any of the children and I saw them all off to their billets before taking the last one for myself. Please find my new address at the top. It's a lovely dairy farm, lots of cows and chickens and things, and the farmer is called Mr Beaumont. Not sure what I think of him yet, I don’t think he likes me being here much. But here I am so he’ll have to get used to it.
We're sharing the school with the local children so I only have to teach in the mornings and then I'm free the rest of the day, so I've been helping on the farm, it's hard work but such fun! You should see me digging over the vegetable patch and rummaging around in the straw for eggs. I want to help with the milking but I haven't managed to wake up early enough yet! Despite the noisy cockerel under my window. Did you know they crow all day not just at dawn? I didn't and I thought this one was faulty. But it isn't, just loud. I've told everyone my sister is a Wren and they're all very impressed. Do you have a photograph of yourself in uniform yet? I'm sure you look so smart, blue always did suit you.
Your loving sister,
White Horse Farm
20th September 1939
Has it only been a week since I last wrote, it seems like so much longer! But quicker too because I have been so busy. In the mornings I have to feed the hens and find the eggs, then breakfast and I have to try and tidy myself up ready for school. It’s about a twenty minute walk and such a lovely one, along lanes and over stiles and there’s always fun things to see, birds and flowers and once I saw a rabbit. Although I can’t stop too long or I’ll be late for school. My children are all in one class which is a bit tricky and goodness knows what they get up to in the afternoon but I think it is good for them, the fresh air and being able to run about as much as they want, don’t you think? I feel like it’s good for me! Mr Beaumont says it won’t be such a nice walk when autumn comes in properly and it is cold and wet. In the afternoon sometimes I go for a walk or there is always something I can do to help him. He would hate to see me write this but he is struggling to keep the farm running by himself, there used to be three men here and he has a bad knee (that’s why he didn’t get called up). But even if I do some of the housework it helps him I think. He’s stopped complaining that I’ve moved his things or that I’m spoiling his dog (I don’t feed it, I just give it lots of hugs and strokings, it’s such a lovely big woofety dog).
He did tell me off for listening to the wireless while I was cooking yesterday though! Said it was too loud and he didn’t like the music. Though I’m sure I heard him whistling it in the stable later on.
I didn’t tell you about my room. It’s at the back of the house and under a bit of the slope of the roof which makes it seem extra cosy. The window looks out over the fields and I can see all the cows, standing around doing cow things. Mainly making cow pats for me to step in. I have a big bed with huge brass knobs on the corners and a patchwork quilt that is going to holes, every night I think I must sew it up and then I forget about it until the next night. But it is still quite warm though it is true it is only September yet.
I hope it is warm where you are. I know you can’t tell me where that is. But I think about you all the time and hope you are safe.
Your loving sister,
White Horse Farm
1st October 1939
Thank you so much for your letter! Don’t worry about it being short, I shall treasure it all the same. A lot of it was censored but it was still wonderful to hear from you. You asked a question but I’m afraid I cannot answer it...you asked about Mrs Beaumont but there isn’t one! You said ‘please don’t tell me you’re living alone with a man’ but it is too late! I have been here two weeks so my reputation is ruined anyway. I’m joking, no one here is bothered about it. I am the teacher so I am the epitome of respectability and the farmhouse is quite big so there is plenty of room for us to rattle around in. Did I tell you when Mr Beaumont collected me from the village hall on the first night he thought I was a schoolgirl? Because I’m so little. But now he says I make up for it how much noise I make. I think he is getting used to me though and now we are friends. He says he likes to be by himself but I think when he is alone ALL the time he gets a bit melancholy.
His knee is because of a childhood injury. I asked so he told me about it and was complaining about his bad luck, I think he feels it keenly that he is stuck here while every other young man in the village is off fighting. He asked why I didn’t join up like you, so I told him I was going to but then we had to organise the evacuation so here I am. Sometimes I still think about it but then who would look after the farm? There were supposed to be some land girls coming but no one yet. I’m a part-time land girl I suppose. I told Christopher yesterday that he wouldn’t be able to manage without me and I thought he’d scoff but he didn’t, he said maybe I was right.
Anyway it’s time to go and shut the hens in their coop for the night to keep them safe from the naughty foxes, until later I remain,
Your loving sister,
19th October 1939
Well now autumn is properly here and Mr Beaumont was right, the walk to school is not quite so pleasant! I had to buy some new boots because the thick mud in the lanes was quite ruining my shoes. My raincoat is still good though and that’s just as well. But we have had some lovely autumn days though, all the leaves are turning. You seem to notice the seasons more here. I bet spring will be lovely.
All right, maybe I do call him Christopher. And I told him not to call me Miss Rendell, it seems so silly to be so formal when we share a breakfast table! But now he just avoids calling me anything, when he calls me Anna he blushes. Yes he’s older than me but possibly not as much as you think, he’s more like your age. But imagine he’s 75 if it helps. Anyway he’s a perfect gentleman and has never done a single thing to make me feel uncomfortable about living here with him.
Well except yesterday when he came in while I was in the kitchen and asked if I knew how to make rabbit pie, and I said I thought I could manage, and he put a rabbit he’d shot on the table and it still had all its skin and ears on and everything! I nearly shrieked. Then he rolled his eyes at me and called me a city mouse, but he did skin and clean it while I made the pastry. I used the leftover pastry to make jam tarts, do you remember how Cook used to let us do that when she made a pie? And he rolled his eyes at that too but someone keeps eating them and it isn’t me.
What else for news….the barn cat had kittens and I named them, Tabitha, Dusky, Midnight and Ginger. Christopher says Tabitha is a boy cat but it’s too late now. None of the other cats have names, or the cows or the chickens. I’m not allowed to name the chickens because one day they might be dinner. But I’m going to name all the cows.
PS don’t you think it funny? How when we were little we thought we’d grow up to be ladies of leisure with rich husbands and silk gowns and now you’re off swanning about with sailors and I’m looking after hens. I haven’t told Christopher my father was a baronet, it seems almost hilariously irrelevant when I’m weeding the vegetable patch
White Horse Farm
1st November 1939
I meant to write yesterday but I had so much sewing to do, not just finally fixing the patchwork quilt (it gets so cold in my bedroom now I could feel the wind whistling through every hole) but also letting out my skirts, I’m glad I made them with good seams! You would not recognise me my cheeks are so rosy and I’ve definitely got stronger, when I got here I could only lift the chicken feed bucket with both hands but now I can carry it easily in one. Not sure if it’s the fresh air or the exercise or just getting enough to eat for once! Everyone grows their own food and keeps chickens, I have an egg for breakfast every day if I want one.
And most of my children are thriving, it’s so lovely to see! Although some are still very homesick. Thomas Edmunds got a letter from his mother last week and he cried all morning at school. Sometimes I miss living in London, if I want to go to the pictures here I have to take a bus to Worthing and it takes nearly an hour! But there is no one in London for me so I might as well stay here.
I wish you could meet Christopher. I think you and he would really get on.
White Horse Farm
10th November 1939
Well I have nothing to do but write but not much to write about as I have managed to damage myself, I’ve sprained my ankle and can’t do much of anything except sit here with my foot on another chair. It’s very irritating and of course I can think of a hundred things I would rather be doing or that need doing.
All I did was try and climb out of the pig pen, I dropped my scarf in there and I climbed over the fence rather than go round to the gate, which is held together with a piece of rope and I’m not good at doing the knots back up, one time the pig got out, so I climbed in and got my scarf, then when I was climbing out again I sort of tripped on the top bar and my foot got caught and I wrenched it as I fell. And I landed in a big puddle, of course, and I might have screamed so Christopher came running and he had to carry me into the house. I can’t put any weight on it and also I can’t get my boot on so I can’t go outside anyway. Christopher had to take my boot off and strap my ankle up.
I thought he would tease me about it but he didn’t, he just pointed out that we both have the same bad leg now (the left) and he made me a cup of tea and fetched my writing things and my knitting. And he found me my favourite cat to sit on my lap so I wouldn’t be lonely. Then he muttered something about the drainage in the lower field and left.
I should knit while he’s not here, because I’m making him a Christmas present, I know it’s a way off yet but I’m being organised for once! I’m making him a new hat because his old one is just one big darn pretty much. I only have red wool so I hope he likes it.
Don’t be so ridiculous.
PS My ankle is much better, thank you.
White Horse Farm
21st November 1939
I’m sorry, that was rude of me. Hopefully you’ll get this at the same time as the last one (I got your last three letters all on the same day). But, oh dear. Let me explain.
Miss Hope, the headmistress at the school here, well there’s only two teachers plus me but she’s in charge and she calls herself the headmistress, well a few days ago she pulled me aside before class and asked how I was getting on living at the farm, and I said everything was fine. And she asked how I get on with Mr Beaumont and I said fine. And then she started insinuating all these things, pretending she cared about my reputation but just really being awful, saying that she’d seen how he looked at me and how I talked about him and she just didn’t want me to get into a Bad Situation, and it was horrible. I was so happy and settled and now it’s awful. I went home later on and I could barely look at him! And he asked what was wrong and I couldn’t say and now everything is weird and awkward and ruined.
And it isn’t like that, it really isn’t. We’re just, comfortable together. It isn’t anything like it was with Henry, though that turned out to be a disaster so maybe it’s not a good way to measure these things. I don’t know.
Miss Hope said maybe I should go and stay with someone else but I don’t want to. I won’t. I’m fine here. And the chickens would miss me.
2 The Cottages
10th December 1939
I’m so sorry I haven’t written but so much has happened! New address at the top but don’t worry if you write to the farm I will still get it. I had to move out for a while but I’m going back! No you know what I’m going to tell you the WHOLE STORY then I will tell you the BIG NEWS
No I can’t not write it I’ll explode
I’M GETTING MARRIED!!!
So anyway let me start at the beginning.
There was a Christmas party at the village hall, a dance, and Christopher didn’t want to go but I made him because there are hardly any men, we needed all of them even if he sat at the side (I wasn’t planning to let him sit at the side but I had to get him there first). So we walked into the village, we didn’t take the cart so the horse wouldn’t have to stand, and I’d decided to ignore everything that interfering old biddy had said and we just talked and it was like old times.
The dance was fun, I mainly ended up dancing with the other women but it was still good! There were a few older men, and Christopher, and a couple of older schoolboys. We danced and everyone had brought food and we had a good time. Then Christopher and I walked back home again. It was very dark and at one point I stumbled in the ditch so he grabbed my hand, and he didn’t let go, we just walked along (slowly, his knee was bad) holding hands and I started to think, okay, maybe Miss Hope had a point. But I didn’t care.
Anyway we got back and we took off our boots and coats and then we were just standing there, smiling at each other, and I thought, he’s going to kiss me. I was so sure he was going to kiss me but he didn’t, after a minute he just cleared his throat and said ‘Goodnight Miss Rendell’ (he hasn’t called me Miss Rendell in weeks, MONTHS) and then he went past me upstairs.
So I didn’t know what to think! I hadn’t thought much about his kissing me but after that I couldn’t think of anything else, I just kept thinking about it and why he hadn’t and I didn’t sleep for a long time.
The next morning he was already up and out before I got up and the cup of tea he’d left me was stone cold so it had been a while. It was Saturday so no school so I did my chores and tidied up a bit then I decided to go and find him.
And he was in the barn looking for something. He looked cross when he saw me and I thought he was annoyed with me so I went to walk away then I saw him wince when he put his left leg down so I knew his knee was just hurting him, and that was my fault for making him go out the night before, so then I felt bad again. He asked me if everything was all right and I said yes. But then I heard myself say, I thought you were going to kiss me last night. I tried to laugh a bit like it was a joke but then he said ‘I wanted to’ and I looked at him and the expression in his eyes made me stop stock still. I said, so why didn’t you. And he said, ‘because you’re you, you’re too pretty and clever and special to be a farmer’s wife’.
And I said ‘oh’ and then before I knew it I was kissing him, and he was kissing me, and it was wonderful, and it took me a few minutes to think, was that a proposal? And did I accept it? But I didn’t care, Els, I really didn’t. He had his arms round me and I felt warm, properly warm, for the first time in months.
So now I’m staying with Mr & Mrs Pentwhistle, a lovely elderly couple, for a few weeks while we sort out the wedding and everything. I’m so sorry to do it when you won’t be able to come but I couldn’t wait, I spend every spare minute at the farm but I can’t live there at the moment until we’re married.
So next time you see me I’ll be Mrs Beaumont. Can you believe it? I can’t! But I’m so happy, Elizabeth. I don’t have a ring yet but he gave me a necklace that was his mother’s, a family heirloom, it’s like a crescent moon made out of gold, I think it might be very old. I haven’t taken it off since he gave it to me.
I’m so happy.
Your loving sister,
2 The Cottages
3rd January 1940
I hope you had a good Christmas! Mine was small but good, I am still with the Pentwhistles but Christopher came over for Christmas dinner and we went for a walk but it was very cold so we didn't stay out long! And he had to get back to the farm of course. We should be married next week and I can't wait! I know some old ladies have been muttering because we organised everything so quickly, saying we had to get married, but they will be proved wrong so I don't care.
The weather really is bitter. I gave Christopher his new red hat but I have adopted it back again and am working on a new one for him.
Mrs Pentwhistle has very kindly said that I can wear her veil, she had it in a trunk in her spare room, so that is my something borrowed and something old. I will wear my green suit but I just finished sewing a blouse so I will put that to one side as something new. What do I have that's blue?
A bit funny actually as of course we had to go and talk to the vicar about the banns and he asked my parents’ names and Christopher nearly fell off his chair when I said my father’s name was Sir Alfred Rendell. Possibly should have mentioned it earlier. As we were walking back to the farm for tea he started making noises about it but I pointed out that our father had no sons so the baronetcy (did I spell that right?) is done with, and goodness knows there’s no money, so it doesn’t make any odds. All the good it did me was that I had the education to become a teacher to fend off starvation once the estate was settled.
And yes, I’ve told him about Henry. All of it, even the worst part. I thought about keeping it to myself but I didn’t want there to be any secrets (look what happened to Tess - though I escaped her fate thank goodness, more by luck than good judgement. But let’s draw a veil etc and be glad I found a more decent man than Angel Clare, all in the past now and I hope HW gets shot down and tortured) (I don’t really) (maybe a little bit). ANYWAY Christopher said he didn’t mind if he wasn’t the first as long as he was the last and I thought that was very sweet.
He told me some things about his own family too that I think he was worried would put me off but it just made me want to marry him MORE. I was about to write, I’ll tell you it all when I see you, but heaven knows when that will be so I’ll write it to you another time. Right now I have to
White Horse Farm
11th January 1940
Elizabeth I'm so sorry, I completely forgot I hadn't finished this letter! I wonder what I had to do. Everything has been so busy with the wedding and moving and getting things sorted out now I am the Lady of the House. Can you believe I'm a married woman? I can't! It all seems unreal. But wonderful.
There were some little blue flowers in my bouquet, I forget what they were called, that was the something blue. And snowdrops which made me think of you, though of course I thought of you anyway. Mr Pentwhistle gave me away, he insisted, bless him, he said I was being married out of his house so it was his job to do.
And I have half-forgiven Miss Hope for the unkind things she said, she had arranged for all my children to come in specially in the afternoons in secret so they could learn a song and they sang it to us outside the church and held up boughs as an arch, well, they were more like sticks but I know boughs was intended! My fault for getting married in January. I am going to carry on at the school, there is no one to replace me if I leave and it still leaves me plenty of time in the day to do, well, all the things I was doing when I lived here before!
Speaking of which I have to go and make dinner for my husband (!!)
Your loving sister,
Anna Beaumont (Mrs)
PS Though Miss Hope did say today, about me staying on at the school, that of course I would have to stop when I had a family to think about, and I said cheerfully ‘oh that won’t be for a year or two I imagine’ because of course she is expecting me to have a baby within the next 6 months and I won’t, and Miss Fawcett was laughing behind her hand, it was so funny
PPS Miss Fawcett is the other teacher she’s ever so nice
White Horse Farm
12th May 1943
My dear Mary,
Well here I am down on the farm, a bit of a shock to the system to be sure! My brother-in-law met me at the bus stop in the village and I confess I was a little apprehensive as I climbed into the dusty farm cart, Anna has always had a tendency to get into scrapes and I did start to wonder whether this was another; but I'm glad to say I couldn't have been more wrong. She is absolutely in her element here and couldn't be happier.
As I suspected I missed her last letter while we were at sea; the new baby has been here two weeks now, a little girl and they have called her Violet Elizabeth. Anna has asked me to stand as her godmother but I do not know if I will be in the country when she is christened unfortunately. As I will only be here a few more days there isn't time to do it before this leave is over.
My nephew Peter is a very solemn little fellow, he is just two-and-a-half and doesn't say much but you can tell he is taking everything in. The first afternoon I was here he climbed into my lap and handed me his copy of Peter Rabbit, and by now I swear I have read that blessed book a hundred times and could probably recite it in my sleep. Next time I'm near a bookshop I shall buy him Benjamin Bunny.
And no, I have not had to ‘muck in’ as you put it! There are two land girls who come by every day, and between them and Mr Beaumont they get all the work done. If I keep Peter out of mischief and help Anna around the house then I am being as useful as I can be. It is quite fortuitous that my leave was granted when it was, with the new baby naturally taking up a lot of her mother’s time, I am not much of a housewife but I can manage to stir a casserole or darn a sock. I am trying to get everything in order as much as I can before I leave but it doesn't last. Well, I'm sure they will muddle through without me!
Oh dear, there is someone at my knee with his Beatrix Potter. Silent but big blue eyes are watching me. I had better say goodbye for now.
Yours and see you soon,
(and Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter)