Written during the First World War, Sergeant AC Gray’s letters and stories to his young daughter Joan are beautifully tender and vivid documents penned during a time of great hardship. Alice Millard, Archives and Exhibitions Officer at Littlehampton Museum, tells us more
These letters were purchased at auction in 1994, and although they have been on display once before I only came across them recently when we were setting up an exhibition of folk art here at Littlehampton Museum.
more like this
They are wonderful because he was an untrained artist making these lively sketches and stories with these delightful characters Bunty and Marmaduke for his young daughter, Joan, at a time when he must have been under a lot of pressure.
We don’t have anything biographical on him, but what we do know comes from studying the letters.
He came from Littlehampton and was stationed at Seaford Military Camp, which was huge – it virtually doubled the population of Seaford in the First World War. If you look at the self-portrait he made for Joan he has three chevrons on his arm and a red cross which we think makes him a sergeant in the Medical Corps.
We know the camp dominated Seaford at the time and was designed to house approximately 18,000 men between two camps. As a result there were a lot of men all mixed together – there was a lot of violence and it must have been a tough place to be.
“You can really imagine him sitting down at the end of the day to write them”
Essentially it was a training facility for Kitchener’s Army before they went over to the trenches of the Western Front, but it was like a mini town with a hospital.
He mentions the hospital in his letters and talks of two cases of sleeping sickness, which was quite an epidemic. Although it was not quite as bad as the great influenza epidemic, it’s possible that troops brought it back and he had to deal with the cases in Seaford.
But he doesn’t go into a lot of detail in his letters, they are mostly for young Joan to be amused by and you can really imagine him sitting down at the end of the day or when he finished his shift to write them.
They are very touching to read; this little girl’s dad has gone away and even though at this time it’s not abroad it was still quite a traumatic experience at Seaford – there are quite a few hundred Commonwealth War Graves there. So it’s remarkable that he managed to find the time to pick up bits of notepaper and produce these wonderful images and stories for her.
He wrote little episodes confined to one or two letters and from them you can see that he came home periodically. He would set the stories up to be continued when he came home, writing “I’m sure you’d like to hear more when I see you next.”
What comes through very strongly is that it’s a very loving relationship. You think of Sergeants during the First World War as quite hardened people – but he’s very warm and the way he writes to Joan is very simple. They are definitely meant for her rather than for his wife to read and then pass on. There is a postcard to his wife Amy, with a drawing of a row of cats called the awkward squad, but for Joan he uses simple language and tells her about the adventures of Bunty and Marmaduke.
“They have evidently been looked after and treasured”
He also pinpoints crucial seasons throughout the year when he’s not going to be home, like Bonfire Night, but I think he was one of the lucky ones who got home occasionally.
In one of the letters to Joan he says “ask mummy to get a scrapbook so you can paste them into it”, but there are no marks on them so they have evidently been looked after and treasured.
As a result they are well preserved and the colours are wonderfully vivid, with beautiful handwriting – presumably so his daughter could read it. But that means we can read them too without much difficulty, which is what makes them so engaging and lively.
The date range is tricky but we have found a date to 1915 and in one letter he uses a piece of notepaper with NACB on it which stands for Navy Army Canteen Board, which was set up to run the canteens for the military in 1917.
He could well have then gone abroad after that, but that’s something we would like to find out.
We know the family lived at 41 Maxwell Road in Littlehampton, which is an Edwardian terrace with wooden arched porches and bay windows, and you can definitely imagine him living there, in the middle of Littlehampton near the railway station.
The family lived in a neighbourhood where there would have been plenty of other men who had gone to war, so they wouldn’t have been on their own as a family, experiencing it.
At the moment they are however a bit of a mystery. We would love to get to the bottom of who the family was because although we can do some basic research to find out his military record it would be nice to find out if he has any surviving family.
But in comparison to others I think the family would have had – although it’s a terrible phrase in many ways – a good war. We know Sergeant Gray definitely made it through because in the collection there is Joan’s autograph book and in it is a peaceful image of a woodland scene, which is dated 1926. Underneath it says “Daddy”.
Work to identify the family is ongoing. If you have any information about Sergeant Gray, his daughter Joan or his family, get in touch with Alice Millard at email@example.com
Alice Millard was speaking to Richard Moss.
Littlehampton, West Sussex
Littlehampton Museum is in the heart of the town centre and offers a fascinating insight into the community’s social history through a variety of exciting galleries, many with audio points and interactive elements to help guide you through the history of the town. Admission and helpful advice is all FREE…