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Snippets Of Life Revealed In Scripts

BY: LESTER THORLEY

PUBLISHED: WAIKATO TIMES 29 APRIL 2006, P.D7


16335.jpgLester Thorley learns about some international links to Hamilton through letters written decades ago.

What do Winston Churchill, World War I soldier Alexander May, and 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow have in common? Very little, in fact, except that letters they wrote are stored in Waikato Museum's basement archives. In protective folders or acid-proof paper, correspondence from all manner of people on all sorts of topics awaits the chance to bring poignancy to a museum exhibition.

The museum's social history concept leader Crystal Ardern says letters and the like may lack aesthetic appeal, but "the content can stir up a lot of emotion". Many give a fascinating insight into the past: "They are one of my favourite things in the collection. You can sit down and read them for hours."

Churchill's yellowing 1958 letter _ written seven years before he died, aged 90 _ is typed but hand signed. It was sent to Mr K Wilson, president of the Chartwell Ratepayers' and Citizens' Association, who had written for permission for a new suburb to be named after Churchill's home. It was donated to the museum by the city council in 1974.

Ardern found this little-known piece of Hamilton history while on another search. In it, England's legendary wartime prime minister says how honoured he is by the request. "I am very glad to give my agreement", he goes on to say, before offering "all my good wishes".

A box labelled Alexander May collection contains numerous delightful items donated in 1998 by Tom and Lenore Prowse of Te Awamutu on behalf of the May family _ from a 1918 Mother's Day book, to post cards sent by his sister to the front line in France, and embroidered cards May sent in return. One gives a good hint of the soldier's personality: "Well Violet, when are you going to find something to write about, you little minx. Fatten them rabbits up well for I want some rabbit stew when I get back."

Ardern clearly enjoyed wading through the items. "His letters almost invariably start off `Just a few lines to let you know... ', and are signed `Love, your Soldier Son, Alex xxxx'."

She says the box includes sweet notes - usually from the official "somewhere in France" - to his sisters asking how things are on the farm, at school, how the cats are. May wrote of nights in the trenches being "cold as blazes". In a letter shortly after Armistice Day, he wrote: "Well, I suppose you heard the welcome news that old Jerry has turned in at last. The froggies nearly went mad with joy, parading the streets with flags and kicking up a great hulla-ba-loo."

The museum has a delightful collection of 1960s telegrams - with colourful images of pohutukawa and coastline, or manuka flowers and a butterfly on them. They are 60th and 65th wedding anniversary missives from Prime Minister Keith Holyoake and more importantly Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, to Mr and Mrs W C Gaylard of Hamilton. They were donated by the couple in 1969. From 42 Buckingham Palace Pl, the Queen's private secretary intoned in February 1967: "The Queen is much interested to hear that you are celebrating the sixty-fifth anniversary of your wedding and sends you warm congratulations and good wishes."

An oddity in the archives is the 1855 Longfellow letter to a Mr George B Allen. It was donated by Mrs C Smyth in 1969. In flowing handwriting and flowery language, Longfellow thanks Allen for sending musical compositions based on his poetry. But as with some of the museum's other ephemera, nothing else is known about it, the recipient, or how it ended up in the Waikato. For now, they are simply footnotes to history.