World War II letters published in The Chronicle-Express inspire new book
PENN YAN – A few years ago, Rich MacAlpine, a volunteer with the Yates County History Center, was doing research in old issues of The Chronicle-Express between 1936 through 1942. He was preparing an article on the mood of the Yates County community in the years before Pearl Harbor and then the local reaction to the Japanese attack. MacAlpine kept running across letters published in the paper that were written by a woman in England to her cousin in Penn Yan. Ignoring them at first and focusing on his topic, he finally took the time to read one.
A headline in the paper caught his eye: “Letters From Sheffield to Penn Yan Reveal Life in England During War.” The letter, written on June 9, 1940, reads: “Today is a day of national thanksgiving for the evacuation of the B.E.F. (British Expeditionary Force) from Dunkirk. It really does seem to have been divine intervention during those anxious days, for the English Channel is notorious for its weather and rough crossings and yet the sea was smooth enough for rowing boats and even a canoe to cross and recross rescuing our men, placed in such awful plight by ex-King Leopold. A man with a canoe crossed and back three times, each time with one man in it. It was all he had to offer in the way of a boat and he went himself and saved three men’s lives. That was a wonderful piece of bravery. Everything that could float nearly was offered to the navy and there were thousands of yachts, fishing cobbles, and rowing boats besides the naval vessels, merchant navy ships, tugs, trawlers, etc. The miracle of such small craft safely plying back and forth from Britain to Dunkirk, over and over again, is comparable with the drying up of the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to pass over when pursued by Pharoah’s armies - and so today Britain is returning thanks for another miracle.”
From that point on, MacAlpine looked for the letters in the paper, eventually going back to the earlier ones that he had passed over. He compiled them, and the result is "Letters From the Blitz: Telling America the Truth About the British Experience of War." It was published by The History Press in the UK, and has been selling well over there since August of 2020. It was made available in this country in January of this year.
It turns out that there were excerpts from 150 letters published in The Chronicle-Express between April of 1940 and January of 1943. The recipient of the letters was Jane Beaumont, who lived on Clinton Street in Penn Yan. Her husband was Charles Beaumont, who ran an insurance business in Penn Yan (later Beaumont & Stork). Jane was quite active in the community, serving on boards for the Guertha Pratt Home and Soldiers & Sailors Hospital. She was also president of the Yates County Genealogical & Historical Society at the time she was having the letters from England published in the local paper.
The letter writer was Winifred Graville, who lived not far from the city center of Sheffield, England. She and Jane Beaumont were distant cousins who connected through their common interest in family history and had been exchanging letters since the mid-1930s. Winifred was in her mid-50s and was considered to be quite an expert on gardening and horticulture, having published articles and lectured on those topics. According to the Bulletin of the Rotary Club of Sheffield, she was "a born speaker with a lively sense of humour and of a ready wit. Miss Graville's reputation is such that the City of Sheffield has entrusted her with the creation of an Old World Garden, which will be one of the sights of the city.”
The question arose as to why excerpts from 150 of Miss Graville’s letters were published in The Chronicle-Express. MacAlpine assumed that part of the answer was Jane Beaumont’s sense of history and her understanding that these letters would some day have historical import. She was able to convince editor and publisher Sidney Ayres to run the excerpts.
The mood of the vast majority of American people before Pearl Harbor was strictly isolationist and Mrs. Beaumont and Editor Ayres must have felt that people needed to be aware of what England was going through and, as of the fall of France in 1940, the fact that only they stood alone against the might of Hitler’s Germany. Another reason why the two cousins and the editor conspired to run the letters became abundantly clear in reading them. The Nazi propaganda machine was openly spreading misinformation about the war throughout the United States, feeding the isolationist mood by convincing people that Britain was doomed and it would be useless for America to enter the war.
The letters were an attempt to, in a small way, offset that propaganda and convince Americans that Britain’s fight would sooner or later be our fight.
Winifred’s letters were beautifully written, full of humor, pathos and quirky details of everyday life, such as this written at the height of the Battle of Britain, on Oct. 2, 1940: “I am off fish at present. There are so many dead Germans being caught in the fishing nets and washed up on our shores, that I don’t fancy it very much.” Another: “I have just had a ‘gas mask’ made for my canary. He is a very great pet. The ‘gas mask’ is a large glass jar with a screw top and the sort of stuff our masks are composed of fitted into the top so that the air will be freed from poison before he breathes it. I don’t want even a little canary to die in agony with poison gas if I can prevent it. Frankly, I dread gas attacks far more than ordinary air raids. I feel suffocated in the mask, though the doctors fitted mine properly and inspected it a week or two ago to see that it was still functioning all right. I don’t know what anyone would do who had a cold in the head!”
Her most poignant and descriptive letters were written in December of 1940, when the German air force focused their attacks on the city of Sheffield -- the Sheffield Blitz. The city was a center for steel production and manufacturing including parts for Spitfires, the fighter planes used by the Royal Air Force to defend their country. “How is it that I am alive, I cannot understand. Last night we had nine hours continuous bombing at the rate of three a minute. It was terrible. Never shall I forget it. Today I had to go into the city and the scenes I saw were appalling. The bombing was nothing but sheer wanton destruction. No military objectives whatever, simply residential and business districts. The city was a raging inferno at 5 a.m. I slipped out to a vantage point a couple of minutes away. It was a marvelous spectacle, but dreadfully tragic. We dropped into bed at 5:30 a.m. It had been a night of almost unearthly brilliancy, the moonlight was startling clear.”
MacAlpine transcribed all of the letter excerpts that were published in The Chronicle-Express, and used research to provide explanatory notes and provide context between them. The book is available locally at the Yates County History Center and Longs' Cards & Books in Penn Yan, as well as on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in both paperback and digital forms.
This is MacAlpine’s seventh book with a Yates County connection: "Starkey Diaries" (2006), "Yates County Chronicles" (2014), "Steamboats On Keuka Lake" (2015, co-authored with Charles R. Mitchell), "Stories From Yates Past" (2016), "Admiral Frank H. Schofield: A Portrait In Letters Of An American Navy Family" (2016), and "Over There and Over Here: Yates County In the Great War" (2018). "Starkey Diaries" is only sold at the History Center. The others are all available at the History Center, Longs’ Cards & Books, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.