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Tribulations of the First World War

A small bundle of letters discovered in the Lowestoft strongroom recently throw an interesting light on family life and business in Southwold and Halesworth during, and immediately after, the First World War. [Reference: 2534/1/1-3]

The correspondence is between Frederick Richard Hunter (1865-1939) and his sister Alice Margaret Clark née Hunter (1869-1942). Frederick and Alice were born in Poplar, London, being two of the many children born to Mary Ann and Robert Hunter, a house carpenter.

In the early 1900s after Frederick’s marriage to Minnie Mary Sarfas in 1890, he and his wife moved to Southwold where, as a civil engineer and electrician, he set up the town’s electricity works. Later moving to Halesworth where he set up another company, The Halesworth Electricity & Engineering Works, located on Wissett Road, Halesworth. Alice, meanwhile, remained in London with her husband James and their two daughters, Alice Margaret (b.1894) and Elsie Kathleen (b.1901).

Frederick’s business of supplying electricity to subscribers in Halesworth was costly to run and he had to borrow money from his sister, Alice, on a number of occasions in order to keep it solvent. In his letters to Alice, covering the period 1916 to 1923, there is a fascinating insight into his trials and tribulations trying to keep his business running which were compounded by problems brought about by the First World War. In March 1916 he tells his sister that “. . . progress is slow owing to scarcity of labour. . .”

Later that year Frederick writes “. . . there has been only Bert and me to do everything . . . my great trouble is that Bert has to go for military service in January . . .”. Frederick tells of how he went before the Tribunals in order to have Bert exempted from conscription. He writes scathingly about the Tribunal Boards with whom he argued his case, “. . . I fought the Tribunals as hard as I could but the fat, well-to-do bounders round the table who have made their pile claim him and don’t trouble if I am smashed . . .”

In February 1918 Frederick expresses his concern over his sister’s safety after hearing about air raids on London, and his concerns over food shortages, adding “. . . and everything is terribly up in cost now . . . . when I do come up [to see her in London] I shall have to bring my own grub I expect . . .”

The ‘flu epidemic of 1919 seems to also affected Frederick, although he seems to have escaped it “. . . beyond a slight turn or two which I have recovered from in a very short time . . .”. He goes on to tell his sister who is very ill with ‘flu, that his only employee is off with ‘flu and that he is left “. . . entirely alone to carry on the concern [it] has nearly wiped me out. About a fortnight ago I had the first evening off (2½ hours) for over three months . . . by gum haven’t I got thin, there’s hardly anything left but clothes!”

However, Frederick’s perseverance paid off in the long run and by his last letter dated November 1923 he has been able to buy ex-government generators to increase his business, saying “. . . the result is that we are chock full of work and laying on to fresh consumers continually. To satisfy the loud demands for supply I have had to start a fresh wireman . . .”

Another file of correspondence in this collection consists of letters from Frederick’s sister Alice to her two daughters, written while she was staying with her brother at Southwold in 1916 and later from Halesworth while recovering from ‘flu.

In a letter to her eldest daughter written on 11 August 1916, she makes reference to Zeppelin raids, writing “. . . talk about Zeppelins, we had two here. On Monday evening I went to the front door as usual at about 9.30 and hearing a great humming sound I thought it was uncle’s works making extra noise. Soon after auntie came out and said ‘That’s a Zeppelin’. Of course we all turned out and then presently we heard two and saw 20 bombs drop. Poor Elsie was very frightened and wished we had gone home with you. We put all lights out and had a candle in the corner of the room. We stayed outdoors till after midnight and Elsie and I went to bed in our clothes. Bertie heard four more bombs drop at 1.30. He and uncle went to Lowestoft yesterday and say the damage is terrible. They say there were four more [Zeppelins] out yesterday but I did not hear any thing of them and don’t want to . . .”.

Ivan Bunn

Searchroom Assistant

Lowestoft Record Office