A Lady of Letters

PUBLISHED: 13:57 18 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:08 20 February 2013

A Lady of Letters

A Lady of Letters

Annette Shaw discovers how a correspondence club, started by a group of young women in the sixties, is still going strong nearly half a century later.

A Lady of Letters

Annette Shaw discovers how a correspondence club, started by a group of young women in the sixties, is still going strong nearly half a century later.

Theres something about holding a letter, is how Janet Weatherley from Bridport begins her remarkable story. It has meaning because someone took the time and cared enough to sit down with pen and paper. A chatty letter delivered by the Royal Mail and savoured over a pot of tea cud not b fthr remvd frm txt spk! So imagine the pleasure of friendship arriving, in a pretty folder, once a month for nearly 50 years.

In 1963, during one of the worst winters ever, Janet lived between Blandford Forum and Salisbury. Id not been out of the house for six weeks and I felt so lonely. Then she saw an article in Parents magazine. It was about breaking isolation through letter writing. The editor asked if any readers would like to join a correspondence group to share their philosophy on life. Janet believes over 200 women replied. The magazine then subdivided the applicants into smaller workable circles. We were a hotchpotch of secretaries, nurses and housewives, she recalls with a smile.

When asked about the nature of the correspondence Janet talks about how it felt to be a housewife in the 1960s when the ritual of laying the fire, putting the baby out in the pram, making the beds, peeling the veg, steaming and starching shirts was enough to occupy most of the day.

I remember pouring my heart out, wondering if I was coping as a mum. Id got one baby in the bath, sent a toddler downstairs for a nappy and she screamed back that the chip pan was on fire! All the women had at least two children, and the following month another writer confided that she had a similar crisis of domestic confidence.

This was years before it was acceptable to have a girls night out, so the letters became an emotional safety valve for these young mothers. Although their husbands knew of these literary activities, not all approved and several women were obliged to write whilst their spouses were at work. Finally, in 1973, ten years after the first letters had been sent, they finally all met. Janet tells me it was quite an event. We caused a real stir at a motel on the M1, 14 women ordering their own food and wine and paying the bill. We talked all night, she laughs.

Nearly 50 years later the rules remain unchanged. One person acts as editor on an annual rotation. All letters are submitted direct to her once a month, and she makes a folder with extra pockets for photographs or cuttings of local news. The editor posts the packet to the first member and the commitment is to pass it on within 48 hours.

Central to the success of the circle is that the letters are in complete confidence. The women also agreed at the outset that no one would write about religion or politics. I know this is a long way from Facebook, and the way some people live their lives in a very public way, says Janet. However, I think I speak for all of us in that its the absolute trust we built thats kept the group going and only time grows old friendships.

We are all getting on and sadly were down to seven now, reflects Janet. But throughout a lifetime the letters and the support weve given each other have meant so much. And its not just the friendship aspect. Correspondence spanning that many years provides a unique insight into social history, not to mention the speed with which womens lives have changed, but most of this will be familiar to anyone who can name all The Beatles!

Geographically the women are spread across the country from Newcastle to France, taking in Dorset, Devon and Essex. One member moved to France at the age of 80 to be near her family. Shes currently regaling everyone with tales of French classes, Breton customs and attempts at bi-lingual Scrabble.

Others recommend books; write about singing classes, U3A courses and their grandchildren. Over five decades the group has supported each other through the birth of two babies with Downs syndrome, divorce, death, highs, lows and now older age. Janet is the current editor. These letters are more important than ever. If one of us falters, the others rally round; we keep each other interested in life and living."

At this point my research took an unbelievable twist. Janet was given a book called Can Any Mother Help Me? written by Jenna Bailey, which was published by Faber and Faber in 2007. Originally from Canada, Jenna studied for a Masters in Life History at the University of Sussex. It was here she heard about documents relating to a secret magazine held in the Mass Observation Archive. The result was a book about the Cooperative Correspondence Club (CCC), similar to Janets group, except each contributor wrote under a nom de plume. The biographies include Accidia a lady born in 1918, a prolific writer, who retired to Dorset.

I rang Jenna Bailey in Southern Alberta and had a delightful conversation. She told me her book had even been made into a stage show. Are you near Bridport? she asked. I know that telephone code. I visited the area many times when I went to interview Accidia in Uploders. That was an opportunity too good to miss. After a flurry of transatlantic calls I found myself talking to Accidia myself or Joan Melling as shes called in real life. We covered the poems of Thomas Hardy, his home at Max Gate, her studies at Girton College, Buddhism, he parents cottage in Netherbury, with its mud floors and oil lamps, and her work with Relate in Dorchester which she did until the age of 82. Joan is warm and witty and her letters must have been a joy to read. When the earths crust was cooling, as my children refer to my younger days, she chuckles. We started married life in 1942 with a piano, a frying pan, a moderate wardrobe each and far too many books...

Janet met Joan two days later. Two ladies of letters and a pot of tea, a perfect ending to a remarkable story.

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