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Emotional letters will reveal heartbreak of World War One widows


Jan 28, 2017

The personal torment of women who lost loves ones during World War One will be publicly presented for the first time as part of a unique history project.

Dr Roisin Higgins, a Senior Lecturer in History at Teesside University, has been leading a project to digitise scores of recently discovered letters that were written by women during the war.

The letters were originally found at Ormesby Hall in Middlesbrough and had been sent to Mary Pennyman, whose husband’s family then owned the property. She wrote back to the women, offering words of comfort and advice.

Dr Higgins received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and has been working to make the letters available online and uncover the stories of the women who wrote them.

The emotional letters from widows and mothers will be read out by members of Middlesbrough Little Theatre at an event at Ormesby Hall. ‘Dear Mrs Pennyman’ takes place on Monday 30 January, from 4.30pm to 6.30pm and is free to attend. You can book a place by calling 01642 324188, or email ormesbyhall@nationaltrust.org.uk.

As well as offering financial and practical advice in the letters, Mary Pennyman, whose own husband was fighting in the war, offered the women comfort and the chance to speak about their sons and husbands – the accounts provide a personal insight into the loss they experienced and the struggles they were faced with.

One woman, Kate Steward from Hartlepool, lost two sons in the war and wrote to Mary Pennyman: “I feel heartbroken as they were good sons to me and their mother was their first and last thought.”

Mrs Watson of Barnsley, whose husband died in the war, wrote to tell of the death of her little girl: “She was only bad three days but oh did she suffer – I really cannot get her out of my head.”

The letters are housed at Teesside Archives but the HLF project has created an online platform so people can see the letters first hand at www.dearmrspennyman.com. The next phase of the project will uncover the stories behind the women who wrote the letters.

Dr Higgins said: “It has been very special organising an event in Ormesby Hall as this is where the letters were found. We are hoping to convey to the audience a sense of the content of the letters as well as to reveal aspects of the life of Mary Pennyman herself.

“The event is also a great example of collaboration between a number of local organisations including Teesside University, Teesside Archives, the National Trust at Ormesby Hall and Middlesbrough Little Theatre Company.”

By Emily