You may have been hearing lately about the Royal BC Museum’s focus on written letters. With the numbers of us using our phones for texting, our computers and tablets for emailing, it would seem that letter writing as a way of communication and social connection has diminished significantly, so much so that this aspect of our history is being lost. We don’t tend to keep texts and emails for rereading; we delete them. On the other hand, letters are often kept, reread, and tucked away for yet another look. And if we’re lucky, we have an opportunity to read letters written by family members that give us a sense of our family history. We have an opportunity to view the past from different points of view.
If you’ve followed our website for some time, you may have read a set of letters written by a serviceman, Arthur William Hammond; the letters were donated to our museum and gave us insight into his life and times; we learned not only about his time serving his country, but also about his family and their lives. In the process of researching, we found family members who didn’t know about the letters or about one another. We were able to connect them and to send copies of the letters to include with their family histories.
Recently, we received another set of letters dated during the latter part of WWII. Part of this set was actually a group of letters written not by a serviceman, but to a serviceman whose family lived in BC. The letters were written by brothers and sisters, pals from the area he had lived in, as well as a brother who was serving overseas at the time. Clearly they had meaning for him as close to 50 of them were kept and treasured. The recipient of the letters? Pte. Ernest ( Ernie ) Ivany. We can learn a great deal about life here in BC while Ernie was away, the day to day living… We can learn about the concerns family had for him… We can discover who was in his family, where they lived and what they did… We can get a sense of that time in our history, 1945 – 1946.
Let’s look in on Ivany’s time, beginning with January, 1945. The letters take us back and forth from the BC area, Alberta, Manitoba, and overseas… The first letter is from his “pal” Henry, who lived in the Courtenay area. He tells Ernie how busy it is on the farm, ” … milking 11 cows night and morning as our machine went on the bum. The boss milks 13 but doesn’t have any calves to feed & fool with so it makes it about even. During the day we sort potatoes or something. We had 10 acres of spuds in last summer so we have a few to sort. ”
Ernie’s brother, Frank was serving overseas with the army at this time. He wrote a letter to his family on January 2nd. ” … hello everyone at home … just came back from London off our New Year’s leave last night … The underground tubes where they travel from place to place of the city is a magnificent piece of work & they sure travel. While above there are taxis and double decker bus and it’s amazing to see them travel so fast on those narrow streets … On New Year’s Eve 5 mins. to 12 I seen the flash of a V-bomb on the Eastern part of London and it sure gave me a scare when the explosives sounded although we were a long ways from it. ” A few days later, Frank wrote his family once again, “You should see some of these big fortress going over our camp over here. Today and all night they were going steady & the trails of smoke they leave behind them is sure nice. Sometimes you’d think a storm or a cloud was there but it’s all made by these big armadas. ” Later in the month, Frank wrote again, counselling Ernie about his cold. “I hope you’ll get over your cold soon. Be careful about that and keep your feet dry and also your nose clean, Brotherly advice… ” He goes on to tell Ernie about readiness, ” … am fine and a little excited as we are just waiting. We are all set and ready… ”
Ernie’s sister, Frances, lived in Vancouver. In the earliest letter written by her, she tells her brother that, ” Sid & I & another 5 couples went out to North Burnaby to a hall & it was $4.00 a couple & had eats & drinks & dancing. ” In another letter that month, she wrote, ” The street cars went on strike now for almost a week so the car comes in handy, as most of the people are walking to work, or any other place they care to go. In the mornings most of the workers have cars hired & taxis but still many are walking. The army trucks are out picking up soldiers & the same with the Air Force & Navy… sending $5 hoping it will help… ” Toward the end of the month, she wrote with an update about the strike, ” The street cars have finally started up again after a 10 day strike. The strikers were promised a 6 cent raise… ”
Mary, another sister, wrote to Ernie, who was stationed at Wetaskiwin, Alberta. She filled him in on friends in the family’s community ( often called Camp Lister in the letters ) who had signed up, those who had been wounded, and those who were missing. In the same envelope was a letter from his brother John, who informs Ernie that, ” … sent away for our liquor permits as things have changed in regulations, and it’ll take about 2 weeks to get it. Have you got yours yet? ” He goes on to say that, ” … our heifer was $115.00 & the bull $150.00. ” On January 31st, Mary wrote, ” … we have 44 head of cattle … nine head of horses … four big pigs and 15 last fall ones … no young ones yet. ” She also alludes to possible homesickness on Ernie’s part, ” The way you sound, as if you have been away from home almost a year, it’s only a month, but I guess that’s the way it seems to you, home-sick. ”
Ernie’s friend, Steve, talked about celebrating New Years, ” Bob and I went out and picked up a couple of sledge hammers and when the clock struck twelve we started to bang the gas drum … you can imagine what a noise we made. ”
And a letter from Bernice, who lived in Creston, lets us know about the movies at that time, ” … sure are some swell shows in town this week. The Grand is ‘My Buddy’ & ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ & the Tiv has ‘Song of the Open Road’ & ‘The Great Moment’.
As you can see, there’s quite a cross-section of history being shared with Ernie. In my next post, I’ll share the contents of letters written in February and April, 1945. If you live locally, come into the Museum to see some of the letters on display in our Library! And ~ think about doing some letter writing of your own!