Love letters from the Lancashire Archives in Preston

PUBLISHED: 11:51 11 February 2015 | UPDATED: 11:51 11 February 2015

The Map of Love given to a nurse at a military hospital in Whalley

The Map of Love given to a nurse at a military hospital in Whalley

not Archant

From the secretive to the saucy, Lancastrians show they are hot-blooded lovers. As Valentine’s Day approaches, Mairead Mahon steams open some letters from sweethearts

A hand embroidered handkerchiefA hand embroidered handkerchief

The Lancashire Archives in Preston may not be the first place that springs to mind when the topic of romance is mentioned but, for those in the know, it is stuffed full of objects guaranteed to make the heart beat a little faster - everything from love letters written in secret code to hand-drawn maps that show the route to true love.

‘Judging from the gems in our collection, Lancashire must be one of the most romantic counties in England,’ says archivist Keri Nicholson. One of the stars of the collection is a series of letters from the turn of the 20th Century, which arrived in a biscuit tin and detail the whole courtship between Herbert Wilkins and Ethel Ormerod, a young couple from Stacksteads. The path of true love didn’t run smoothly for them, as Ethel’s father objected to Herbert making advances to his daughter.

Many of the letters were written in secret and they were obviously afraid of being discovered as, in one of them, Herbert warns Ethel about just how easily letters can be steamed open and, in another, apologises for the ‘tittle tattle that might be causing anxiety.’

Nonetheless, after six years, love eventually triumphed and, in 1904, when Ethel reached the age of 21 and no longer needed her father’s permission to marry, they wed.

‘What is so lovely about these letters is that they are written in a plain style by everyday folk who talk about their lives and feelings in Lancashire at this period. It’s very nice to have their wedding certificate too,’ says Keri.

Not all the love letters in the archive are written quite so plainly though and one, written about 100 years before Herbert and Ethel began their romance, is in code, albeit one the writer plainly states how to crack: ‘By reading every other line, the true meaning can be found.’

That instruction must have come as a relief to the lady who received it, as some of the lines are, to say the least, less than complimentary, advising the reader that she is ‘a despicable being.’ However, if she held her nerve and did as instructed, every other line declares love for her, culminating when her lover makes a proposal of marriage.

‘I can only imagine that by using this method of paying heed only to alternate lines, the lovers assumed that anyone else reading it would not look too closely and only spot the insults,’ says Keri.

Of course, the collection would not be complete without Valentine’s cards and the archive has some exquisite examples. Most follow the tradition of being unsigned and several are completely hand-made, including one from the early 19th Century which unfolds like a fortune cookie to reveal a verse entreating the lover to ‘banish rivals from your sight’ and be his ‘loving bride.’

‘This must have taken a great deal of time to execute and, as it gives me so much pleasure to unfold it, I can only imagine that the person for whom it was intended must have been delighted with it. Mind you, that might be only wishful thinking on my part, as we simply don’t know who they were, although we are fairly sure that they lived in Colne,’ says Keri.

We do know that a Miss Bibby was the recipient of an slightly later Valentine’s card featuring quite a plump cherub complete with bow and arrow, lovebirds and an emblazoned slogan boldly declaring: ‘Love , Honour and Truth.’ But it is in the handwritten message that we get a glimpse of the admirer’s personal feelings, where he dreams of Miss Bibby being his spouse and he, her Valentine.

This card is a favourite of visitors but it wasn’t until an archivist took on the task of sorting through a huge box of Preston Guild documents that he found it, half hidden under the weight of papers.

Another popular item with visitors is a leather bound autograph book, which belonged to a nurse who served in The Queen Mary Military Hospital in Whalley during the First World War. She made a point of asking soldiers to sign her book and many wrote little love poems or jokes, such as the soldier who declared that, when thinking about marriage, he didn’t care if ‘it rained coconuts’!

However, one solider did care and he drew a detailed map showing all the ‘landmarks’ that littered the course of the River of True Love. He certainly seemed to think it was a rocky road, as places such as Misery Marsh and Valley of Disdain are prominent features. No matter though, once they had all been negotiated, the reward was to land in the Sea of Matrimony.

Matrimony was certainly a goal for many of the young sweethearts in Lancashire and the archive holds an impressive amount of photographs showing happy couples on their wedding day. Hopefully they all went on to enjoy long and successful marriages but in the case of one couple, a Mr and Mrs Ward, we can say with certainty that they did.

‘Not only do we have a wedding photograph of them with Mr Ward looking resplendent in his military uniform, we also have a card that was sent to congratulate them on their silver wedding anniversary. As it declares that love and faith have brought them to this day, I think we can assume that all went well for them’, says Keri.

Another couple who certainly had faith in love was Lawrence and Barbara Thistleton. Lawrence was a band master in Blackpool but the Second World War interrupted their romance and Lawrence eventually became a prisoner of war, enduring dreadful hardship. However, he kept his love alive by embroidering handkerchiefs for Barbara. These beautiful objects are now in the archive where they regularly draw lots of admiration.

Hankies, or at least tissues, might certainly be needed by all Lancashire romantics who pay a visit to these very special archives.

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