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Wartime letter sparks global hunt for Suffolk schoolboy’s identity

PUBLISHED: 14:07 23 February 2018 | UPDATED: 14:07 23 February 2018

Pupils pictured at Sompting Abbotts Preparatory School in the 1930s. Jim is likely to be one of the older boys in the back rows. Picture: SOMPTING ABBOTTS

Pupils pictured at Sompting Abbotts Preparatory School in the 1930s. Jim is likely to be one of the older boys in the back rows. Picture: SOMPTING ABBOTTS

Archant

The discovery of a wartime letter sent to a former Suffolk school pupil has connected an Australian to his British family.

The letter addressed to 'Jim'. Picture: SOMPTING ABBOTTSThe letter addressed to 'Jim'. Picture: SOMPTING ABBOTTS

Dated, November 22, 1939, and addressed to a boy called “Jim”, the letter was found recently under dormitory floorboards at Sompting Abbotts’ Preparatory School, Worthing.

Signed “From your loving mother”, the letter was sent from an address in Harwich, and gives a vivid account of her experience of the Second World War.

The school recruited researchers to track down the identity of “Jim” - and discovered from the Harwich address he was Donald James Macbride, born in 1926, to Colin and Ivy Macbride.

Further research discovered that Jim had continued his education at Framlingham College, where he remained until 1943, and was known for his shooting prowess. He then signed up to serve his country, serving as a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers in the Middle East, before moving to Australia in 1948 with his family.

Sompting Abbotts enlisted historian Betty Pilgrim and discovered that while Jim had died in 2003, aged 76, in Hobart Tasmania, he had a living relative – Craig Macbride, his 53-year-old son in Melbourne.

“It was a wonderful surprise to learn of the letter’s existence,” he said. “It was a bit of dogged detective work by the school to find me.”

Once in Australia, Jim joined the Royal Australian Engineer and continued to serve his adopted country until retiring as a Colonel and Chief Engineer. In 1977, he received the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal.

Framlingham College published his obituary in 2003, commending his founding of the Melbourne Supper for Old Framlinghamian.

Craig said his father had been “formed by his traditional British schooling”.

“He was a disciplined and hardworking man – very ‘old school’ – who encouraged me to do my best in life,” he added.

“‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,’ he would say. He didn’t speak much about his life as a child during the war in England. I think he wanted to forget it, much as I was interested in it.”

Craig said he was aware life in Britain was difficult after the war.

“I knew my grandparents left for Australia to give my dad a better life,” he said. “But I didn’t know much about what their wartime experiences in Britain were like.

Read the full letter:

4, St. Helen’s Green,

Harwich,

Essex.

November 22nd, 1939

Dearest Jim,

Many thanks for your nice interesting letter. I bet you all enjoyed the lecture on deep-sea diving.

I would love to be able to see the play, darling. I bet you will make a nice girl. I always said you ought to have been my daughter! Is it fun rehearsing?

I went to London on Monday and returned Tuesday about 6 o’clock. When I got back there was a message waiting for me from Mrs. Watson since 2 o’clock, asking me to go to the quay and help her take all the old clothes I could spare, as the Terakuni Maru (a ship Uncle Charles has travelled on) has been mined and sunk just off this shore and they were bringing in the survivors.

Of course I rushed off at once but was too late. They had all been given food and hot drinks and dry clothes and had gone up to London.

We sat down for an evening chat with the Watsons. At 9.15, there were two most terrible explosions. One of our own destroyers struck a mine only about 100 yards from the harbour. They brought in about 140 survivors and Daddy and I stayed all night and helped. We gave them hot tea and soup and biscuits. They were practically naked, just wrapped round in old blankets or any old thing and covered in black oil and shivering cold.

The destroyer HMS Gipsy hit by a mine on 21 November 1939, whose rescued sailors Jim’s mother helped to clothe with Jim’s outgrown Sompting Abbotts’ school uniform.

We put them in dry clothes but we had only got women’s clothes for them except two young lads I helped into some clothes of yours and David’s. One has got a pair of your shoes and a Sompting Abbotts’ flannel shirt and your old flannel coat. It was a tight fit but better than nothing.

Some were badly injured and 25 have gone down with the ship. It was a terrible thing and my heart ached for those poor men. They were so brave; they joked and laughed at one another because they looked so funny in women`s clothes. The state they arrived in was pitiful and their poor bare feet were blue with cold. We only had a few pairs of shoes to give out so most had to remain bare footed. There were about four doctors working on those that were badly smashed up.

During this past week about 500 survivors from sunk vessels have been brought in to Harwich and given clothes, drinks, food, care and attention; not a bad effort. The clothes question is the most difficult. I have written to several friends and asked them to send us all the old clothes that they can spare so that we have a good store of warm dry things in case of emergency.

Well darling, I look forward so much to hearing how the play progresses. I bet you all enjoy doing it.

Heaps of love from Daddy. From your loving Mother

PS Hope you got the skates safely. I sent them from the flat.

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