The Treasure of Len Mortimer

November 2010Len Mortimer postcard

Call it serendipity, call it fate, this was an amazing stroke of luck.

It was created by an article written by a senior archivist reporting on an event jointly organised by Hull City Archives and Oxford University. It was held at The Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull, in May 2008, to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of the ending of The Great War. Amongst the many items submitted by the public that day was a letter by Len Mortimer, sent from the “trenches” to his parents living in Anlaby. A snippet of that “heartbreaking and patriotic” letter was included in the senior archivist’s report, and published in the “Banyan Tree” (The quarterly magazine of The East Yorkshire Family History Society – January 2009)

I believed this letter to be from my grandfather’s elder brother. So I tentatively enquired after the full letter. This timing was unfortunate, as it coincided with the development of the new Hull History Centre, and all queries were kept on hold. Eventually, I was able to make contact with the senior archivist in October 2009, and quite rightly she was not able to disclose the name and address of the person who had submitted the letter, under the Data Protection Act. Undeterred, I wrote a letter to this person and handed it to the senior archivist for redirection. That was a strange experience, writing to someone who could be an undiscovered member of the Mortimer family or a complete stranger.

Len Mortimer had died in 1956, his wife Florence died in 1962, and their only son Colin had died a bachelor in 1986. Len was the eldest of nine children. The three eldest sons Len, Edward (my grandfather) and Matthew, all served in The Great War.

A few weeks later I received a phone call, in response to my letter. That was another strange moment, and amazingly a very productive call. Len’s letter was submitted by a postcard collector, who had absolutely nothing to do with the Mortimer family. The letter was part of a “job-lot” bought at a specialist collector’s auction some twenty years ago, in Barton-on-Humber. At the time the collector hadn’t realised the extent of the Mortimer material. My cousin and I agreed to meet this person the following weekend.

Len Mortimer postcard

To our utter amazement, this collector had brought along two albums of photographs and postcards, probably 400 – 500 in total, and all either sent to or from Len Mortimer, including that fundamental letter. I would imagine there to be sufficient information on the back of the postcards, to write Len’s biography, - if I only had the time. They dated from the late 19th century and featured many family photographs of my grandfather as a young lad with his family, including photographs of his siblings two of whom were to die in infancy. There were postcards from Len’s brothers sent back from the trenches “somewhere in France”. Including one from his younger brother, Matthew dated August 1917, which was probably one of the last to be received, as he died from his wounds at Ypres, in October that same year. A harrowing photograph of my grandfather produced as a postcard and sent home from France, (I recognised his handwriting before the image, as this had hardly altered right up to his death in 1974).

It was an overwhelming and very emotional moment for the collector, my cousin, and myself. We were able to put some names and history to a few of the faces. But the shear volume of material was incredible and daunting. I imagine that this collection is valuable, but to the Mortimer family it was worth is beyond any monitory value. I am very proud of all members of my paternal and maternal families. I admire their achievements and particularly, their spirit and fortitude at enduring all the hardships and devastation that the centuries threw at them including, Wars. As my family research deepens into the 18th and 19th centuries, I empathise with their very existence that became more precarious. These photographs and postcards, for me provide a tangible link into those hardships, albeit only a ninety-year link.

Len Mortimer Postcard

To the credit of the collector I was allowed to borrow the two albums, and scan onto my computer the photographs and postcards that we could identify and had more significance to us; this was only about 10% of the albums contents. We even showed the albums to the surviving senior members of the Mortimer family, some of who attended Len’s funeral in 1956. Even they couldn’t remember seeing them before, but the photographs did trigger memories and stories for them, which recollected to us with great relish. It brought that generation back to life for me.

It is with great humility and thanks to that senior archivist at Hull History Centre (the catalyst in this discovery), and that collector for their consideration and kindness, that the Mortimer family is the richer for seeing a bygone generation. We can only surmise that all this material found its way onto the collectors market as part of the house clearance after Colin’s death, organised by his beneficiaries who were not members of the Mortimer family.

The postscript to this story is that one of Len’s postcards was sent from Becketts Park, Leeds, where he was convalesencing after being wounded during 1915. I worked in those very same buildings for Leeds Metropolitan University, Headingley Campus, eighty years later and I had no idea of this connection. Now that is spooky.

Mike Figgit