Dear Elsie,

20 April 2014
Written by Ellen Fitzsimons | Images copyright Ellen Fitzsimons
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As we mark the  centenary of WW1, Ellen Fitzsimons shares her personal journey to  document 100s of postcards sent to her Grandmother during ‘The Great War' 


Introduction by Sacha Kenny:
This touching project is a glimpse into history - a time far removed from how we now live. In 1914 Elsie Cooksley was a young woman no doubt full of the wonders of life. She went to Saturday night dances with her friends, worked in the local tea rooms and corresponded with, among others, Len - a young New Zealand soldier on active duty during WW1.

Len, through his postcards to Elsie during his time preparing to go to war and while in action, shares his simple hopes: "to walk along the beach again"  and dreams"that there may come a time when I can take you home with me and not even war shall drag us apart again" . Tender words of a young man, one of so many young men, a very long way from home.

Time itself takes on an eerie sense when reading these postcards. Knowing that it must have taken weeks if not months for the postcards to be received - the unknowing, the waiting for news, the loss of so many young lives must have been excruciating for those left waiting.

Ellen shares background to her project and a selection of postcards below. You can also follow Dear Elsie on facebook or via Ellen's blog Dear Elsie  |  Postcards to my Grandmother.

 

This is a personal project to digitise and discover the postcards sent to my Grandmother during World War I.

As a child I paid no attention to the old album that sat on the bookshelf in our lounge. I think I may have been in my teens before I even looked inside.  I’d started to show interest in my family tree and had been looking for photos. I remember being a little disappointed as the huge album was full of postcards, over 300 of them. I looked through a few of them, couldn’t read the impossible spidery writing. I moved a few of the cards around to put them into sets. Of course I now very much regret that.

Later after my father had passed away the album came to live with me and I  looked through it again with a different perspective. This was an album of more than 300 postcards sent to my Nana Fitzsimons - Dear Elsie they began. There were cards from her sister Ivy and cousin William, from soldiers and pen-pals and people I didn’t know. Some were written on and some were not. Those with dates showed me they were sent from just before and during WW1, at a time when Elsie was in her late teens and early twenties.

I realised there was much about my Grandmother and my family I could learn from these cards.


For years I’ve thought about this project and never quite gotten around to it. Also it feels a little intrusive reading the mail of others, never mind scanning it and putting it on the internet for anyone to read.  The timing feels right now.  The last of Elsie’s children passed away in 2013 and it hadn’t felt respectful to do this while he was still alive.

In the past months I’ve read of various institutions’ projects to mark the 100th anniversary of WWI and it made me think again of the album.  Almost all of the postcards were sent during WWI and many directly relate to it.

Seeing the work done on the Berry Boys project made me want to learn more about the military cards and photos in my collection.

I imagine this will take me a year, but I intend to photograph and transcribe each of the cards.  I want to find out what I can about Elsie’s correspondents and the subjects of her cards.

Before we come to the first card, let’s meet Elsie.


Elsie Emmeline Cooksley was born to George Elijah Cooksley and Susan Blanche Cooksley nee Morris on December 17, 1894.  She was the sixth of 12 children and the second daughter. Elsie also had an older half-sister born to her father and his first wife Susan nee Hines.  Elsie’s Dad was a wool and hide buyer and he owned a house and land in Longburn.

I was a baby when Elsie died so I never knew her.  She was talked about and referred to as my Nana Fitzsimons.  At the point in her life when she was collecting postcards and corresponding with young men heading to war, she was single and in her late teens to early twenties. She writes on a postcard she never finished or sent that she is working in the biggest tea rooms in town. She doesn’t marry until she is 27.  Her husband Michael had a five-year-old son, the mother having died shortly after childbirth.  Michael was injured in WWI and spent over a year in hospital in France and England.  I suspect his life was shortened by his ordeals and he died in his forties, leaving Elsie with seven children ranging in age from four to 25. That four-year- old was my father.

I’ve seen many photos of Elsie in her later years and she is always smiling.  I don’t know why, but I never talked to my father about Elsie, never asked what she was like, never asked him to retell stories of her life. It is too late now. Maybe her cards will give me a second chance to glimpse at a small part of her life.

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