Distracted By The 1921 Census

Hi everyone.

I’ve never run a marathon and I never will but I think I’m right in saying that the hardest mile is not the last one but the one before that. You’re pretty much at the end of your physical and mental resources but the finishing line still doesn’t seem near enough for you to get that necessary rush of adrenaline to take you across the finishing line.

Well, I feel as if I have been running that penultimate mile with My Dear Elsie, the book I’m writing which incorporates letters sent to my grandmother by her close friend Ethel North, for over twelve months now. It was January 2021 when I last blogged to say that the book was finished (or so I thought!) and had been sent to my first three readers who’d kindly agreed to provide some initial feedback.

As I said at the end of that post, I had every intention of getting the book out by the end of 2021, especially as I was (and still am) keen for its publication to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon (Lady Burghclere’s brother) in 2022.

Unfortunately that didn’t happen and it’s been for a combination of reasons. Firstly, I had more problems with the copyright issue on reprinting Ethel’s letters. There is copyright on old letters in just the same way as there is on any “creative” work and although I thought I was covered by a specific exemption in the Copyright and Patents Act, it turned out I probably wasn’t. It felt too risky to publish the letters without the permission of the “residual legatees” of Ethel’s will and it took over six months to get that sorted out during which time I didn’t really work on the book at all.

When I did finally get back to it, I spent a further two months going over all the feedback that my three readers had provided. Although it was generally positive, there were quite a number of things which they had brought to my attention in the manuscript and which I wanted to work through.

Then, just as I’d finished that and was ready to go to the final, final stages of editing, I had an accident and ended up in hospital with three fractures and a bleed on the brain. I’d only just recovered before I had major problems with house renovations, followed by a horrendous nosebleed just before Christmas which landed me in hospital again.

So things have not quite gone according to plan although I’m hoping that at some point I will look back on these recent challenges in my life and realise that they all happened for a reason. Only time will tell!

Anyway, I’m now working on the book again but my problem at the moment (more excuses!) is that new material has presented itself in the last few weeks which I felt I really wanted to include but may of course be just another way of procrastinating.

I watched the Downton Abbey movie when it came to terrestrial TV in January and that threw up some interesting information about the role of lady’s maids and also the marriage of Princess Mary which I wanted to research and add in. Then I realised that the 1921 census was finally available online and it was an exciting moment to find the entry for Ethel and Lady Burghclere, so more research and additions to the text followed.

Of course, it’s true of most projects that it’s often really difficult to know when to stop and “let go” of something but it’s probably also true that feeling as though you have run out of steam is a major factor, not to mention the concerns about the time and cost involved in self-publishing. However, I promise that I’m going to make one last supreme effort to keep my eyes fixed on the finishing line, picture the medal around my neck and give one last big push to get over the line.

Keep cheering for me!


It Is Finished!

It is finished! Yes, over 12 months since I outlined in my last post the plan to get Ethel North’s letters to my grandmother into a book called My Dear Elsie, I have finally done it. I crossed the finishing line just before Christmas and on Christmas Day itself, I sent the manuscript to my “first responders” as I’m calling them. They are three of my closest friends, two of whom are also writers and I am now waiting both eagerly and nervously for their feedback on the book before I start on the next stage which is getting it self-published.

I wrote that last post in November 2019 and clearly the world is a very, very different place since then. I could not possibly have imagined, when I was saying that I hoped to get the book ready for publication in 2020, that the year would be totally dominated by the global pandemic which is the coronavirus. It has certainly been an extremely challenging and incredibly difficult time for all of us, although my “silver lining” has been that it has made me focus almost entirely on the book as there has been little else to do, especially as my home city of Leicester has been locked down in some form or other since the end of March.

Source: Sky News

Of course, coronavirus is by no means the only global pandemic we have experienced in recent history, although the only one in our lifetimes. The last one occurred in 1918, the year before Ethel started working for Lady Burghclere, with the Spanish Influenza outbreak which spread across the world and resulted in over 50 million deaths worldwide. Fortunately, as I have said in the postscript to My Dear Elsie, neither Ethel, my grandmother nor Lady Burghclere were among those fatalities, otherwise there would never have been a book to write in the first place.

I came across an article in The Guardian newspaper recently by an epidemiologist who said that once a global pandemic has ended, history shows us that people often seek out greater social interaction with others. After the 1918 pandemic, this led to the decade of history known as the “roaring 20s” so it will be interesting to see what happens after the current pandemic ends. Certainly it feels at the moment that nothing will ever be the same again.

Credit: Creative Commons (wik)

If you are interested in finding out more about the influenza pandemic and its similarities and dissimilarities to the current pandemic, this article (also from The Guardian) might be of use. I was particularly fascinated by the references to mask-wearing, school closures and cancelling Christmas!


Anyway, I will definitely try and keep you posted on my progress with the book. I feel very strongly that for all sorts of reasons it needs to be finished, published and ready for marketing by the end of 2021 if not before, so here goes!

Stay well and safe.

The Seven Year Itch

Hi everyone.

Well, it’s taken me seven years, believe it or not, but I’ve finally finished typing up, researching and writing the end notes for all the letters and postcards that Lady Burghclere’s lady’s maid, Ethel North, sent to my grandmother between 1919 and 1933 and which I hope to include in my proposed book My Dear Elsie.

It’s certainly been a marathon task as there are about 80 pieces of correspondence altogether and if I’d known how long it was going to take me to transcribe them all, I would probably never have started!

Of course, there is still a great deal of work to be done before the book is finished, let alone published, but I do feel as if I have reached quite a significant milestone. I actually felt quite sad when I finally arrived at the last letter as I have really enjoyed listening to Ethel’s “voice”, hearing her news and wondering what famous people or events she would be mentioning, on an almost weekly basis, for the last seven years.


The last postcard that Ethel sent. France 1938.

One of the reasons why it has taken so long to work through everything is because of how much research I’ve ended up doing. Every letter and most of the postcards often contained at least half a dozen, and often many more, references to such a variety of different things that I knew little or nothing about and felt that a reader might benefit from knowing more about too.

For example, for just the final four items in the collection which are one letter and three postcards, I have researched, among other topics:

  • Charlotte Bronte’s novel Villette
  • The poet Hilaire Belloc
  • Hungary in the 1930s
  • Yugoslavia in the same period
  • The Balkan wars in the 1990s
  • Famous people who visited the holiday destination of Biarritz
  • Religious pilgrimages in the 1930s
  • The French royal city of Pau
  • The 1930s cost of a ship berth from New York to France
  • The Spanish Civil War
  • The 23rd Psalm
  • The British commander at the siege of Calais
  • Victorian salt cellars


The poet Hilaire Belloc, 1910. (CC. No attribution required.)

Of course, someone with considerably more knowledge of British and European history, geography, literature, early 20th century travel, religion and antiques might not have needed to have spent as much time on the research as I did! And of course, as I have discovered over the last seven years, research can take you down all sorts of unexpected rabbit holes which may or may not lead to anything that will be included in the finished book but have still used up vast swathes of time.

So, what’s next? Well, my plan is to do yet more research, but this time on what happened to Ethel after she left Lady Burghclere’s service in 1933. I already have a few clues to go on but I’m hoping to find one of those experts to help me who frequently pop up on the television programme Who Do You Think You Are? You know the sort of person that I’m talking about. “This is Professor Josephine Smith. She’s an expert in 17th century soldier’s uniform buttons.” Or something like that.


Then I want to write the Epilogue and the Foreword to the book, edit it (as ruthlessly as I can), add a list of names used in the letters, find someone to compile an index and possibly a family tree or two, ask some willing volunteers to read it, edit it again and then find someone to help me self-publish it.

Not a lot left to do, then ! I sincerely hope that all the above is not going to take me another seven years and in fact my plan is to do all of that over the next twelve months or so. I’d really like to have the book ready to publish in 2020 and there are now so many people who have said that they want to buy it or read it that I feel somewhat obliged to really crack on with it.

So, onwards and upwards, and I’ll try to keep you updated on my progress whenever I can.




The End Is Nigh

Hi everyone.

It’s difficult to know whether to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving, a Happy Christmas and New Year, a Happy Easter or a Happy May Day as so much time seems to have gone by since I last blogged. But the good news is…the end is in sight for ‘My Dear Elsie’, the book I’ve been writing for longer than I care to remember and which is based on a fascinating collection of old letters and postcards written to my grandmother by her close friend Ethel North, lady’s maid and companion to Lady Winifred Burghclere.

Here is what I have left to do:

  • Write the introduction for the seventh and final section of the book.
  • Type up, research and write the end-notes for the remaining twelve letters and postcards. (I know that sounds a lot but I had about eighty to do when I first started).
  • Write the epilogue as a sort of “What happened next?” section.
  • Put together a list of “Who’s Who” of the main protagonists, like the dramatis personae at the beginning of a play because trust me, the readers will need one!
  • Draw up family trees for Ethel and for Lady Burghclere.
  • Write the bibliography, appendices, acknowledgements etc.
  • Ask a few carefully selected people to read it.
  • Edit the whole book.
  • Proof-read the whole book.
  • Get it published.

Hmm…maybe the end isn’t quite as much in sight as I thought it was.  Nevertheless, I do feel that I’ve finally reached the top (or nearly the top) of the mountain and that I’m at least looking at the descent now, even though I still feel quite a long way from base camp.

At the risk of mixing my metaphors, I suppose it’s a bit like running a marathon. The penultimate mile is supposed to be the toughest. Your legs feel like lead, your lungs seem about to burst and you think you’ll never make it to the end. But that final mile, when you can actually see the winning post with those silver blankets, water bottles and kindly stewards ready to hand out your medal, is the one that allows you to dig deeper than you ever thought you could and find that extra bit of energy and muscle-power to finally propel you over the finishing line.

Hopefully that will be the case for me with ‘My Dear Elsie’ so on that note, I shall now stop writing this blog post, have a chunk of Kendal Mint Cake and get my running shoes back on.

See you on the other side!

blog image

Photo Credit: Ewen Roberts (ewen and donabel)


The Laconia Incident

Hi everyone.

We have spent a most undecided month, first turning to one place and then to another. However, today we have really finished fixing everything up and we sail on the “Laconia” for the West Indies and South America on Jan 19th from Southampton. It is a big Cunarder so should be comfortable. We go straight to Madeira, St Vincent, Martinique, Tobago and the Barbadoes, Trinidad, La Guayra (Venezuela) and the Panama Canal, then up to Jamaica, Havanna, the Bahamas and Bermuda. The Laconia then returns to England but we are going to stay a month in Jamaica and then cross to America, either to New Orleans or Palm Beach in Florida.

This is the opening section of the letter that Ethel North, Lady Winifred Burghclere’s maid and companion, wrote to my grandmother in December 1928. It is the letter I am currently typing up and researching for my proposed book My Dear Elsie and is another example of an “innocent” looking letter that ends up packing quite a punch.


The letter that Ethel wrote to my grandmother in 1928

When I looked up the RMS Laconia, expecting to find nothing more than details of a palatial cruise liner, complete with swimming pool and piano lounge, I discovered something called “the Laconia incident”. This turned out to be one of the most controversial and tragic incidents of the Second World War although I had never even heard about it.

The Laconia made her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in 1922, six years before Ethel’s letter was written. When WWII broke out in 1939, the cruiser was commandeered by the British Government as a troop ship and fitted with guns. In September 1942, she was on her way from Egypt to Britain with around 2,700 people on board among which were 1800 Italian POWs and 80 civilians including women and children who were mainly the families of servicemen.


A menu from the Laconia dated December 25th 1937 (CC)

Just off the coast of West Africa, the Laconia was detected by a German U-boat which, given that Britain was at war with Germany, proceeded to torpedo the ship. Several hundred people on the Laconia were killed instantly and around 2,000 survivors ended up in the shark-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

What happened next is a remarkable example of man’s “humanity” to man, given that this was war-time and all bets were off. The commander of the German U-boat, a man named Werner Hartenstein, decided to act on his own initiative, regardless of how badly it would go down at German HQ and began to mount a rescue operation to save as many of the survivors in the sea as possible. How his crew felt about this is anyone’s guess, given that only a few hours before they had been instructed to fire torpedoes at the same people.

With the rescue mission well underway and his submarine still on the surface of the water, Hartenstein requested assistance from other shipping in the area. As a result, a small convoy of German U-boats with life boats containing survivors and flying under the banner of the Red Cross, was able to make its way towards the French rescue ships that had set out to meet them from Senegal.

Unfortunately, news of the convoy reached a nearby American airfield. A B-24 bomber pilot who, either because he didn’t see the Red Cross banner or saw it and chose to ignore it, spotted the convoy and asked for orders. The Airfield commander, Captain Robert Richardson, decided to give the command to bomb both the U-boats and the life boats. As a result, Hartenstein was forced to order many of the survivors he had rescued to be thrown back into the sea so that he could perform a crash dive to protect his submarine and crew. A total of 1,113 survivors were eventually rescued, but 1,619 died, most of whom were the Italian POWs that had been kept in the hold of the ship. Altogether, of the 2,725 passengers that had embarked from Cape Town, only 1,500 survived.


A postcard of the Laconia c. 1921 (CC)

As a result of what later become known as “the Laconia incident”, German authorities issued instructions to all U-boat commanders not to rescue survivors in the future. Hartenstein himself was killed six months later when his U-boat came under fire from Allied Forces while Captain Richardson was never prosecuted but went on to serve a long career in the US Air Force and lived until he was 92.

In 2004, the acclaimed TV dramatist Alan Bleasdale heard about the story of the Laconia and became fascinated by it, especially when he discovered that many of the sailors who had been on board the ship came from his home city of Liverpool. He decided to write a play entitled The Sinking of the Laconia and this aired on the BBC in 2011.

By a strange coincidence, Bleasdale’s play was shown again on the BBC in May 2018, just a couple of weeks after I had found out about “the Laconia incident” myself. I watched it with some trepidation, partly because I’m not comfortable watching dramas about incidents where real people have been killed (I’ve never watched the film Titanic for that reason) and also because I thought it would be pretty harrowing. It was, but it was also extremely well done, very gripping (even though I knew the ending) and really made me think about what the poet Wilfred Owen described as “War, and the pity of War.”

It also made me think a lot about who the good and bad guys were in this whole tragic incident. Of course, it helped that the role of the German U-boat captain Werner Hartenstein was played by an extremely handsome German actor and the American Airfield commander was not, but the play does have a great deal to say about the ethics of war.

laconia dvd

The DVD cover of Alan Bleasdale’s drama

If you are interested in finding out more about The Laconia Incident, I can highly recommend the following links which include some very moving testimonies from those who were on board and survived.




Of course, whether Ethel and Lady Burghclere actually got to sail on the Laconia and visit all those places that Ethel lists at the beginning of her letter is another story. You will have to keep following this blog (or wait for my book to get published!) to find out.


Back To The Drawing Board

Hi everyone.

A very belated Happy New Year. If I had left this blog post much longer, I would have probably been sending you New Year greetings for 2019 instead of 2018.

I must admit it has been quite a struggle to keep going with the Ethel letters since all the excitement last autumn of having the project featured as a double page spread in The Mail on Sunday newspaper. It was difficult accepting that once again, despite the extensive coverage in the paper and the reporter’s tremendous enthusiasm for the letters, I still don’t have even a sniff of a book deal for My Dear Elsie. So it’s back to the drawing board. Again.

The letter I have just finished typing up and researching was quite short by Ethel’s standards and looked very innocuous at first glance. However, it turned out to be absolutely packed with interesting information, so much so that my explanatory end-notes are longer than the actual letter itself.

Ethel wrote this letter to my grandmother in August 1928 when she and Lady Burghclere were staying at Cowden Castle, the remains of a 14th century castle near the village of Dollar in Clackmannanshire, Scotland. By the time Ethel and Lady Burghclere were visitors there, the castle had become the site of a mansion house built by wealthy land-owner John Christie.

John Christie’s grave in Muckhart churchyard (CC)

I was interested to discover that John Christie’s daughter Ella Christie, who had inherited the property on her father’s death and was managing the estate at the time of Ethel’s visit, was quite a character. She was an explorer and travel writer, as well as the first Western woman to have met the Dalai Lama. Sadly there is no mention of her in the letter as I can’t help feeling that she and Ethel would have had a lot in common.

Ella Christie was also responsible for supervising the construction at Cowden Castle of what has been described as “the best Japanese garden in the Western world”. Although the mansion house was demolished in 1952, the Japanese garden (laid out between 1907 and 1930) was preserved and eventually re-opened to the public in 2016. If you would like to find out more about it, there is some very useful information about the garden and also about Ella Christie at www.cowdengarden.com


Japanese garden at Cowden Castle (Copyright: Sara Stewart)

According to Ethel’s letter, the reason why she and Lady Burghclere were staying at Cowden was because they were on “the usual round of Scotch visits” and were due to have gone to stay with Lord Haldane at his home in the Scottish town of Auchterarder next. However, they had been “put off” because he was seriously ill and in fact his Lordship died just a few days after Ethel’s letter was written.

I must confess to never having heard of Lord Haldane but when I did some research on him, it turns out that he was quite a player. (It never fails to amaze me how Ethel seems able to interact with the leading figures of the day just as if she was interacting with her father’s customers in his butcher’s shop!)

Lord Haldane (CC)

Lord Haldane was a politician, a lawyer, an educationalist and a philosopher. He had been Lord Chancellor from 1885-1910, Secretary of State for war (during which time he implemented some very important military reforms including the establishment of the British Expeditionary Force), one of the founders of the London School of Economics, and Chancellor of the University of St Andrews. In his obituary, The Times described him as “one of the most powerful, subtle and encyclopaedic intellects ever devoted to the public service of his country.”

During my research, I came across this cartoon from a 1909 edition of Punch. It depicts Lord Haldane at a meeting of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s cabinet discussing what became known as the People’s Budget. Lord Haldane is on the back row (far left) and next to him is Winston Churchill who is being hugged by David Lloyd George. It’s incredible to think that a close friend of my grandmother’s moved in such circles.

Meeting of Asquith’s Cabinet (CC)

The third paragraph of Ethel’s letter bemoans the fact that she and Lady Burghclere were not going to be able to stay at the Lake House that year. Milford Lake House, as it was then known, was situated in the grounds of Highclere Castle (the main location for the filming of the popular television series Downton Abbey) and later became the residence of the 7th Earl of Carnarvon. Ethel was clearly not impressed by this change of location.

We have not been given the Lake House this year, so the Dowager Lady Carnarvon has lent us Teversal Manor near Mansfield instead. It will seem very ugly country after the Lake.

The village of Teversal is about five miles from the town of Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, a county in central England. Teversal Manor had been inherited by Lady Burghclere’s step-mother Elsie after the death of her husband (the 4th Earl of Carnarvon) and is widely believed to have been the inspiration for the fictional Wragby Hall in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the notorious novel by DH Lawrence.

Teversal Manor Garden (Alan Heardman CC)

The property remained in the Carnarvon family until Elsie’s death, a few months after Ethel’s letter was written, after which it was sold to a local mining company. It seems likely then that Ethel and Lady Burghclere were among the last visitors to Teversal Manor while it still belonged to the Carnarvon family and judging by the size of it (the property was put on the market for £1million in 2013) they must have been rattling around like two peas in a pod.

This letter is also the one which contains what is possibly my favourite “Ethel-ism” from the whole collection and I can still remember how surprised and amused I was when I discovered who Ethel was talking about here.

Miss Evelyn got married against Lady B’s wishes last month. As far as we can judge, a very unsatisfactory young man whose only living is an occasional book.

Miss Evelyn is, of course, Lady Burghclere’s youngest daughter but the “very unsatisfactory young man” that Ethel refers to was in fact Evelyn Waugh, now considered to be one of the most influential and widely read English novelists of the 20th century. Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing.


Blue Plaque erected at Golders Green in 1993 (CC)

Finally, this letter also mentions Lady Burghclere’s daughter Mary and the fact that she has now divorced her husband but is about to marry again.

Mrs Hope-Morley divorced Mr H-M in June. She left him on a deed of separation 18 months ago and at the beginning of this year, went off to South America and is still there with a young man until the decree nisi is made absolute and she can marry him. So altogether we have had a nasty time since our return from abroad.

This “young man” was Captain Alan Hugh Hillgarth and Mary did indeed marry him (in 1929) although they divorced some years later. It transpires that Captain Hillgarth wasn’t just your average suitor. He was a British diplomat, novelist, and spy who had left active service in 1922 and was now pursuing a career as a writer of adventure novels. He had also embarked on a series of real-life adventures including becoming military advisor to the Spanish Foreign Legion, sailing to Florida, searching for gold in the Andes and writing a musical comedy. As I have said in my end-notes, you can probably see the attraction!

alan hillgarth book cover

Cover of Alan Hillgarth biography by Duff Hart-Davis

So, a very innocuous looking letter but one which turned out to be full of fascinating information and some great examples of Ethel not being afraid to express her opinions, especially where protecting Lady Burghclere was concerned.

There is also the first hint in this letter that the relationship between mistress and servant may be about to take a new direction.

I spent part of my holiday at Bognor with the rest of the family during those lovely, hot weeks at the beginning of July. I still have another week to take but don’t know about that yet. Holidays cut up in this fashion are not as satisfactory as a clear month but it now seems the only thing to do. I don’t like leaving her [Lady Burghclere] all alone for such a long time.

But more of that in future blog posts. Meanwhile, that drawing board is calling so I need to get back to it, while also trying to type up and research the rest of the letters.

Have a really good 2018, what is still left of it.










The Mail on Sunday

Hi everyone.

In my last post, I promised I would reveal news of probably the most exciting thing that has happened with Ethel North’s letters to my grandmother, ever since I began working, over seven years ago now, on trying to get them published as a book, and now I can.

The Mail on Sunday, which is one of the UK’s most prestigious Sunday newspapers, ran a double-page feature about the letters and my proposed book, in the paper today. Their chief reporter contacted me, completely out of the blue, about ten days ago and asked if I would be willing to allow them to do a feature based on the letters. Of course, I said ‘Yes’ and after a few phone calls, many emails, a lengthy interview and a visit from a photographer, the feature appeared in the paper.

I am very pleased indeed with how it looks and I am hoping that the exposure in such a high profile publication will spark off more interest in the letters and possibly even bring about that much-sought-after book deal, especially as The Mail on Sunday article really emphasises the Downton Abbey connection.

You can view the feature online if you follow the link below and in the meantime, I promise to keep you up to speed with any further developments.



Jerusalem Jaunts

Hi everyone.

I hope this finds you fit and well, whichever part of the world you are in.

I have some news. It is probably the most exciting thing to have happened since I began this journey, over seven years ago, of trying to get Ethel North’s letters to Lady Burghclere published as a non-fiction book and I shall be revealing much more very shortly, so watch this space!

Meanwhile, I have been making steady progress (as it used to say on my school reports) with typing up Ethel’s letters, and researching and writing the footnotes. At the moment, I am immersed in the letter she sent to my grandmother from the Holy Land, which she visited with Lady Burghclere in March 1928.

This letter was written from Government House, the High Commissioner’s Residence, in Jerusalem and is probably the longest letter in the entire collection. (There are about 80 letters and postcards altogether and they cover the fourteen years that Ethel was employed as lady’s maid and companion to Lady Winifred Burghclere, the elder sister of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, or ‘Lady B’ as Ethel refers to her in the letters.)

“We have had such an interesting week. We left Cairo on the night train and got to Jerusalem about 9am next day. Although we are staying at the above place [Government House], we have our own car and Dragoman which makes us quite independent.”


The first page of Ethel’s letter from Jerusalem, March 1928

The Jerusalem letter is a particularly challenging one to work on because it is full of Biblical place names and references, most of which need to be researched. Fortunately, I used to be a Religious Education teacher before I became a writer and I also have a degree in Biblical Studies, so it is probably not quite as difficult a challenge for me as it would be for anyone else.

There is no doubt that Ethel was a very religious person and she is clearly moved, in a spiritual sense, by everything she sees. Her poetic descriptions of her surroundings are also a delight to read.

“The calm of Galilee on a perfect spring morning is like no other calm except the desert and I think it is greater and sweeter, a less passionate calm. As one sails on the Sea of Galilee, it is as if one draws near to the Son of God, remembering all the time that on those quiet waters, as still as glass and hedged about by thickets of wild oleanders and lilies, the miraculous feet had walked.”  


              Sea of Galilee with Tiberias in the background                     Photo Credit: Israel_photo_gallery (CC)

I also find it fascinating that Ethel never seems to doubt that any of the places they visit are definitely the actual places where the characters from the Bible lived and worked.

” And so we came to the little town of Nazareth. We had lunch (brought with us) just outside the town and left the car, as the streets are not possible for anything but walking or riding on a donkey. We visited the home of the Virgin Mary and the workshop of Joseph and then just outside the town, what is now called the ‘Well of the Virgin’. It is certain that Mary must have come here for her water day by day and no doubt the child Jesus in his early days must have come with her, as do the children of today. “

Ethel and Lady Burghclere certainly covered a lot of ground on this trip, including visiting Tiberias and Nazareth, as well as many places in between, on just one day. The next day they travelled to Damascus.

“We left Tiberias for Damascus very early in the morning as it is a day’s journey through the Lebanon Mountains. We crossed the River Jordan for the last time, so I took photos and two bottles of the water. We made a very long ascent as at Tiberias, we were a thousand feet below sea level and Damascus is up four thousand feet. The scenery changed as we went further into Syria and became a wilderness of barren, stony mountains. But it was a delicious drive.”

Once again, Ethel shows a “poetic” style of writing in her description of Damascus.

“Damascus, where I now am, is an oriental city and viewed from the mountains above, is like a pearl set round with emeralds. It is a city that is ethereally lovely, exquisitely eastern and almost mystic in its fragile grace.”


The postcard Ethel sent from Damascus

The Jerusalem letter ends with them staying at the Continental Hotel in Beirut or ‘Beyrout’ as Ethel calls it.

“Here I am at the end of the journey. We were snow-blocked in the Lebanon Mountains coming from Damascus to Beyrout, so had to abandon our car and take the little mountain train until the road got clear. We then picked up another car which brought us down to Beyrout and will take us to Haifa tomorrow.  Everywhere here is very luxurious in vegetation. The flavours of the oranges and bananas are wonderful. I shall never have such fruit to eat again. The town of Beyrout we do not care for much but the surroundings are beautiful.”

The trip to Jerusalem and its surrounding area seems to have had quite a profound effect on Ethel and she ends the letter by saying this.

“I am so sorry that these long days in the fresh air and sunshine, with the road all to ourselves, must soon cease. How beautiful it has all been! A pilgrimage and a revelation which will always be a living and perpetual memory.”


Ethel’s postcard showing Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

There are just two postcards left to type up from this trip and then the pair of them are back in Scotland and London for the rest of 1928, before going to Rome in 1929 for what would sadly turn out to be their final major excursion abroad.

So the end is in sight!

That’s all for now but I will be back soon with some very good news indeed, I hope.











Farewell To Egypt

Hi everyone.

So that was summer, then. Of course, with such dreadful weather-related events happening in other parts of the world, those of us in the UK shouldn’t really be moaning about the damp conditions but it does feel very autumnal now and my central heating has already been cranked back into action.

I must admit to having lost some of my recent enthusiasm for typing up Ethel’s letters as other stuff seems to be demanding my attention. However, I’m determined not to leave too long a gap before I continue with them and as I only have three more letters left to transcribe and research before being able to start a new section of the book, hopefully that will motivate me. I do want to write one more blog post on the Egypt letters though before I leave them and move onto the Holy Land.

After all the excitement of seeing the Tutankhamun excavations and artefacts with Howard Carter as their guide, Ethel and Lady Burghclere return to Cairo again but this time they stay at The Residency. This is the term used for the official residence of the Governor General or High Commissioner in a Commonwealth country and the incumbent High Commissioner for Egypt in 1928 was Sir George Lloyd, an associate of Lady Burghclere’s half-brother Aubrey Herbert.

According to Ethel’s letter, Princess Mary (King George V’s daughter) and her husband Lord Lascelles were also due to arrive at The Residency in March 1928 for a month’s private holiday, shortly after Ethel and Lady Burghclere had left for Jerusalem. In one of the newspaper reports about Princess Mary’s visit, The Residency is described as: “A large white building with great, spacious rooms, looking out over the Nile, only about 50 yards away. There is a lovely garden and a broad stone terrace, where it is delightful to sit under an awning and watch the sailing boats drift past. The pyramids too, can be seen in the distance and nearer, the magnificent red and purple bougainvilleas climbing over the white garden walls of The Residency in glorious sunshine.”

It may have been a holiday but apparently Princess Mary still found time to attend a regimental dinner and inspect a large rally of Girl Guides as well as visit the bazaars, pyramids and other sights!

princess mary

Princess Mary in 1926 Photo: Wikipedia

Princess Mary was not the only royalty in Egypt around that time as the Crown Prince of Italy (Umberto II), who went on to become the last ever king of Italy, was also on a visit there. As mentioned in a previous post, he stayed at the same hotel as Ethel and Lady Burghclere when they were in Cairo the first time round. I discovered some wonderful black and white footage from his visit on the internet which is well worth a look, although sadly there is no sign of Ethel or Lady Burghclere.


The letter that Ethel wrote to my grandmother from The Residency is probably one of my favourites in the whole collection. I remember reading it before I had read any others and I was immediately captivated by Ethel’s wonderful and incredibly evocative descriptions. For a woman who was born above a butcher’s shop in the back streets of Leicester, in the heart of industrial England at the end of the 19th century, she could really write. Here are a couple of examples of her poetic prose:

It was a full moon and the sky was ablaze with stars. The Nile lay below us like a gleaming silver girdle clasped round a sleeping forest of palms, cypresses and minarets, stretching beyond the desert. It gave, particularly in the evening, a sense of illimitable distance and somehow the riddle of human destiny wove itself into the consciousness of the hour and made all life seem larger.

It’s all simply wonderful. There were days, windless days, when the Nile was as a dream and the Arabian mountains dreamlike in the glittering distance. When the voices of the children, mingling with the antiquary of the wheel under the blazing blue, had the sounds of unearthly things. When the stillness of the palms overshadowing the brown towers carried with it a sense of marvel. Eternal summer! How wonderful it is. Always the sun and the brilliant blue or indigo where the mountain edge cuts into it.

I was also very struck by the fact that Ethel thought nothing at all of going out into the desert on her own to ride, with just a dragoman (an interpreter and guide employed to help European Embassy staff) for company. I’m not sure I could have done that, even in 1928.

I can never tell anyone how much I loved being there. My happiest hours were from 4 until 6.30pm when I used to ride in the desert alone, except for my dragoman. I used to start out in the sunshine and then return as the first stars lighted the heavens. I have decided the desert is the most fascinating of all things.


Ethel riding in the desert with her dragoman, February 1928

As I’ve said before, I do feel that Ethel’s letters from Egypt are the real jewel in the whole collection and hopefully the extracts I have included in my last four posts have given you a flavour of them.

Now it’s back to typing up the rest of the collection.


Close Encounters With Tutankhamun

Hi everyone.

I hope this finds you fit and well.

I have been busily working away, typing up the letters that Ethel wrote to my grandmother from her time with Lady Burghclere in Egypt and thought I would bring you a blog post or two before I move onto the ones she sent from the Holy Land.

As mentioned before, I do have a real sense of urgency to get the letters typed up, especially as I came to a major decision recently. After years of saying that I would never “self-publish” any of my books, I have now changed my mind, for all sorts of reasons. You can find out what these reasons are in a post I wrote last month for my writing blog.


Of course, self-publishing My Dear Elsie, the proposed book of Ethel’s letters, is a lot more complicated than self-publishing any of my children’s books. This is because I don’t own the copyright to the content of the letters, only the letters themselves. I’ve written a blog post on my writing blog about this issue too, if you’d like to take a look.


But back to Egypt. There is no doubt in my mind that Ethel’s letters from Egypt are probably the USP of the whole book as they are so closely linked to one of the most incredible and fascinating historical events of the 20th century, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Although Ethel and Lady Burghclere didn’t visit the tomb until six years later, they still saw many of the Tutankhamun treasures in the original setting and their constant guide and companion was none other than the discoverer of the tomb, Howard Carter himself.

Here is Ethel’s description of encountering Tutankhamun’s coffin for the first time:

The great outer case is made of a lovely pink stone called Quartzite or something like that. It has a little crystal in it. It is a tremendous coffin. I believe the lid weighed several tons when they took it off. They have put a glass cover in place of it so that they can see the mummy which is enclosed in its last gold case. It is exactly the same as the two outer cases in the museum but in its real setting, how wonderful!


Middle coffin of Tutankhamun by A.Parrott (CC)

Next she describes Tutankhamun’s funerary chest:

We passed through this chamber and came to the chamber in which stood the funerary chest or Canopic Jar. Personally I thought this the most beautiful thing of all, made of translucent alabaster and exquisitely inlaid with blue lapis-lazuli. Again the goddesses guard the corners and one above. It is the loveliest of things.

Tutankhamun Canopic Jars

Tutankhamun Canopic Jars by Jon Bodsworth (CC)

Finally, I have included this extract from her letter describing returning to the hotel in the evening after an incredible day spent in Tutankhamun’s tomb with just Howard Carter and Lady Burgchlere for company:

And then the evening in the Valley of the Kings. How can I describe it! The great solitude and silence. The watching hills above and the fathomless sands beneath. High above us circled the birds of prey. The only other inhabitants of the Valley besides us three, to keep company with the dead Pharaohs, were two ravens which I thought might have been Elijah!

As we returned slowly down the Valley in the swiftly changing and exquisitely lovely light, when the earth began to reflect itself in the sky and the stars began to appear almost before the last rays of the sun sank on the horizon, how true in such a place as this are the words of the Psalmist. “When I consider thy heavens, the works of thy fingers, the sun, the moon and the stars which thou has ordained, what is man that thou art mindful of him and the son of man that thou visitest him?”

It was a never to be forgotten day, not only as a sightseeing one but the consciousness of the infinity of God, for one felt encompassed with divinity.


Area around the tombs in the Valley of the Kings by Nowic (CC)

If you are interested in finding out more about the discovery of Tutankhamun, I highly recommend that you visit the Griffith Institute Archive where you can view for free the complete records of the ten year excavation which were deposited there shortly after Howard Carter’s death by his niece, Miss Phyllis Walker. It contains some wonderful material including Carter’s journals, maps and drawings, as well as the photos that the photographer Harry Burton took of the excavations.