Whether they’re written by ordinary people or towering figures from history, and whether they come in the form of a cheery postcard, lengthy love note or deathbed confession, there’s something irresistibly compelling about other people’s letters.
Letters of Note, the website that collects letters from everyone from escaped slave Jourdon Anderson to Marilyn Monroe, has long been one of our favourite places on the internet for this very reason. On Twitter, meanwhile, one of our current must-follows is @PastPostcard, which shares the cryptic, often strangely poetic messages found on the back of vintage postcards.
Now, Royal Mail has made public an extraordinary archive of over 1,600 letters and postcards – spanning more than 300 years, and detailing key moments in Britain’s social and personal history.
Dubbed the Letters of Our Lives project, the online gallery has been curated to celebrate Royal Mail’s 500th anniversary. Captured within it are miniature sagas of love and heartbreak, loneliness and celebration, grief and ambition, and much, much more – and we’ve got five of the most moving right here.
Women in STEM, 1887
Women are still underrepresented in STEM industries. But this 1887 letter, from pioneering English suffragette and physician Elizabeth Garrett Anderson to a speaker from London’s Royal College of Physicians, shows how difficult it was for 19th century women just to get through the door of a lecture theatre.
At the time she wrote this letter, Garrett had been qualified in medicine for 22 years, and was still the only female member of the BMA. Despite this, she still had to write a letter asking permission to be “admitted to some dark corner to hear your lecture on Lupus”.
With admirable succinctness, Garrett signs off her request: “Do not trouble to answer unless you find you can say ‘yes’.”
Letter to my father, 1916
Written in the Sikh language of Gurmukhi, this postcard is from a daughter writing to her father, a soldier who was fighting in Egypt with the British Forces, and it makes for heartbreaking reading.
“Dear Father, Best wishes to you,” writes the daughter. “Here all is well. ...With God's grace your letter has arrived. We came to know your situation. … With the sight of your letter, I felt at peace. … My heart is yours. You are my everything, and I worry about you. … I am like a living dead without you. I am unable to live like this. … Even though you give me lot of assurance.
“… Dear father please take leave and come to meet us. Please do come! We repeat again and again. Reply to our letter soon.”
Permission to marry, 1943
In 1943, a young man named Ken wrote to William Cass asking for his permission to marry his daughter, Joyce Margaret Cass. World War II was raging, and Ken was away fighting in the Allied forces.
“It’s a bit of a shame you have got to be 1,000 miles away to ask me that question,” William writes, knowingly. “I will give my consent, but it is not wise to get wed while this war lasts, and not for some considerable time after,” he continues. “What I mean is I don't want you to jump out of the frying pan into the fire sort of some. So be wise.”
“Well Ken lad it seems ages since I saw you last,” he concludes. “You must have had it rough travelling all those miles away. I hope that some day you will be coming back to dear old England the best place in the world. We keep jogging along and hope for the days to come when the lights go on again all over the world.
“Good luck Ken, keep smiling. Cheerio from Pop.”
Ken and Joyce were married just a year later on 1 May 1944, and went on to have a long and happy marriage.
The beginnings of love, 6 September 1987
This letter, from a man named Howard to his girlfriend Karen, captures the early stages of a relationship when everything is exciting and nerve-wracking and new. Howard is on holiday in Corfu with his friend Paul, but would much rather be at home with Karen.
“Holiday so far has been pleasant rather than terrific, I find my thoughts wandering back home too often so perhaps I’m homesick,” he writes, in a letter penned late at night.
A couple of pages later, he adds: “Absence really does make the heart grow fonder, – I hope very much you feel the same but sometimes it’s so very hard for me to tell. I do miss you and think about you frequently.
Perhaps now Now we are apart I feel I understand better what you were talking about the week before I left. I hope you think about me occasionally.”
The end of love, March 2004
Howard wrote pages of letters to Karen when they were first in love, but the letter he writes as their marriage comes to an end – which can also be found in the Royal Mail online archives – stretches to just one page.
“I thought today would be the right date to put some words down,” he says. “I have to separate how I feel today, from how I felt through the many good times of our marriage. At the moment I feel completely depressed, empty and directionless. And so sad.
“But that is not to say I cannot hold close the many good times and successes we had; hence the separate card.”
Howard wishes Karen well, and writes: “It’s just so sad what has happened, and in hindsight, should never have happened. But I guess that’s life. Of course we will still be in touch, but I wanted to put a few words down.
“Thanks for everything.”
You can view the full Letters of Our Lives archive here.