Richmond museum transcribes letters of Second World War soldier during covid closure

John Oldfield.

The team at a Richmond museum is transcribing and publishing the letters of a Second World War soldier each day during the Covid 19 closure.

Staff at The Green Howards Museum are currently working from home typing up the handwritten letters sent to and from John Oldfield, from Sandsend, near Whitby, who joined the army in 1938.

The letters are available to read on the museum’s website, which is updated daily to provide a steady stream of correspondence.

“The letters have been kept in our store since they were donated to the museum, as part of a larger collection of personal items, in 1997,” explains museum Director, Lynda Powell.

“The original plan was for them to feature in our special exhibition, Treasures in Store, which was due to launch at the weekend.  Of course, that’s now on hold.

“Instead, we have redeployed our retail and admissions team to this mammoth transcription task whilst the museum is closed.  We think there are more than 1000 pieces of correspondence in the box, packaged in bundles, but not in any strict order.

“We know that we are in it for the long haul, but the finished set of transcribed letters will provide a wonderful resource to add to our understanding of what it was like to be a soldier through the Second World War.”

Born on 28 April 1918, John Oldfield joined the army after attending Sandhurst and served with the Green Howards in Malta and Palestine.

When war broke out he was sent to France and faced the ordeal of retreat and evacuation from Dunkirk. Service in Cyprus and North Africa followed, but Oldfield was captured in Libya in June 1942 and spent the rest of the war in camps in Italy and Germany.

Some of the letters were written while he was a prisoner of war, giving an insight into how men coped with incarceration, with no knowledge of when they were going to be released.

“I’ve never done anything like this before, it’s very absorbing, and I’m developing a real soft spot for Johnnie as a result of transcribing the letters,” says admissions assistant, Sara Cox whose usual day job is welcoming visitors to the museum.

“From reading his correspondence, it’s clear he really loves getting news from his family and values the morale boosting nature of keeping in touch with loved ones during difficult times.

“He’s got a great sense of humour and a funny turn of phrase, he also includes little sketches of his fellow soldiers in his letters. So far, nothing bad has happened to him, but I know that’s going to change, which I’m not looking forward to.”

The project is also giving the museum’s youngest member of staff a unique glimpse into the past.

“His handwriting is amazing, He’s only a few years older than me but some of the things he talks about are completely strange,” says 16 year old Annie Stott who has exchanged her Saturday job helping in the museum shop for a weekly stint of transcription.

“He keeps asking for a new pipe and is unfortunately quite keen to shoot a range of wild animals.  I also needed some help to understand why he kept referring to his sister’s bun, when it turns out she is having a baby.

“It’s very educational, I love it and I hope people enjoy reading the letters as we post them online.”

Captain Oldfield returned to the regiment at its base in Richmond in 1946.  He went on to serve in Malaya between 1949 and 1952 and later wrote ‘The Green Howards in Malaya’.

He served in senior roles in the USA, West Germany and France.

His last appointment was Commander of Aldershot Garrison.  He retired from the army in 1969 to pursue his love of painting full time.

As the letters are transcribed, they are added to the museum’s website.  It’s hoped people will join in, reading a letter a day as part of their daily routine whilst normal life is disrupted.

Visitors will be able to see the letters themselves, and the rest of the Oldfield archive, as part of ‘Treasures in Store’; the museum’s next special exhibition, when it reopens. [kofi]