The pinch will come after the war

The Spencer paterfamilias in Cookham was optimistic, while Florence Vansittart Neale despaired at the situation in Russia.

Will Spencer
23 February 1918

By this morning’s post we received a cheerful letter from Father… Sydney has taken his BA at Oxford. Has received splendid reports from his commanding officers. Was just getting into train at Paddington to come down to Cookham on a Saturday afternoon when he saw Percy on the next platform, whom he hadn’t seen for 2 years. He quickly fetched his luggage out, & stayed the night with Percy, who had just come up from Swindon for a few days, on business.

I was glad to learn from Father that they suffer no privation. The pinch will come after the war, he says, but what can be is being done to provide against that.

Florence Vansittart Neale
23 February 1918

Russians utter degradation, under the heel of Germany.

Diaries of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28); and Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)


“The news of her boy’s death seems to have quite deranged her”

Percy Spencer, visiting his parents in Cookham, found a neighbour depressed by the death of a loved one.

Fernlea, Cookham
Decr 6, 1917

My dear WF

I find Dot [a neighbour?] very down and dismal. Poor girl, the news of her boy’s death seems to have quite deranged her for a while.

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer to Florence Image (D/EZ177/7/6/73)

“My thoughts are with my country”

The exit of Russia from the war led expat Will Spencer to worry for the future of Britain.

1 December 1917

Have serious thoughts with regard to what the present defection of Russia may mean for the Entente, & particularly for my country. According to the papers, peace negotiations between Russia & Germany are to begin tomorrow.

Felt that my letter to Father, finished last night, talking chiefly about my new pupil, Pastor Burri, & about the beauty of, & my affection for Wimmis, was a strange one to have written under the circumstances. Was glad that I had just room to add the following postscript:

“I refrain from speaking about the war in my letters. I can only say that my thoughts are with my country & with you all.”

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

News of the Spencers reaches Switzerland

Sometimes Will Spencer felt isolated from family news in his home in Switzerland. So it was good to hear how everyone was getting on.

8 April 1917

By the first post this morning we received a short letter from Father. Florrie has got a sketch entitled “Rations” into “Punch”. Percy has been offered a commission. Harold better. Stanley & Gilbert cheery. Stanley has sent Mother £5, in addition to the 3/6 a week which he allows her.

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

Music and chess on leave

Will Spencer heard the details of a family Christmas at Cookham, with Percy and Sydney both on leave.

22 January 1917

Letters for us both, from Mother – a long one for me. When Florrie & Percy & Sydney were all at home, Annie played to them after supper, & they all enjoyed it. Annie practises every day, & plays “very well indeed” now. Percy played chess with Sydney, & afterwards Percy was Mother’s partner & Sydney Father’s in a game of whist. Percy visited “the Hunts & Captain Holliday” while he was over. (Is Captain H. no longer with Percy at the Front?) Mrs Raverat had sent 60 lbs of apples to Mother, & one of the officers’ wives had made an exquisite white wool shawl for her (Sydney paid for the wool). Mrs Philip Wigg had made some white wool bed socks for her.

Diary of Will Spencer, 1917 (D/EX801/27)

Saying goodbye to a beloved son

Will Spencer kept in touch with his Cookham family, and had news of two of his serving brothers.

24 August 1916

Letter from Father… Had been to Aldershot to say ‘goodbye’ to ‘dear old Stan’, who had been home while Father was away, ‘& expects to be leaving England in two or three days’. Horace has had an attack of malarial fever, & is still in hospital.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Wishing this miserable war would end

Florence Vansittart Neale and her husband returned to the mainland after a stay on the Isle of Wight. Florence then went to see nurse daughter Phyllis.

Florence Vansittart Neale, 18 April 1916

Saw 2 destroyers, the Aquitania & a submarine. Hear they have a V class now. H to London, I to Southampton. Phyllis, Seymour & I spent afternoon together & had tea… Phyllis well & happy – head pro in dining room ward.

William Spencer senior of Cookha, meanwhile, was anxious about his son and German-born daughter in law in Switzerland.

Will Spencer, 18 April 1916
A letter to us both from Father….he is “distressed at Johanna’s position” & wishes that “this miserable war would end.”

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8) and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Married before heading to France

Will Spencer in exile in Switzerland was still in touch with his family in Cookham. Brother Horace had a wartime wedding when he got married just before his posting abroad.

21 March 1916
By the morning post a letter from Father. Horace has married Marjorie Hunt. They were at Fernley on March 12th. Father writes ‘She is a nice girl & we are all fond of her, but – he has been transferred to the RE & I expect will leave for some foreign part some day this week! Sydney has been promoted 1st Lieutenant. Stanley (at Bristol) has been relieved from his menial tasks & given more interesting work. He comes home for 24 hours once a month.’

[A later diary note confirms that Horace left for France on 18 March.]

Diary of Will Spencer of Cookham, exile in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Delighted with the honour

William Spencer of Cookham wrote to his married daughter Florence with news of her brothers.


Mr & Mrs Fuller have written congratulating on honour conferred on [William’s son] Percy. We are delighted. It was in the ‘Times’ on Jan. 1. They are sending us their copy. This should help him in the matter of a Commission I think. …

Stan: [son Stanley, the artist] writes that the Sergt at Beaufort War Hospital has just heard that all the R.H.M.C men who left with Gil: [another son, Gilbert] for Salonika are quite well.


Postcard from William Spencer of Cookham to his daughter Florence Image (D/EZ177/1/7)

A subject for quips and gibes

John Maxwell Image, at the age of 70, had suddenly got engaged to Miss Florence Spencer of Cookham, the 30 year old sister of Will, Percy, Stanley and Sydney. The age gap may have been significant – but this was a devoted relationship. The Master of Image’s college, Trinity, at this time was Montagu Butler (1833-1918), whose three sons were all in the army.

TCC [Trinity College, Cambridge]
Friday 24 Sept. ‘15
VDB and DOM [nicknames for Mr and Mrs Smith]

Wedlock at my age is such a subject for quips and gibes that I naturally felt shy and reticent. Needlessly; for the Fellows, many of them, have whispered (I like them for that) really affectionate good wishes – true spirit of camaraderie. I wrote news to the Master [of the College] in Scotland: and two hours after my letter was posted came the most warmhearted letter in his own name and Agnata’s …

[Butler’s son] Gordon’s wound is healing fast. He is nearly convalescent in Malta. Nevile [another son] stands once more on his native heath, after 14 months captivity. Agnata came down to receive him at the Camb. Station, and has whisked him off to Caledonia…

The ceremony will take place on Tuesday Oct. 12 (probably) – Tuesday is full of grace – at St George’s, Bloomsbury – chosen by us all as having been the scene of my brother’s wedding 14 years ago. The bride is to be given away by her father: my brother and sister will sustain my tottering steps. No other guests, I trust: unless one or two of her ecstatic girl friends thrust themselves in….

Yours ever

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

Absolute hell a few miles away

Percy Spencer told sister Florence he was safe, and gave her some information about the supply of newspapers at the front. But the danger was alleviated by some puppies:

May 26, 1915
Dear Florrie

I’m having a rest.

The Brigade Major mentioned the other day that he thought I was the hardest worked fellow on the staff – I suppose because to avoid mistakes I take night messages and often get very little sleep. So to my disgust I’m not in the battle now raging but am remaining behind to carry on with a few ore & Captain Holliday and to rest as much as I can. Really I suppose I’m lucky as it’s absolute hell a few miles away where we are successfully operating though losing a lot of men.

Thank you for your letters and parcel. I’m blessed if I remember if I wrote and thanked you for the parcel with the cake mother made in it, and father’s flowers. It was kind of him to fag about with them.

I expect you are having the same sort of weather as we are – glorious but terribly hot.

Today brought me four letters – yours, one from T.W., another from Sydney and one from Mrs Everest his former landlady]. Dear old lady; I think she’ll be leaving me something in her will if I don’t look out. Anyway you and I seem to have brought a gleam of sunshine into their (hers and Annie’s) secluded lives – and we are all glad of it.

All this morning I spent in the garden idly watching aeroplanes being shelled, or – for a change – two little brown puppies here, playing hide and seek round a small clump of iris. But for this damnable war and all the uncertainty it involves us in, our situation would be enviable.

Have I told you that I get the Advertiser [presumably the Maidenhead Advertiser] every week (thanks very much), and do not require any money as I keep the petty cash.

Generals & people like that get the “Times” through about 7-8 pm the day of issue, but Mrs Hothouse is wrong in stating that the men get anything more than one day old papers. Very often they don’t get that.

I’ve absolutely nothing to tell you except that I keep remarkably well and jolly. Give my love to all at home.

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/30)

A mother’s fears

Sydney Spencer’s mother Anna, an invalid who worried about her boys, was distressed by his decision to join the Officers’ Training Corps. In his diary entry recording this, he also reflected on the new danger of air raids.

23 January 1915
Last night … I had a long letter from poor little mother, who it seems took my letter from the postman and Father let her read it! Her letter very much upset me as I could see that her little heart ached at this apparent new anxiety which was hers, and I felt almost a coward for having satisfied my own conscience and perhaps given her pain. Her mother heart had raked up innumerable excuses why I should not join the OTC, and even went so far as to say that I had better not join the Corps until I had discussed the matter with Florence! Why I should wait for my sister’s opinion & permission I could not see despite the fact that she is a very dear & loving one! Besides it was too late to say anything for the simple reason that I had signed my name on, only about two hours before!

I wrote Mother a six page letter and did my best to comfort her with the idea that my taking a commission was a very vague thing at present, & that I was merely putting myself into a fit condition to be ready in case of emergencies.

Notices are now posted in shop windows concerning the expected air raids. It is thought Oxford is in danger from attack by aircraft. It seems strange to think of this year of our Lord 1915, that Oxford – lovely home of knowledge & art and youth at its prime – should be threatened with a devastation of bombs from a monster which is called “an airship”. It seems impossible to think that only 15 short years ago, nothing was heard of concerning attempts to fly except by the initiated few, & yet here, the aerial warfare is an accomplished fact & one does not feel any great surprise when one reads in the paper of “fleets of air craft” appearing off Holland etc.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/14)

The war engulfs Sydney Spencer

After months of agonising, undergraduate Sydney Spencer took a significant step in his progress towards the army, when he joined the Officers’ Training Corps at Oxford.

22 January 1915
I join the Officers’ Training Corps this day!

Have just had two letters. One from Father & one from Harold.

On Harold’s PC it says “Yes certainly” which means I may buy a uniform; & Father says he feels that I must join which means I shall enrol myself a member of the OTC this morning! Hurrah! It is a relief to feel that I shall at last be outside the pale of the power of the recruit catcher & be able to stare those wretched king-and-country-need-you posters out of countenance. What a peculiar change in a life like mine. Me a soldier of all impossible things. Well, “that is what becomes of that”, & you may fill in what that means ad libertam. By the way when I saw the Adjutant Commanding Officer last night the curve of his mouth & the angle of his glasses struck me as familiar – where had I seen him before. I remember! In the summer term I took Smalls, & there swept up & down the great north school in robed dignity a man with a peculiar curve to his mouth and a certain angle to his glasses! The same man. He was an invigilator the last time I saw him!

7.45pm So the war has engulfed me at last! I am just returned from signing my name on the enrolment list of the OTC. I now belong to C Company, Class II of the OTC, and that’s the humour on it! I am thankful to have taken the plunge. Now may God go forward with me and lead me where He will through this strange fantasy of life which when it unfolded its blossom a year ago seemed to pint me n to a life of quiet study, contemplation & general seclusion from officialism. And now. Well, Colonel Stenning said on parting, “You understand that parades etc are compulsory.” I am under orders, I am a unit in a vast machine, I have a place to fill, an office to fit myself for, and if need be a country to fight for.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/14)

A lump to stand on

Sydney Spencer continued to think seriously of a future as an army officer, despite his slight build:

21 January 1915
I wrote to Harold and Father this morning to find out whether they agree & will help me to get into the OTC. Also last night when I had done my work I wrote to Captain Wixly & told him of what I was intending to do if matters sorted themselves out properly. When I was discussing probabilities with Loughton I suggested that if I did ever get a commission and went out to the trenches they would have to make a little lump for me to stand on! He was highly amused at this!!

This evening I went to see Colonel Stenning at the OTC Offices in Alfred St, No 9. (Ye Gods! I have been to the wrong Alfred Street every time! How was I to know that there was another Alfred Street?) He tells me that I can go into the Corps as soon as I definitely know from home as to whether it is approved of.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/14)