Jenna Bailey is a writer and historian whose research at the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex led to her discovery of the surviving papers of the Co-operative Correspondence Club, which is featured in Episode 13 of ‘Five Hundred Years of Friendship’.
In this edited extract from Jenna’s book about the club, Can Any Mother Help Me? (Faber and Faber, 2007), we learn about one of the members, who used the pen-name ‘Glen Heather’, and relied on the C.C.C. for friendship and support at the most difficult time of her life.
Glen Heather was born in 1903 in Winchester but grew up in Southampton. Her father was a merchant seaman who was, to all intents and purposes, absent and barely provided for the family. Glen Heather and her mother survived on the meagre wages that her mother was able to earn from dressmaking.
After attending Southampton Girls’ Grammar School, at the age of sixteen Glen Heather found employment as a clerk. Her future husband, Don, lived in Southampton and worked as a clerk at a local grammar school. The pair met, fell deeply in love and married in 1928. After Glen Heather’s difficult childhood, she felt Don was her saviour. Once married, they had Marilyn in 1930, Coral in 1933 and Ralph in 1934.
The family was separated for some of the war when Glen Heather and the children were evacuated. For part of this period Glen Heather worked as a billeting officer for Marilyn’s school in Somerset. Don remained in Southampton for the duration and was employed as a government officer.
Following the war, Glen Heather found work as a school secretary and Don became chief clerk of the Southampton Education Department. They occasionally took groups of young people on camping trips to the New Forest, as they shared a passion for exploring the countryside. Eventually the family moved to the New Forest, where both Don and Glen Heather spent much of their spare time gardening and walking.
Glen Heather was one of the least formally educated members of the CCC, but she was well liked by the other women for her warm personality. It is possible that when writing to the CCC she romanticised parts of her life. She was best known amongst the women in the group for the passionate love that she shared with Don, a love that perhaps came at the expense of her relationship with her children.
Glen Heather sent this article to the group in July 1958, immediately after Don had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. At the time, their children Marilyn (nicknamed Bunty), Coral and Ralph were twenty-eight, twenty-six and twenty-three, respectively. Marilyn had already married David and Coral had recently married Tex.
July 13, 1958
My Dear AA,
I remember starting a letter to you but I was removed to bed or something in the middle of it. Now, however, I’ve been doped to sleep and have far better command. The Staff nurse on Don’s ward fobbed me off with some technical information which was true but incomprehensible to me, she hoped. So she told Ralph, but they don’t realise that the layman is not so ignorant on these things nowadays. When Ralph went to see the hospital doctor he told me that they wanted it to dawn on Don slowly to avoid adding to the post-operative shock, so that he would recover enough to be sent to a ‘convalescent’ home or even home.
He would, therefore, not be told unless I wished differently. I knew very well I could never keep up a pretence of lies etc. for a fortnight. Besides it is not our way of meeting catastrophe. I decided to tell him. The children agreed. It was hard, but I managed to do it and he was absolutely wonderful and has decided to do all he can to keep calm and get ready for home. The doctor does not give him long. It’s advanced in stomach and liver and he’s awfully tired. But he’s determined to beat it as long as possible, he says. I don’t think he realises it’s only months. His only worry is the pain and whether I can bear to see him in it, but the doctor assured Ralph that the drugs will be available, so I am longing to get him home.
Coral is packing to begin her new life with Tex in London. It seems incredible that mine with Don is ending, it only seems five minutes ago we began.
I know you’ll be thinking of me. GH.
We are indeed thinking of you, Glen Heather dear, and hoping that things will be as easy as possible for you. All love. (Barnie)
I seem to have written to you more in the past fortnight than for ages. Don is asleep and I can’t settle to anything and as you are my solace I write to you. Yesterday turned out to be a bad day but the early morning was beautiful, tho’ the tax it made on my heart strings was more than I could bear.
I didn’t know what date it was, hardly the day, but when I went into Don’s room at 6 a.m. he said, ‘Darling, there’s just a little parcel for you in that drawer. Of course, I’ve had to have accomplices.’ I found it and, puzzled, opened the note. I can’t disclose to you now what was in it but it was our wedding anniversary and there were little roses and lace handkerchiefs and perfume. How could I bear it. The tears rolled down my face and for the first time Don covered his face and wept. The arduous task of nursing I seem to manage and I stay with him every minute possible, but the pain in my heart seems unendurable. It’s indeed a high price to pay for our closeness all these years but I wouldn’t have it otherwise.
Poor CCC, I ought not to torment you too. The children have been truly wonderful, but Coral now has joined Tex in London and there is only Ralph, who is away all day. Coral and Tex were always here. Coral living and Tex from Friday to Monday morning early. The house was full of young people at weekends and often evenings. I miss them all but even they don’t understand quite the bond between Don and me as CCC does.
Bunty has been coming down at weekends and Coral and Tex will take a turn I know when they return from Spain, where they’ve gone for a belated honeymoon. Don insisted that they go having arranged and paid for everything in advance. They were dubious but he persuaded them. It’s such a pity this should have happened just now to cloud their happiness when they are starting their own home in London. But they’re young and it’s bound surely to leave their minds for quite appreciable periods. I hope so.
Thank you so much those of you who have written to me.
I know just how you feel. Whether to or not, and whatever to say. But I did find something in receiving them and I am grateful from the bottom of my heart for your allowing me to share my pain with you, for I can’t seem to see any hope in the future just now. All I can do is to get thro’ the present.
At night I worry about the future, but at that time it’s probably all exaggerated and unreal. If only I could reach out and find normality somehow or another for just a little while. Ralph is very strong-minded and makes me behave normally when he’s here. But there’s a difference in going] thro’ the motions and actually feeling stable. I’ve talked about myself and nothing about the others’ sorrow or Don’s troubles. Oh dear, it’s dreadful to think that my nursing, however devoted and expert, can do absolutely nothing.
Well, not nothing because he is comforted, but there’s no point in talking of his trouble.
I wish I could come and cry in each of your arms! Here I have to be constantly dry eyed and brave for the sake of Ralph and Don and to repay the kindness of my friends, but dear CCC doesn’t call for such control.
Thank you all again for writing to me. I seem to have no faith in anything, nor see any purpose in anything. Then a letter comes and somehow it takes the place of my ‘safety valve’ a little (which is just one of the hundred things Don has been to me).
Agony to read this. (Roberta)
Follow Jenna Bailey on Twitter: @jenna_e_bailey