In the early summer of 2009, I attended a day organised for poets by Anne Sherman, Arts Development officer for Cheshire East. She had arranged for two artists in residence for the day and one of them was Maria Walker, whom I had never met before. We were sent outside to write an observational poem and I included Maria in mine because she was so absorbed in her work and was beaming with pleasure as she sewed.
After Walt Whitman
The sewing machine chugs its rhythms as the seamstress smiles.
Outside the woodpigeons baptise the morning in liquid croons.
Spires of lavender describe the wind like artists’ brushes.
The sun bleaches everything bone white.
A red bicycle rests against glass walls, doubled.
A single vulgar dandelion bursts through wood-chipped beds.
In the powder-blue sky, the sun is an ode to summer.
Sage spreads its spicy flavour on squeezing fingers.
Inside the seamstress sews on, her work is her song.
Her cottons and silks and pins scatter round her as she sings.
Over the lunch break I looked at the displays of the two artists and noticed Maria’s had a bundle of letters tied up in pink ribbon. The name on the envelope was Lightfoot, which is my maiden name, but the address was Manchester so I thought nothing of it. Maria had produced a body of work based on these letters, including some fabric shoes embroidered with words from the letters, a number of pictures and a framed set of spoons with words from the letters written on them.
I told Maria I had included her in the poem, we swapped business cards and agreed to keep in touch. Soon we were collaborating: she was using my words on her artwork and sending me artwork which I wrote poems about. We are similar in age and background and interested in many of the same things, such as recycling and reusing old materials, and in working class history, particularly that of women. We decided to meet up again so I could see the artwork properly, at Castle Park Arts Centre in Frodsham. Maria explained it all to me: how she had bought the letters in an antique shop thinking to cut them up to use in artwork. She had decided they were too good to destroy but felt reading them would be intrusive. Eventually, she did read them and was moved by them. She gave their name again and I told her it was my maiden name. She then mentioned Widnes – my home town. It began to look like it might be my family, but I knew there were lots of Lightfoots in Widnes, so I did not get too excited. I asked her for more details and she told me the address was 19 Russell Street, Farnworth. That was the house where my father was brought up with his five siblings. A few first names confirmed the link.
We were very spooked and had to sit down for a minute and take it all in. The odds against this happening must be very long indeed. Maria and I felt a huge responsibility towards these precious documents. We began to plan the next steps in bringing these letters to light for the general public, using our combined art forms. Maria was bowled over to have found the family they belonged to, as she had always hoped to share them one day, knowing they would be important.
On First Hearing of the Letters
for Maria Walker, textile artist
First the artwork with the letters
printed behind photographs
of a different family, enlarged,
framed in a gallery, palimpsests.
Words from the letters
are embroidered on a corset,
traced on shoes, painted on spoons.
A bundle of letters, the artist explains,
bought for the stamps but too good
to cut up. From Widnes (my home town)
a family called Lightfoot (my maiden name).
Not necessarily my family, but may be.
Then the names Frances, Ada, Dorothy:
co-incidence too great. We stand
awed, making webs intricate as old lace,
beautiful as buttons, miraculous as bread.
She has already used my words
to embroider on her art, but I was the follower.
The letters came before me into her work.
They have travelled through time and space
to find me, tied with pink ribbon,
bringing me my father, lost so long ago.
19 Russell Street was in a row of terraced houses in the Widnes village of Farnworth. The present day Russell Court is on the same site. My grandfather Peter Lightfoot (1880-1968) worked at Gossages soap factory. My grandmother was Ada nee Woodward (1882-1933). She suffered from asthma and died at only 51, ten years after the letters were written. My father was one of seven children: William, Frances, Peter (who died as a baby) my father Peter, Vincent, Ada and Dorothy. At the time of writing the letters, Frances was living with her aunt in Manchester, most likely in service. The various family members wrote to her and she kept their letters all her life. My father was born in 1911, so he was 12 when most of the letters were written in 1923.
In early 1924, Frances was called home from Manchester because her mother could no longer cope with looking after the house and the children. However, after Frances came home, things became more and more difficult. The family suffered crippling poverty and there were only two wages coming in, with Frances unable to work while she was managing house and children and caring for a sick mother. Both William and Frances had been to grammar school, but my father, who had passed the 11+, was told he could not go and had to leave school and get a job. He already worked as a delivery boy for the local grocery store, Bridges, and before that had done some farm work for which he was paid in food. He was a very bright boy and it always galled him that not getting an education past 12 years old had hampered him in life, particularly when William and Frances did very well for themselves later. The letters, then, come from a time of innocence before things went badly wrong for my father’s family. He is happy and enjoying his childhood.
The family writes of many things; Willie's traumatic tooth extraction; the 1923 election with Widnes' first Labour candidate; skating on the frozen pond; how difficult it is to get the washing dry; lectures at Gossages; gossip about people in the village; household chores; what they were having for supper, and how different things were where Frances was staying.
As Ada, my grandmother, became increasingly ill, she had a bed downstairs. Ada died in the February of 1933, the year my father was married. No-one from his family came to the wedding, because my father married a Catholic and changed his religion. His family were staunch Protestants. They may also have been in deep confusion and mourning because of Ada’s early death. There was a ten year silence from the Lightfoots, and it was Frances who broke it, turning up on the doorstep to mend the breach.
The letters have survived because Frances kept them carefully all her life. There is no chance of recovering the letters she wrote, so we have only a one-sided correspondence. The letters must have been part of a house clearance after Frances died.
I was taken to visit my Lightfoot grandfather and his second wife at 19 Russell Street, usually by dad, only once by my mum, when grandfather was thought to be dying. He did not, and lived on to 1968. Both he and Ada are buried in the same grave in St Luke’s Church graveyard, Farnworth, Widnes. Until the letters turned up, I had no keepsakes except a few photographs. I will always be grateful to Maria Walker for rescuing them. The artwork she has created, inspired by them, documents exquisitely what it was like to be a working class family in the 1920s and makes a beautiful addition to the letters. Maria created a book cover for the exhibition book, which was the first time she'd designed such a thing. She should do more: I really love her cover collage.
The book is available at a cost of £5 from Erbacce Press, or direct from Angela Topping. It includes most of the letters themselves and ten poems.
By Angela Topping (poet)