Deborah Punshon finds out what’s been uncovered after an appeal to unearth lost letters

Lucy Worsley will curate the letters

Lucy Worsley will curate the letters

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When was the last time a handwritten envelope dropped onto your doormat?

It may have been a birthday card, a wedding invitation, or a thank you card.

You may even have been lucky enough to receive a longer note from a friend, a postcard or even a love letter.

You know when a handwritten envelope arrives that it’s not a bill; it’s not a reminder from your doctor and it’s not the latest deal from your TV provider.

Sadly, these things are much more common than receiving something so personal which bears, most probably, a heart-felt sentiment or a happy news.

One’s thing for sure, you are more likely to keep it while you send other printed correspondence to the shredder.

In these days of emails, instant messenger, social media and 24-hour global communication, we can forget how vital letters used to be.

Imagine the wife in 1916 waiting on news of her husband in the Somme, or the elderly woman waiting to hear about her daughter’s voyage on RMS Titanic.

And then there are some letters which were much more intimate, like the young girl in the midst of a courtship waiting for her suitor’s intentions to be put into words, or advice from the older generation to the younger, communicated in the only way they knew how - using a pen and paper.

Despite their importance, so many have been lost over the years, but, to celebrate 500 years of the postal service some are now being unearthed.

The Royal Mail’s Letters of Our Lives campaign began earlier this year, urging the public to rummage through their attics and garages in search of letters long forgotten and gathering dust.

Now, over 350 letters have been received across the UK and are being curated by TV historian Lucy Worsley before a cross-section are showcased on a special website. The collection will include letters from centuries ago to present day and reveal a slice of life through the years.

Lucy said: “Lots of the nationally-important documents in our archives up and down Britain relate to nationally important events like the Industrial Revolution or abolition of slavery. But often legal or offical documents miss out the human stories, how people were feeling about the great issues of the day. That’s something you get best from personal letters.”

And, as far as the Royal Mail is concerned, finding these letters is the perfect way to celebrate 500 years of the post.

“We wanted to uncover the untold stories,” explained Royal Mail’s head of public affairs David Gold.

“We’re keen to shine a light into people’s lives, read the stories that are not well known, the stories not in the history books.

“From that, we can piece together the way ordinary people lived their lives.

“From the letters we have, the breadth of subject matter and the period spanned are enormous.

“We always knew it would be nice to uncover a few surprises, but we have received some really special ones.”

Among the letters submitted is the last penned by Mary Queen of Scots.

Written six hours before her death and addressed to her brother, this historically-significant letter was donated by the National Library of Scotland.

Less public is the poignant letter from German soldier Erich Alfrogge who found the mortally wounded Private James Scouller from Paisley during the battle of Cambrai in 1917. Alfrogge sat with Scouller during his final moments, comforting him until he died, and then wrote to the boys’s family.

David said: “We also have the last letter written onboard the Titanic. Many letters may have gone down with the ship, but this letter was written by Esther Hart and her daughter Eva.

“It was a letter for Esther’s mother and the only reason it survived was that it was in the pocket of her husband’s coat which he gave to her to keep her warm as she boarding a life boat.

“There is also a letter written by William Fellowes, the great great great great grandfather of Julian Fellowes.

“It was written in 1820 when Fellowes was on a coach trip travelling to stay with his son. What was written was like a soap opera for the aristocracy, just like Downton Abbey. Dare I say, it may be where Julian got some of his material!”

But perhaps the letters the public will enjoy the most are the simple tales about love.

David said: “We have one from a father to his future son-in-law that says, yes, you have my permission to marry my daughter, but here are the rules. That letter was found in that man’s wallet when he died years later having enjoyed a very happy marriage and life together so it clearly meant a great deal to him.

“I’ve read courtship letters between my grandparents, and it’s so charming. Reading what they wrote to one another makes your heart leap.

“However modern technology takes over, there is still so much romance in sending letters and receiving them.”