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Letters from Northern Rhodesia


Betty's father was a soldier, who had served in India, Capetown, Malta, Ireland, West Africa, Southern Rhodesia, and in the South African War (1899-1901).  He subsequently married (in 1912) a young woman whom he met on board ship, and who shared his birthday.  Betty was born in 1917, sister to Peter (b.1913) and Heather (b.1915).  

In 1935, when Betty was 18, her father decided to take his family to Africa, to see the places where he had been 35 years before.  As part of their trip they visited Northern Rhodesia, the Victoria Falls and the nearby town of Livingstone; they also visited Southern Rhodesia (that he had first visited in the beginning of June, 1896), where his son Peter was with the British South Africa Police.  

On the voyage home, from Capetown to Southampton, Betty met, on board ship, a man whose birthday she shared - so his fate was sealed.  They were married on 24th September, 1936, and sailed away back to Africa, for her new husband, Gervas (often known simply as "G") was employed by the Government of Northern Rhodesia. He had "joined the Service" in 1930, and was entitled to six months "home leave" every three years, so he had had his first in 1933, and this was his second.

Betty kept a diary for most of her life.  Before her marriage, it was a small pocket diary, which she effectively stopped writing upon her marriage.  From 1st January the following year (and thereafter) she kept a Page-a-Day diary.  In her 1936 diary, after her wedding, the only entries are an occasional cryptic "P1", "P2", etc..  

The "P" stands for "Portmanteau" - Wikipedia will tell you that the word describes "a large travelling bag ... opening into two equal parts".  However, in this case it refers to "a large travelling" letter that Betty typed, usually every week, to her parents, with a carbon copy to his parents - i.e. "two equal parts".  She also kept the third (faintest) copy for herself. The numbers are sequential.  Usually, each copy of the portmanteau had a different "suitcase" at the end, specific to each recipient.

Their honeymoon journey sailing out to Capetown was partly spent in writing thank-you letters for the wedding presents.  The first Portmanteau - "P1" - was started in 16th October, 1936, on the train, while travelling between Mafeking and Bulawayo. 

Betty kept writing Portmanteaux for many years - first to both sets of parents, but also, later, to her children in boarding school, and after.  Gervas and Betty retired back to England in 1964; he was 57; she was 47.  But her daughter moved to Wales, and her three sons were in Hong Kong, Australia and Africa, so some Portmanteaux were still written.  

The letters have not been counted, but at say one a week for say 30 years, that's 1500 letters.  This (FREE!) WebSite has restrictions, one is that each Page is restricted to 64,000 characters, so each holds about four letters.  It is probable that one WebSite will not be enough, but that is a bridge yet to be crossed.  If I should manage to upload one a week it would take me 30 years to complete...

This WebSite contains Betty's Portmanteaux, and also (may hold) some of her other letters to her parents and in-laws.  Each letter is shown here in a different colour from the ones before and after, for ease of navigation. 

It is hoped that, when THIS WebSite is finished, a companion WebSite will be created to hold the letters TO Betty, i.e. the replies to the letters you see here.  If you read the rest of this page, you will appreciate that there was (to begin with) a two month delay between asking a question and getting a reply, so the letters to and fro don't make a continuous narrative.  Not QUITE the same as e-mails or "texting" !

Betty also kept the letters that her elder sister Heather wrote to Betty.  These are being uploaded to >here<.  Heather did not keep Betty's letters (as far as is known).


Betty was quite outspoken.  These letters were intended to be read by others, i.e. not “private” like diaries.  They were written 80 years ago, when she was 19 – so any adults she mentioned will have passed on by now.  Anything she says that is derogatory is HER opinion only, so please don't take offence / be upset !


The Mail System in Central Africa in the 1930s.

When Betty's husband-to-be Gervas first went out to Northern Rhodesia, he was posted into a small village in the Bangweulu Swamp.  He used to write to his parents every week.  One of the "caps" that Gervas wore as an Administrator was that of "Postmaster".  The postman would arrive usually about lunch time on a Sunday, and hand the post over to Gervas.  As the only European for seventy miles, in a population mostly illiterate, almost all the post was anyway for him - and mostly official correspondence.  He would deal with it, and hand the outgoing mail (including a letter to his parents) to the Postman, who would then take it to the nearest Post Office, which was 120 miles away, mostly over footpaths through the bush.  It took him a week.  Being employees of the Post Office, these runners had a red uniform (of which they were very proud); and they were therefore called "Scarlet Runners".  By this time, they carried the mail in a satchel - the days of the cleft stick being long gone.   In 1930, Gervas's letters home would then be put on a train to Capetown, then on the Mail ship to Southampton, and thence to his parents in Surrey - a journey of about six weeks.  On 20 January 1932 the first mail-only air route from London to Cape Town was opened.

One of Gervas's first jobs was to arrange for the purchase of corn and dried fish ("the smell lingers yet") for onward transmission to the next District, where they were constructing an airfield.  By 1939, the mail was delivered by air.  From Scarlet Runner to Airmail in just nine years gives an indication of how fast "civilisation" was penetrating the "Heart of Darkest Africa" at that time.  


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