Last year PK Porthcurno was gifted a collection of letters from the nephew of Edgar Lawrence Smith – known to his family as Bobby or Bobs. The letters were written by Bobby between the years 1915 to 1925. Bobby began his career working for the Western Telegraph Company in Madeira and was later stationed in Brazil. Working in Carcavelos (Portugal) during the Second World War he became the Branch Manager for Cable & Wireless at Aden, Gibraltar, and Malta. In 1952, just six weeks prior to his retirement, Bobby died.
The letters provide a wonderful insight into the life of a young man just starting out on his career in telegraphy during the First World War. His early letters include details of his journey by ship to his first station in Madeira and what his first impressions are when he arrives.
Students at Exeter University transcribe and research the letters content
Working with the University of Exeter – Penryn Campus, three Public History Undergraduates took part in a project to transcribe the letters and to research their content, exploring the locations he mentions, the ships he was on, the references to the First World War, and his daily working life.
From this research, the group then created a short film to highlight Bobby’s life and anything they found of particular interest mentioned in his letters. The film can be viewed here.
The transcriptions of all these letters will be available to view when our online collection is launched in December this year.
Thanks go to Sam Jeffs, Harriet Steward and Rhodri Pinkham for their dedication to this project and the brilliant outcomes they achieved.
Harriet and Rhodri discuss the project and what it meant to them
I was keen to be involved in a project that researched an untold story. Reading and transcribing the letters allowed me to understand not only the life of someone working for a telegraph company, but also an alternative story of a man during the First World War. As I read the letters, I was able to learn about the everyday history of the writer, Bobby, and his job. There was also a continual reference to large historical events which allowed me to place Bobby’s life into the grand narrative of the First World War. We wanted our film to contain interesting parts about Bobby’s letters, as well as recognising where his story lay in that of the First World War. Showing the importance of Bobby’s history was vital within this project. Overall, the project allowed me to gain a greater understanding of the importance of ‘history from below’, and I found this extremely interesting.Harriet Steward
Working with the PK Porthcurno on transcribing these letters and producing a film summarising their content was an excellent way to be introduced to the ‘workplace’ of history for the first time. These letters written by Edgar Lawrence Smith and the film that my colleagues and I produced after transcribing them are useful tools for one wishing to obtain further insight into what it was like to work for the Western Telegraph Company during and surrounding the First World War. These letters are also a great primary source for learning about experiences of the Great War that differ from those that most already have an understanding of. We hope that the short film we produced will be extremely helpful and entertaining to those who wish to understand the content of these letters further. Thank you to PK Porthcurno, and specifically Charlotte Todd, for allowing us to take part in this project, as well as guiding us along the way.Rhodri Pinkham