South West Wales

Llanelli sailor's WW1 letter home takes 98 years

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Media captionDavid John Phillips' letter will be collected by his granddaughter 98 years after he wrote it

A World War One letter by a sailor stationed in Orkney is to be picked up by his family - 98 years after it should have been posted home to Wales.

Signed "Your Blue Jacket Boy" and dated December 1916, it was found behind a fireplace in the island's capital of Kirkwall more than 60 years later.

The letter was handed into a local archive, where it emerged the author was Llanelli sailor Dai Phillips.

Mr Phillips' granddaughter is going to Orkney to collect the letter in person.

Mary Hodge, who lives in Chester, is also the great-granddaughter of the intended recipient, Dai's father, John Phillips, of Swansea Road, Llanelli.

The stamped and addressed letter was discovered during renovations to a house in Kirkwall in 1980.

But it was not until last year that it was handed in to Orkney Library and Archive.

The quest to trace the family involved amateur internet detectives across the world and was co-ordinated by Lucy Gibbon, of Orkney Library and Archive.

"The first mystery was how did it get [behind the fireplace]," she explained.

"It was stamped and addressed, so the writer had clearly intended to post it.

"One of the people following the story recalled that the mantelpieces in those houses had a gap where they were fixed to the wall.

"So we can only speculate that the writer propped it up there to go in the post box, and when it disappeared down the crack, he simply presumed someone had posted it for him.

Tracing the author

"But then there was the bigger mystery of who The Blue Jacket Boy was. So we put it out on our blog for others to help, and I was amazed how enthusiastic everyone was.

"In no time we were getting responses from England, Wales, here in Orkney, even Australia, and very quickly we were able to piece together the story from Welsh census information and military records."

The history researchers' starting point was the name and address on the envelope: John Phillips, Swansea Road, Llanelli.

The author also mentions siblings called Katie and Blodie.

Image copyright Orkney Library & Archive
Image caption Dai Phillips, the Blue Jacket Boy, in his sailor's uniform

A search of the 1911 Census shows a different family living in the house on Swansea Road.

But the team found a Phillips family on the adjacent street of Woodend Road.

And a John, David, Katie and Blodwin were all listed among the occupants.

Ms Gibbon said: "We only have a small team here at the archives, and we're limited in what we can achieve on our own.

"But by putting it out on the internet we were able to involve a much wider audience and wider group of researchers and expertise to lead us to the answer."

A search of Royal Navy records showed that a David Phillips of the same address had indeed been posted to Orkney, aboard the depot and repair ship HMS Cyclops.

He was demobbed in Pembroke in 1919, but he took home a memento of his time in Orkney - a bride named Catherine Isabella Coghill.

Family found

Ms Gibbon says the team were all delighted that the Blue Jacket Boy had survived World War One and even more so when they discovered that Dai and "Bella" as she was known, had a daughter Minnie.

The history hunt was completed when Minnie's daughter - Dai's granddaughter - Mary Hodge was traced to Chester.

Ms Hodge grew up with her grandparents at their Llanelli greengrocers.

She said that to be given the reminder of her grandfather was the most precious gift she has ever received.

She said: "I burst into tears when I heard. That was my initial reaction, because there's not a day goes by that I don't think of them, so to have a reminder like that, it was overwhelming.

Image copyright Orkney Library and Archive
Image caption Return to sender, hidden behind a fireplace for 66 years and finally handed over to local historians last year

"I knew instantly it was my grandfather.

"I recognised the name and address on the picture of the letter. It was a mixture of high emotion, shock and disbelief.

"We all moan about what goes on on the internet, but thank heavens for it. Because without the help of all those people this letter would never have made it back to me."

After 98 years, Ms Hodge said she is not prepared to take a chance with the post and intends to travel to Orkney in person to collect the letter.

In the meantime, Orkney Library and Archive have promised not to leave it on another mantelpiece.

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