In late 1943, Leona Robbins was 12 years old and living in Norfolk, Virginia. Her neighbor and close family friend, Army Lieutenant Charles Field, was headed overseas, where he would be stationed in Norfolk, England. Field suggested that Leona and her friends pull together some toys to distribute to the children there. England had been at war for over four years at that point, and the deprivation and danger faced by its citizens was considerable. Leona responded sympathetically, gathering some dolls and toy cars for the children.
Lt. Field delivered the package to the junior school in the village of Carbrooke, Thetford, Norfolk, in March 1944. Headmistress Mary Norton and each of the children in her class wrote Leona letters of thanks and introduction.
Miss Norton spoke highly of the American soldiers, who had thrown two separate Christmas parties for the children the previous December: “They spoilt our children, and consequently are very popular! I honestly think this last was the best Christmas our children have had since 1939.” The students also drew pictures, including some of a christening ceremony they had for the dolls (naming one of them Leona Mary).
The correspondence continued for a little over a year, with each side sending letters and small gifts. The letters show typically curious children, wanting to compare ages, schools, recreational activities, and vacation schedules with their friend overseas. Nearly every detail was worth checking: “Do you milk cows by machinery in America? We do about here.” They also shared the sorts of stories that kids find newsworthy. A nine-year-old girl wrote of a humorous incident from a recent family visit, recalling “Our uncle wanted a piece of pie, Auntie wouldn’t get him any, so he sat with his elbows on the table saying ‘pie, pie, pie’ over and over again till she gave him some.”
Mixed in with these average childhood concerns were more or less casual references to extraordinary circumstances. Several children identified themselves as evacuees from London. Many referenced “doodlebugs,” a slang term for the German V-1 flying bombs (described by one child as “the Jerry’s latest weapon of war”) that were raining down on England at an alarming rate in the summer of 1944. In a letter dated 26 March 1945, another child relates that “The Germans came over on Monday night, the bullets were flying around our house, we were watching some and had to run in, dad thought we would have to go in the dugout, but we didn’t.”
Finally, in late April 1945, Miss Norton writes with relief, “I expect you are just as delighted as we are about the news of the war in Europe? By the time you get these letters it may well be over.” In the same packet of letters, several children write to reassure Leona that her namesake, the doll Leona Mary, is doing well – all things considered. “We still have got her, and she is still as strong as she was when she came here, execepting [sic] one hand which is off.”
The unfortunate Leona Mary’s injury did not prevent her from going on an adventure or two. “We are going to play mother’s [sic] and father over the meadow today, and I am going to have Leona for my little baby,” writes Marlene Thompson. “Mary Dunnett the girl I sit next to is my husband and Norah Walker is Joyce Starwood’s husband. Yesterday our husbands took us to the pub and we got drunk and fell off our bicycles.”
The final letter was written by Miss Norton in August 1945, having left her teaching job in order to prepare for her upcoming marriage. She wrote that she hoped the correspondence would continue. Unfortunately, as Leona Robbins (now Fitchett) reports, all contact dropped off as everyone “recovered and recouped” from the war. Still, the letters remain as a sweet and sometimes poignant example of the relationships (however fleeting) that can spring up in the darkest of times. “We all think it so very kind of you to take so much trouble over a bunch of kids you’ve never even seen,” wrote Miss Norton earlier that year. “But if you could see the pleasure they have given I believe you would feel a little repaid.”
A quick check of the internet reveals that Carbrooke School is still in existence today (note: this post originally appeared in September 2011), and marks its 165th anniversary this year. The letters written by Miss Norton and her class, along with the children’s drawings and a handful of photographs, are cataloged as the Leona Robbins Fitchett Collection (Accession 50068) and are open to researchers at the Library of Virginia.
-Jessica Tyree Burgess, Senior Accessioning Archivist