uncovered heartbreak in their grandfather’s envelope designs

Then Brenda Fitch was two, her paternal grandfather sent her a letter with a prediction. “I know,” he wrote, “that your dear Dada and Mamma are keeping a book of envelopes for you, and I have no doubt when you reach the age of 21 you will consider them interesting.”

Frederick Tolhurst, Brenda’s grandfather, was an amateur artist and the envelopes that he was referring to were illustrated by him with colourful, child-friendly designs. And he was correct: later in her life, Brenda would indeed find them fascinating. But it wasn’t until she was 74 that she discovered the heartbreaking truth behind her grandfather’s hobby.

Frederick died when Brenda was four; but as she and her younger sister, Sandra Britton, grew up, they were aware of the family collection of envelopes addressed to their father, Reginald, and his sister, Vera. “The thing we never thought about,” says Brenda, “was why he had sent them so many letters.”

Reginald died in 1984, aged 79, but Vera lived to be 104. “When she was 100, she told me the most extraordinary thing out of the blue,” Brenda says. “She was in a nursing home in Tunbridge Wells. One day, while talking about what we should do with her things after her death, she suddenly said: ‘My mother left us when I was seven.’ She could still remember the day her mother went; she remembered standing on the doorstep crying, and watching her mother walk off down the road carrying a suitcase. It was obviously still very painful all these years on.”

All Brenda, who lives in Warwickshire, and Sandra, in Cheltenham, knew about their grandmother, Edith, was that she had died before they were born. “We didn’t know there was anything unusual in our family story,” says Brenda. They decided to do some detective work to find out about Edith and Frederick’s marriage – and the tale they unravelled centred on a love affair that tore the family apart

Frederick Tolhurst and Edith Nash, were married in 1905, and seemingly lived happily for several years in Stockwell, south London. Reginald was born the following year, and Vera in 1908. But a few years later, when Reginald was nine and Vera seven, Edith had an affair with a man called Samuel Sharpe, and later decided to follow him to Uruguay, where he was working. “In those days, divorce was an utter disgrace, and the story made it into the newspapers,” says Brenda..

One account of what happened, in the People’s Journal in 1919, after Edith boarded a ship to South America earlier that year, quotes a letter from Samuel to Frederick that read: “I intend neither to ask nor expect forgiveness from you for what I’ve done.” Samuel and Edith seem to have been very much in love; in the press clipping, Edith is reported to have said she was leaving because Samuel “was the only man who discovered that she had a soul”. She bore her husband no ill feeling, and was going because this was the only way to secure her future happiness.

Frederick, according to the newspaper report, pleaded with Edith to return, but she was adamant she was leaving. Edith sailed on 26 September 1919.

Being a lone father was a lot more difficult 100 years ago. “There was no expectation that a man on his own could work and care for his children, the way there would be today,” says Brenda. Instead, the children were sent to live with relations: Reginald to Bournemouth, and Vera to Hornchurch, Essex. “It must have been terrible for them,” says Sandra. “They were all separated from one another. It must have been incredibly tough.”

Frederick visited the children whenever he could: but mostly they kept in touch by post. And on envelopes he posted on a regular basis to his children were colourful and imaginative illustrations featuring ducks, children, a doll’s house, flowers, cars and a London bus. “It must have been exciting to receive such interesting-looking envelopes,” says Sandra.

 Vera and Reginald Tolhurst.

Many of the letters themselves have not survived; but the envelopes, she says, convey a sense of the kind of man her grandfather was. “He obviously cared about his children a great deal, and missed them very much. I get the impression he was a bit of a workaholic, and perhaps that’s why Edith ended up in the relationship with Samuel. He worked as a printer, so he was perhaps a friend of Frederick’s before he became Edith’s lover.”

Frederick continued to write to Reginald and Vera throughout their childhood; and when Brenda’s arrival in 1938 marked the start of a new generation, he decided to continue the tradition. The letter in which he made the prediction about her interest in them was written on 28 May 1940, a few months into the second world war; its envelope features bomber planes and parachutes in a leaden sky, and what look like the barrels of guns on the ground below. “Not a happy-looking envelope,” he writes in the letter, “but in days to come, you will hear of people talking about the war at times, and they will mention those things on the envelope.”

 A decorated envelope sent to Reginald Tolhurst.

Some of Frederick’s envelopes can now be seen in an exhibition called Writing Home, at the newly opened Postal Museum in London. Emma Harper, the museum’s exhibitions officer, says they are a wonderful example of art mail. “Picture postcards only became popular in Edwardian times, and Frederick Tolhurst was continuing that tradition,” she says. “The images are very eclectic and extremely well thought out – it’s clear that he thought long and hard about what his children would be interested in. Together, they represent a kind of social history of the mid-20th century, from the jazz age, which is referenced in an illustration of a cropped-haired flapper driving a convertible, to the guns and planes of the second world war.

“These days we communicate by emails and texts, but these envelopes show how the mail was a social tool. And it’s also extremely creative.”