Monday, 21 January 2013

A Book with a Story

It's funny how some things just find you...a piece of gorgeous fabric, a teapot that becomes a favourite, or even a woolly jumper that stays part of your essential wardrobe for years. In my case, it was a book. A copy of G.K. Chesterton's complete works, to be precise.

Back in 1996, my school's library was left boxes and boxes of books by a lady who had lived locally. As there wasn't room for them all, we were given the chance to rummage through them and choose any that took our fancy (in exchange for a small donation to library funds). I was studying for my A-Levels at the time (English Literature included) and so was drawn to anything that looked like it might broaden my literary horizon! When I picked up a very plain looking book of Chesterton's poetry I could never have known that it was to become one of my most treasured possessions and one that would take me on an incredible journey.

Opoosite the names written on the inside cover (see previous photo), was pasted this letter. 

Dear Madam,
I regret to inform you that P./O. E.A Wagstaff is officially reported "Missing from air operations on 24/25th October" - all the information we have.
Yours faithfully,
C H Wagstaff

Now, I must confess that I have never did get round to reading Chesterton's poetry. I became more interested in finding out about letter instead...and find out I did, with help from all sorts of people from all around the world.

This is Ernest Adam Wagstaff...the man mentioned in the letter in my book. He was a talented chemist from Nottingham who studied for a Ph.D and was, when World War Two was declared, part of the Research Department of the Distillers Company in London. Despite being in a reserved occupation, he joined the Royal Air Force.

Putting a face to his name was a wonderful moment. I can still remember looking at this photo for the first time and the letter in the book becoming more real somehow, more human. 

Ernest Adam Wagstaff was not alone when he went "missing from air operations". He was part of a crew of six flying a Handley Page Halifax on their return journey from a bombing mission to Milan. The crew were:

Sidney Arthur Claridge
Ernest Adam Wagstaff
Sidney Victor Goodhew
Ronald Ward Taylor (Australian) 
Bernard Dudley Swain
Kevin William McAuliffe
James Molesworth (Canadian)

I went from having just one name to find out about, to seven! It's been an incredibly interesting journey and one that I can't see ending any time soon. I've been in touch with some of the crew members' families, managed to get service records for Molesworth and Taylor (unfortunately, only family members can access UK personnel's files) and most poignantly, been to a small communal cemetry in the French countryside where these men now lie. I hope that I'll contunie to find out about these seven men and their story...who knows, perhaps someone out there can add something new?

But what has this story got to do with textiles, I hear you cry?! one of The Wednesday Group's get togethers last year, we were inspired by Penguin's latest release of books - all of which had embroidered artwork on their front covers. "What a fabulous project", we thought, "let's make some book covers of our own"...

...well, it didn't take me long to decide that my Chesterton book was very much in need of a new cover and so here is what I made. 

I made it entirely by hand using english pieced patchwork (a technique I absolutely love).

Here's the back.

I used vintage fabrics, mixed with some photos I have of the crew, as well as text taken from Ops Records and personal letters, that I printed on to fabric. Here's Ernest Adam Wagstaff, the man with whom this whole project started.
I decided to fasten the book with patriotic-coloured buttons and butcher's twine.

Right at the start, my original aim was to find out what had happened to the E.A. Wagstaff in my book...but things have a way of taking you in all sorts of different directions and who knows if I'll ever really stop researching? I could never have imagined that finding this book would take me on such a journey, so keep your eyes peeled, you never know what might find its way into your life one day, ready to whisk you off on an adventure of your own!


Liz said...

Wow - what an amazing story! Love your book cover and hope you find out some more information soon.
Liz @ Shortbread & Ginger

Gill said...

What an incredible story! I dabble in family history too and it's so addictive!

AnniD said...

A really lovely way to preserve a memory for you and for Ernest. I like the way the photos appear nestled in the patriotic right.

Murgatroyd said...

An amazing piece of history, beautifully conserved by your stitches. And so the journey continues... x

Country Cottage Chic said...

What a fabulous & interesting story! I always look inside old books as you often find photos, book marks, shopping lists & postcards but yours is definitely one of the most fascinating.

Lois Parker said...

lovely to see this writen up Katie. Iv'e just started work on the vat collection of family files my mother has collected....hope to make something that feels as real as your amazing project