Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Winifred M. Letts (1882 - 1972) – British poet and writer

I have written about Winifred Mabel Letts previously because she featured in the very first commemorative WW1 exhibition we produced - Female Poets of the First World War - held at the award-winning Wilfred Owen Story in Argyle Street, Birkenhead, Wirral, UK from November 2012.  However, thanks to Paul Whitehead of the Facebook Page about writer and poet Flora Thompson, I noticed recently that the Wikipedia entry for Winifred still has her middle name incorrectly given as Mary.   

Bairbre O’Hogan has been researching Winifred M. Letts for many years. Bairbre’s mother was a friend of Winifred’s and Bairbre remembers Winifred very well.  

Copy of Winifred Mabel Letts' birth certificate
kindly supplied by Bairbre O'Hogan

Winifred Mabel Letts was born on 10th February 1882 in Salford, Manchester, UK, formerly in the County of Lancashire.  Her parents were Ernest Frederick Letts, an Anglican church minister and his wife, Mary Isabel, nee Ferrier.  Winifred had the following siblings:  Mary F.S., b. 1877 and Dorothy M., b. 1878.  After the death of Winifred’s father, the family moved to Ireland.

Educated at Abbots Bromley School in Staffordshire, Winifred went on to study at Alexandra College in Dublin.  Her career as a writer began in 1907 when the novels “Waste Castle” and “The Story Spinner” were published.


During the First World War, Winifred joined the Volunteer Aid Detachment and worked as a nurse at Manchester Base Hospital. She then trained as a medical masseuse – that is a physiotherapist in modern parlance - with the Almeric Paget Military Massage Corps. Winifred worked at Army camps in Manchester and Alnwick, Northumberland during WW1.   

Winifred’s WW1 poetry collections were “Hallow-e’en, and other poems of the war” (Smith, Elder, 1916) and  “The Spires of Oxford, and other poems” (Dutton, New York, 1917). Her poems were included in 21 WW1 poetry anthologies. 


The photograph of Winifred and her birth certificate are reproduced here by kind permission of Bairbre O’Hogan.  Winifred’s WW1 VAD Record Card is from The British Red Cross website. 


“TO A SOLDIER IN HOSPITAL”  


Courage came to you with your boyhood's grace 

Of ardent life and limb. 

Each day new dangers steeled you to the test, 

To ride, to climb, to swim. 

Your hot blood taught you carelessness of death 

With every breath. 


So when you went to play another game 

You could not but be brave : 

An Empire's team, a rougher football field, 

The end — perhaps your grave. 

What matter? On the winning of a goal 

You staked your soul. 


Yes, you wore courage as you wore your youth 

With carelessness and joy. 

But in what Spartan school of discipline 

Did you get patience, boy? 

How did you learn to bear this long-drawn pain 

And not complain ? 


Restless with throbbing hopes, with thwarted aims, 

Impulsive as a colt, 

How do you lie here month by weary month 

Helpless and not revolt? 

What joy can these monotonous days afford 

Here in a ward? 


Yet you are merry as the birds in spring, 

Or feign the gayety, 

Lest those who dress and tend your wound each day 

Should guess the agony. 

Lest they should suffer — this the only fear 

You let draw near. 


Graybeard philosophy has sought in books 

And argument this truth, 

That man is greater than his pain, but you 

Have learnt it in your youth. 

You know the wisdom taught by Calvary 

At twenty-three. 


Death would have found you brave, but braver still 

You face each lagging day, 

A merry Stoic, patient, chivalrous, 

Divinely kind and gay. 

You bear your knowledge lightly, graduate 

Of unkind Fate. 


Careless philosopher, the first to laugh, 

The latest to complain, 

Unmindful that you teach, you taught me this 

In your long fight with pain : 

Since God made man so good — here stands my creed — 

God's good indeed. 


W. M. Letts. "The Spectator". 

Sources:

Catherine W. Reilly “English Poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography” (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1978) p. 198

https://archive.org/stream/warverse01foxc/warverse01foxc_djvu.txt pp 184 - 185

Notes:

There is a book of the exhibition held at the WOS "Female Poets of the First World War - Volume One" available via Amazon.

The Award-winning Wilfred Owen Story is now situated in West Kirby, Wirral. https://www.wilfredowenstory.com/

https://femalewarpoets.blogspot.com/2019/02/winifred-mabel-letts-1882-1972-british.html