Anne, a former governor at Aberlour, Scotland’s children’s charity, didn’t set out to write a 256 page history of Aberlour Orphanage in WW1 through letters and orphanage magazines. Part of her role during her 12 years of volunteering on the Board of Aberlour was to answer requests for information from previous residents of Aberlour Orphanage or their families. But in responding to these requests, Anne unearthed a historical treasure trove dating back to the Orphanage’s inception in 1875.
Amongst these records, Anne came across letters from young men who grew up in the Orphanage – their only home – who went on to bravely fight for their country in World War One. Some 360 young men joined mostly local regiments and we know that at least 62 of them died in the war years.
Monthly magazines published by Aberlour provided rich accounts of the struggles for the Orphanage during WW1 to feed and clothe usually 500 children.
Anne said: “When people contacted me about their relatives, I always liked to try to find as much information as I could to give them a real sense of the person. Often their relatives were deceased, and this was their last link to them, so I felt it was my responsibility to bring that person to life as much as I could. It was through poring over these records that I found material from 1914 onward.
“The letters that I read were very moving. They and the monthly magazines highlighted the plight of the Orphanage, as it struggled to make ends meet with rationing and lack of clothing for the children and young people who lived there. What really struck me was how clearly the staff cherished the young men that they had raised. The letters showed the courage and humour of the boys despite terrible war experiences they faced.
“I thought to myself, this is an important exchange of letters that Aberlour held. The stories of young people growing up in care are too often lost, and these young men had a unique experience of communicating with their ‘family’ during the war.
“It was an honour to speak with relatives of two of the men featured in this book. Arthur Mylam was one of the “star” correspondents with the Orphanage His son , also Arthur, was 93 when I spoke to him, he was delighted to have found out more about his father from my searches. This was poignant too, as I found out that Arthur’s son died just 3 weeks after we had been in touch. Ben Pritchard also wrote many letters and I was able to speak to two of his grandsons and a great grandson and they helped to add information about the family history.
“I’m delighted to have been able to put together the letters and the diaries into “The Only Home They Knew”
“With the centenary of the end of WW1 this year I hope this book provides a very different picture of WW1 from many of the historical books available. At a time where the media is very focused on negative experiences of people growing up in care, I think it is important to highlight some of the positive experiences that young people had, and the love and bond that clearly existed between these young men and their carers exemplifies this.”
Copies of the book are available here.