Great War Service Records, The Importance of Handwritten Notes and Early 20th Century Tattoos.

I am looking at my great grandfather’s almost 100 year-old signature. Here it is in black and white; Arthur Leslie Farrow signed his name in 1917. His pinky finger moved across this piece of paper as he formed his beautiful, almost whimsical letters in Indian ink. The F is a dance. And the whole is underlined with a flourish. This is the closest I’ve ever been to the grandfather my dad called ‘Goollie’ (pronounced to rhyme with woolly). It is a whoop-y thrill!

Arthur Leslie Farrow's signature on his WW1 attestation papers.

Today in my post box, I received three handwritten letters. One was written by an uncle in New Zealand just three weeks ago. The other two are older. They are the Great War service records of two of my ancestors. Both served in South African units. Charles John Morton Hinton, who had served with the 4th South African Infantry and had survived the inhumanly awful battle of Delville Wood with just a small injury, died in Aubigny from a gunshot wound to the abdomen the day after Valentine’s Day in 1917. The poor boy lived for a day after being shot. Arthur Leslie (CJM’s brother-in-law) served with the S.A. Pay Corps; he was an accountant. Goollie never left South Africa and lived to burn my father’s fingernails when he made a small bonfire beneath the eaves of his grandfather’s house.

Looking at all three of my letters today, I am saddened that we don’t write anymore. I feel wonderfully close to all three of my letter writers for having seen their handwriting.

Florence Eliza and Arthur Leslie Farrow in Cape Town 1920.

Arthur is the last of my Farrow family to have been born in England. He was born in 1887 in London but moved to South Africa with his father sometime close to the turn of the last century. The family lived in Cape Town and Durban but eventually the pull of the City of Gold won out. By the end of the war, Arthur was living and working in Johannesburg.

It was a new city then and it had, as it still does today, the atmosphere of a frontier town. Johannesburg exists for one reason alone – gold. There is no beautiful lake view, there are no mountains, there isn’t an ocean for 600 km. It is a city in a wide grassland, up against a ridge filled with gold. When Johannesburg was first proclaimed, it was a village of tin shanties and bars. In 1886 its 600 residents were served by 30 bars. Everything was covered by a thin patina of red dust (the housewives complained bitterly about washing white shirts) as the roads were not paved and the main transport was ox-wagon. There was precious little water too. It was cosmopolitan, rough around the edges and everybody moved about as if they had somewhere to be.

In 1902, Edmund Bright had the following to say in a letter home to his mother in America:

“So far I like Johannesburg very much; it is just like a thriving American town. Everyone is in a hurry, and if you cannot keep up with the push, you must fall behind…All of the rest of South Africa seems to be asleep, after you see Johannesburg. Everyone is after gold and you can fairly smell it in the air”.

So, Arthur with the beautiful handwriting, moved to the richest city in Africa. Arthur, the 5 ft 5½ in brown-haired, brown-eyed accountant had a surprise up his shirt-sleeves too. According to his military records, he had a small tattoo on his left forearm. How extraordinary that the son of an accountant who was the son of an architect should have a tattoo in 1917. I thought they were strictly for sailors of ill-repute. But I was wrong. Below are a few examples of early 20th century tattoos. The chaps on the right terrify me just a little and I am pleased that Goollie isn’t one of them.

Tattoos are old.

Otzi the Iceman had them, the Vikings had them, the Picts had them, women in the court of Queen Elizabeth I had them. It was the sailors who travelled back from the South Pacific islands in the 18th Century who popularised them in the west in the modern period. While on Cook’s expedition to Tahiti, Sir Joseph Banks got a tattoo. The aristocracy was so fascinated by skin art that even King George V got inked. He had a tattoo of the Cross of Jerusalem as well as a dragon on his forearm.

“Tattooing spread among the upper classes all over Europe in the 19th century, but particularly in Britain where it was estimated in Harmsworth Magazine in 1898 that as many as one in five members of the gentry were tattooed. There, it was not uncommon for members of the social elite to gather in the drawing rooms and libraries of the great country estate homes after dinner and partially disrobe in order to show off their tattoos. Aside from her consort Prince Albert, there are persistent rumours that Queen Victoria had a small tattoo in an undisclosed ‘intimate’ location. Winston Churchill had an anchor tattooed on his forearm.”

Source: Wikipedia

I wish I had known all of this before I got my first tattoo and disappointed my father so comprehensively. If I could have said that I was in the company of Winston Churchill and more than a few Kings of England, perhaps he would have endorsed it. Lady Randolf Churchill had a snake tattooed around her wrist, for goodness sake – how contemporary! And if Queen Victoria had a tattoo in a secret spot, well I really do think that both my great-grandfather and I can be forgiven.

That’s it for this week, thanks for stopping in.

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