In the 1960s Sutton photographer James Speight gave a talk to the Sutton Coldfield Rotary Club about his memories of the town as it was in 1902. The talk was recorded by John Frost and that recording is now available here thanks to John Frearson. Further information on the Speight family can be found on John Frearson’s web page.
You may need to turn the volume up a little on your speakers.
Alternatively you can listen to the individual snippets by clicking on the links below:
Track 9: Now here’s a point – end of Parade
Track 10: Um where are we – summer holiday resort
Track 11: There were no ashbins
Track 12: Now Mr President – prices of goods
Track 13: Income tax all through
Track 14: Ah now the last item – Sunday post
The Rotary Club has since undergone a slight reorganisation and the following clubs now exist:
RC Sutton Coldfield Vesey – https://rotaryvesey.org.uk/
RC Wylde Green – www.wyldegreenrotary.org.uk
Twitter – @wyldegrnrotary
In 1916, at the age of 35, James became Private Speight of D Co. 20 Battalion Durham Light Infantry. In June 1917 his battalion went to France and took part in the Battle of the Somme. He was later in Italy and then returned to France.
Whilst on active service James wrote letters to his friends and family. His letters have been reunited from various relatives and are now held by the Warwickshire County Record Office.
A selection of the letters – there are many more than the ones listed here – were read and recorded onto cassette by James Speight’s son, John ‘Jack’ Speight and were transferred to CD by John Frearson, who has kindly made these recordings available here, after further transcription by Zoe Toft.
James Speight’s Letters written during World War One
Track 1: Introduction. Includes a brief biography of James. This recording is not a letter, but provides useful context to the letters that follow.
Track 2: 2 December 1916 Letter to his parents. Written from Andover, Hants, having been transferred from Yorkshire Moors. Writes about where he is billeted and eating meals at the Drill Hall. He acknowledges how lucky he is to have an income supplementary to army pay.
Track 3: 11 March 1917 Letter to parents and brother Harry. “A soldier never tires of chocolate”. Writes about how a fellow soldier he is billeted with has been stealing coal which they hide to keep warm. Helps out at the ordnance stores, due to a measles outbreak.
Track 4: 1 July 1917 To Miss Wise and everyone at the studio. A great send off from Colchester. Writing from “an awful place…the bull ring…where they put you to it before proceeding to the Front”. Challenges of living in a tent with so many other soldiers. Requests quinine and iron tablets from Mr Walker [his chemist brother-in-law, also living in Sutton Coldfield].
Track 5: 13 August 1917 To Father, Mother and Harry. “Yes, I have been over the top, and had the best of luck”. Four pals are missing. Grateful to now be somewhere “where there is green grass, and the trees have leaves and branches.” Thanks everyone for their food parcels. “I have crouched for hours in trenches”. Writes about his emotions before and after an action, and the devastation of the countryside.
Track 6: 16 August 1917 To Clare. Describes most recent tasks – carrying spigots for barbed wire up and rations to the front line. Describes what it is like to experience a shell attack – “turns a strong man into a frightened worm”. “No words could describe the awful desolation of the shell zone.” Disparagingly mentions a body shield, perhaps at the suggestion Clare might have sent him one.
Track 7: Undated To Gull. Grateful for chocolate. Describes digging a grave for a fellow soldier, immediately followed by “a hearty and enjoyable breakfast!”. Acknowledges that he can’t write freely because of the censor. Outlines the rhythm of a typical day of warfare.
Track 8: Undated To Clare. Describes content of food parcel. Complains about body shield because of its weight. “Human birds in a cage made of army restrictions.”
Track 9: Undated To Father and Mother. Grateful for the cakes made by Mrs Hutchins. Discusses duties and advantages of being a Corporal, and his inexperience in giving orders.Platoon has been to the baths. “My knowledge of French is about 20 words.” Describes pastoral scene where he is writing and can’t believe how different it is from the front line.
Track 10: 29 September 1917 To Lizzie. “Once again I’ve been over the top… I’ve been more lucky than I can possibly tell you.” Detailed description of what going over the top was like. Under fire, “I hugged Mother Earth to my bosom… and there I had to remain until after dark.”
Track 11: 25 November 1917 To Lizzie. Writing from Italy. “Marching fills my life these days”. Requests money, a book of conversational Italian, louse destroyer. Appreciative of a splendid cake from Clare. Hoping for a bath tomorrow.
Track 12: Undated To Miss Wise. Requests a weekly bread and chocolate order, tobacco, and newspapers.
Track 13: 10 January 1918 To Miss Wise and everyone at the studio. Extremely grateful for parcel received. “Miss Stock’s cake is very good.” Describes receiving the Sutton News from Mrs Walker [his sister, Lizzie]. Requests a calendar. Comments on studio orders and suggests ordering some new furniture for the studio. A new studio camera stand? Puts hay in his boots to act as insulation. “I wonder when I shall see you all and the dear old place again”.
Track 14: 4 March 1918 To my dear sister [Lizzie]. Writing on a broken down train in the Alps. “A tommy is playing a mouth organ and a french railway man is doing a dance.” “In many respects we are sorry to leave Italy.” March 8 1918. Please continue to send bread. Gives his sister some business advice.
Track 15: Undated To Miss Wise. Grateful for parcel. Comments on business affairs and gives some advice on photographic equipment. “Do you think there is a chance that this war will become a permanent institution? I do.”
Track 16: 19 March 1918 To my dear sister [Lizzie]. Brigadier’s inspection.
Track 17: 24 March 1918 and 6 April 1918 To Father and Mother. Comments on how he barely knows what day it is. Describes his “residence” in the side of a trench. Appreciates his sponge – for drinking and washing – and discusses how difficult it is to get water. “Here I am still, alive… a ration of tea has just arrived – Hurrah!”. Second letter is to Lizzie, and describes a fighting retreat. Requests a tin of Harrison’s pomade [against lice] and some money.
Track 18: 8 April 1918 To Miss Wise and everyone. “Life in the past fortnight has been very trying… I hard know what to tell you.” Discusses paucity of rations. Describes using a pebble to manage his hunger and savouring cold tea.
Track 19: 27 April 1918 To everyone at the studio. “I think of you everyday.” Discusses some studio practicalities. Describes his dugout.
Track 20: Undated To Lizzie. Describes an “exciting rat hunt” taking place as he writes. Talks about quantities of barbed wire and dirt everywhere and making cocoa with water from a shell hole.
Track 21: Afterthoughts A commentary by James’s son Jack, describing where James was on Armistice Day, and his role in a “mutiny”. Then what it was like to return to Sutton to pick up the business, marry and start a family. Sudden noises continued to disturb James long after his return – a legacy of his wartime experience. James was part of “Dad’s Army” in the Second World War, “but that is another story”.