New friends in wartime, an ocean apart

Photo, 22 December 1945, taken at a party given for the children of Carbrooke School by American soldiers stationed in Norfolk, England.  One of the dolls given to the students by Leona Robbins (and given the name

In late 1943, Leona Robbins was 12 years old and living in Norfolk, Virginia.  Her neighbor and close family friend, Army Lieutenant Charles Field, was headed overseas, where he would be stationed in Norfolk, England.  Field suggested that Leona and her friends pull together some toys to distribute to the children there.  England had been at war for over four years at that point, and the deprivation and danger faced by its citizens was considerable.  Leona responded sympathetically, gathering some dolls and toy cars for the children.

Lt. Field delivered the package to the junior school in the village of Carbrooke, Thetford, Norfolk, in March 1944.  Headmistress Mary Norton and each of the children in her class wrote Leona letters of thanks and introduction.  Miss Norton spoke highly of the American soldiers, who had thrown two separate Christmas parties for the children the previous December: “They spoilt our children, and consequently are very popular!  I honestly think this last was the best Christmas our children have had since 1939.”  The students also drew pictures, including some of a christening ceremony they had for the dolls (naming one of them Leona Mary).

The correspondence continued for a little over a year, with each side sending letters and small gifts. The letters show typically curious children, wanting to compare ages, schools, recreational activities, and vacation schedules with their friend overseas.  Nearly every detail was worth checking: “Do you milk cows by machinery in America?  We do about here.”  They also shared the sorts of stories that kids find newsworthy.  A nine-year-old girl wrote of a humorous incident from a recent family visit, recalling “Our uncle wanted a piece of pie, Auntie wouldn’t get him any, so he sat with his elbows on the table saying ‘pie, pie, pie’ over and over again till she gave him some.”

Mixed in with these average childhood concerns were more or less casual references to extraordinary circumstances.  Several children identified themselves as evacuees from London.  Many referenced “doodlebugs,” a slang term for the German V-1 flying bombs (described by one child as “the Jerry’s latest weapon of war”) that were raining down on England at an alarming rate in the summer of 1944.  In a letter dated 26 March 1945, another child relates that “The Germans came over on Monday night, the bullets were flying around our house, we were watching some and had to run in, dad thought we would have to go in the dugout, but we didn’t.”

Finally, in late April 1945, Miss Norton writes with relief, “I expect you are just as delighted as we are about the news of the war in Europe?  By the time you get these letters it may well be over.”  In the same packet of letters, several children write to reassure Leona that her namesake, the doll Leona Mary, is doing well – all things considered. “We still have got her, and she is still as strong as she was when she came here, execepting [sic] one hand which is off.” 

The unfortunate Leona Mary’s injury did not prevent her from going on an adventure or two.  “We are going to play mother’s [sic] and father over the meadow today, and I am going to have Leona for my little baby,” writes Marlene Thompson. “Mary Dunnett the girl I sit next to is my husband and Norah Walker is Joyce Starwood’s husband. Yesterday our husbands took us to the pub and we got drunk and fell off our bicycles.”

The final letter was written by Miss Norton in August 1945, having left her teaching job in order to prepare for her upcoming marriage.  She wrote that she hoped the correspondence would continue.  Unfortunately, as Leona Robbins (now Fitchett) reports, all contact dropped off as everyone “recovered and recouped” from the war.  Still, the letters remain as a sweet and sometimes poignant example of the relationships (however fleeting) that can spring up in the darkest of times.  “We all think it so very kind of you to take so much trouble over a bunch of kids you’ve never even seen,” wrote Miss Norton earlier that year. “But if you could see the pleasure they have given I believe you would feel a little repaid.”

A quick check of the internet reveals that Carbrooke School is still in existence today, and marks its 165th anniversary this year.  The letters written by Miss Norton and her class, along with the children’s drawings and a handful of photographs, are cataloged as the Leona Robbins Fitchett Collection (Accession 50068) and are open to researchers at the Library of Virginia.

-Jessica Tyree, Senior Accessioning Archivist

Transcript of 29 March 1944 letter from Mary Norton to Leona Robbins

Transcript of 30 June 1944 letter from Fred Laws to Leona Robbins

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5 Comments

  1. Neil laws said:
    6 February 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Hi,
    I have just discovered this most amazing story or the friendship between Leona and carbrooke school children.
    I was thrilled to find the letter to leona from my father, Fred laws, then aged 11. It was wonderful to read the letter that he wrote, and almost made me cry! Sadly my father passed away 13 years ago, but my mother and sisters will be thrilled when I show them this. Many many thanks,
    Neil Laws

    • Jessica said:
      7 February 2012 at 12:13 pm

      I was so pleased to read your comment, Mr. Laws! It is a lot of fun for us here when we see people making personal connections with the records at the Library of Virginia. I’m sorry to hear that your father has already passed, but am gratified to provide a glimpse into his childhood for you and your family to enjoy. I will pass your comment on to Leona — I’m sure she will be delighted as well!

  2. Jan Godfrey said:
    29 April 2012 at 2:52 pm

    Neil Laws has shared the information about Carbrooke school with the Carbrooke History and Heritage Facebook page. I was one of the children at the school – a little younger than Freddie Laws, Marlene Thompson and Mary Dunnett – they were my sister’s age. On the photograph I an the little girl standing on the right in a pinafore with my head down – I was very shy then. Mary Norton was an inspirational teacher and I became a teacher myself – eventually Neil was one of my pupils and this exchange has put us in touch again. Isn’t it a wonderful world! My husband Ken and I were born and have always lived in the village and we have developed a friendship with the USAAF servicemen who were stationed here, representing them here and attending their reunions in the States.
    I recall the dolls Leona and her friends sent and I am so pleased she is still alive and remembers too.

    • Jessica said:
      30 April 2012 at 8:01 am

      I am happy to hear that Neil shared the article with you all. It has been a real treat for Leona to get in touch with him and learn more about his father. What a great testament to Ms. Norton that you eventually followed in her footsteps. It sounds as if you all have a close-knit community there in Carbrooke and I’m glad that this extends to the USAAF servicemen as well. For all of the horrors that war can bring, it is great to see something positive come from it. Thanks so much for commenting!

  3. Mary Dunnett Nelson said:
    19 July 2014 at 1:41 pm

    I remember that Christmas party very well. Sorry to learn of Freddy Laws passing but guess the years are catching up with all of us. We visited Carbrooke 32 years ago.

    we

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