Moon Pig doesn’t seem as romantic now (did it ever?).
I came across this beautiful card when researching the Old Lock Keeper’s cottage at Latton, near Cricklade.
The origins of Valentine’s Day probably go back to Roman times (the feast of Lupercalia). Lovers have been giving each other Valentines from medieval times (when they would recite, or sing, their greetings). However, it was the Victorians who really started the craze for sending paper cards.
This card dates from around 1875, before Valentines had become fully massed produced. Alfred Howse, who went on to become the Lock Keeper at Latton Basin, sent it to his fiancée, Anne Prudence Smith.
A typical example of Victoriana, the card bustles with hidden (and not so hidden) meaning. Forget your six skinny red rosebuds (which wither and die on their thornless stalks before they open). Floriograph, the secret language of flowers, is woven into the very fabric of this card. White roses represent virtue, pansies, remembrance. Tiny blue forget-me-nots, not surprisingly, signify forget-me-not.
Then there’s the verse itself. Sentimental (to our twenty-first century ears), it still strikes me with its sincerity. There’s not a whiff of Hallmark about it.
Read in these flowers
And lines that I send
That the true love I bear thee
Only death can end.
Sadly, as I later discovered, the words were also prophetic.
In 1877 Alfred and Anne married. The parish register describes them as being both able to sign their own names. Shortly afterwards, the couple became ensconced in the cottage at Latton Basin. They raised eleven children there, and, despite being surrounded by water, none of them drowned.
Life was hard (as it was in those days). In the early years. Alfred worked as a general labourer as well as looking after the lock, Anne collected the tolls. However, life was also joyous. The family enjoyed trips to Alfred’s brother, John, who kept a small inn at Cerney Wick. There was music too. Alfred played the accordion. Songs and ditties, musical gatherings were woven into the routine of family life.
(Later, Alfred Williams, the poet and folklorist, would wheel his bicycle along the towpath in search of the Old Lock Keeper. A number of Howse family favourites, including Struggle for the Breeches and The Wiltshire Labourers, made it into Williams’ collection).
Alfred and Anne’s story has a bitter-sweet ending. In 1918, their son, Frank, died. One can only surmise on how hard it must have been for Alfred and Anne, successfully bringing up eleven children in a tiny cottage perched on the confluence of two canals. Yet, having survived this perilous start and the Great War, Frank succumbed to pneumonia. He died at Catterick barracks, on his way home.
Alfred and Anne buried their son in Latton churchyard (where the other Howses now lie close by him). A week later, Anne died, some say of a broken heart. Alfred went on assiduously tending the garden at the Basin for another twenty years, before joining her and Frank in the little graveyard in Latton. He was 85 when he died.
Alfred died in 1937, nearly 75 years ago. Looking at his Valentine’s Day card now, it’s hard to believe it belongs in a different era. Harder still when I’m walking along the tow-path at the Basin, the distant rumble of the A419 somewhere overhead.
Squelching through the mud of North Meadow usually clears the digital chatter out of my head. Well, not any more. Now I half-expect to see the old man leaning on the fence, gazing at the empty Basin.
The poignancy of his card lingers long after I’ve closed the museum drawer. It stays with me as I click, and click, away from its shadowy JPEG. Unlike the pink froth and the supermarket aisles, laden with chocolate hearts and doleful looking teddy bears, it will stay with me long after Valentine’s Day.
The photograph of the card is reproduced with the kind permission of Cricklade Museum. Cricklade Museum is open 10 to 12 every Saturday (for other times, check their web site).