Letters home from the North West Frontier, India, 1945-47

Posted on by Lauren MacCarthy.

by Pat Ellingham, Archives Volunteer

A • Portrait of Joseph Stephens in uniform

I’ve just finished reading over 250 letters home from a young Bristol soldier called Joseph Stephens (collection ref. 2005/044), who was stationed on the North West Frontier during the months leading up to Partition and the Independence of India. At the time the correspondence begins in 1945 he was 19 years old, completing his training as a Cipher Clerk in the Royal Signals Regiment. It ends on a troopship; on the way home ‘somewhere near Suez’.

The majority of letters are to the whole family, but there are occasional letters to his younger siblings, discussing their schoolwork, chess problems and sport, especially Gloucester County Cricket and Bristol Rovers Football with his brothers, and nature studies with his sister Rachel. The letters were carefully stored, together with two photo albums and some memorabilia of a trek in Kashmir, until they were donated to the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection in 2005.

What is fascinating about having access to his letters and the albums is the insight it gives into the daily life and thoughts of a young man of his era, sensitive to the natural world, fond of writing, and who enjoys reading, sport, and photography.

His letters discuss his bible studies, rationing at home (he sends food such as candied peel and tinned peaches, and gets shoes/shirts made) and the process of demobilisation. He writes of life as he views it in India, from his forays to the local bazaar and vivid descriptions of train journeys to a ten day trek in Kashmir.

A picture of the Guide from Stephens’ Kashmiri trip, called Ahamdoo

There is, of course, the increasing unrest as Partition becomes a reality and Independence approaches. In June 1946, a year before Independence, he writes:

India wants her independence … It is an unfortunate fact that the Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, .. will never agree. But we shall have to quit India sooner or later, and whenever we do there will be civil war in India… Even since I have been in India the attitude towards us has changed. We are no longer respected.’

A year later in July 1947 he is writing of ‘the excitement which stopped me going to church last night’ , which refers to fighting between Sikhs and Muslims in Abbottabad, where he is stationed and where now, as he writes ‘people who play side by side in Hazara Rovers Hockey Team have been killing each other’.

Joseph writes a comprehensive description of Pakistan Independence Day on 15 August 1947, including the ceremony of the lowering of the Union Jack.  He writes of his Major:

It was touching to see an officer of his type who had been born and bred in India; and given his best years for the country; with tears in his eyes at this ceremony, not because we were leaving India, but because she was soon to be born an independent nation, facing her troubles without the support of England.’

But above all, throughout this time, he yearns for letters from home. When letters are disrupted due to local riots he writes: ‘knowing the possible effect of no mail on our morale the DQ has sent an armoured car to Pindi to bring it all up…’  and again, ‘it is a week since I received any mail at all and I am beginning to ‘tick’(get cross) about it’

The intense need for communication isn’t surprising to us in an age when email and text and twitter links us all, but it’s a good reminder that the yearning for connection, especially over long distances has always been profound. The value of a collection such as this is in its revelation of the ordinary person and their thoughts and preoccupations, in a time of tumult.

Images taken from the Stephens collection:

  • Portrait of Joseph Stephens in uniform (ref. 2005/044/3/63)
  • Guide from Stephens’ Kashmiri trip, called Ahamdoo (ref 2005/044/1/2)
  • Joseph Stephens at the frontier between India and Pakistan (ref 2005/044/1/3)

2 comments on “Letters home from the North West Frontier, India, 1945-47

  1. Tess mahood

    A fascinating glimpse into anothers’ experience and a thoughtful distillation of so many letters.


  2. Jo Brown

    Fascinating to read about Joseph Stephens’ experience and responses…. it’s the voice of the common man caught in history that is so poignant. I agree with Tess that it is a thoughtful distillation of a priceless resource. Reading letters from the past is very special when you hold in your hand the paper and bend over it to read it as the original letter writer bent over it once.


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