Letters to Aunt Mary

On 29 July 1898, a letter was printed in the Western Mail and was written using the pseudonym ‘Aunt Mary.’ Addressed to the children of Western Australia, the writer asked for help to fill that column of the newspaper. They hoped that children would send in stories, letters, questions, poetry, compositions (anything they liked) as long as it was their work. As an added incentive, children who wrote well could find themselves in receipt of a prize.

I should much like to hear something about the pets belonging to my little readers, and hope I shall soon have so many contributors that the children’s column will swell into the “children’s page.”

Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 – 1954); 29 July 1898; Page 51; Children’s Column

The section started slowly but soon became incredibly popular. Many children wrote letters to Aunt Mary and were, no doubt, thrilled to see their work in the paper. By 1905, Muriel Chase was running the ‘Aunt Mary’ column. By giving a shilling, the children could become ‘silver links in a chain of service’ (the genesis of today’s Silver Chain) and were known as Aunt Mary’s nieces and nephews. The aim was to raise money to help those less fortunate at Christmas.

It appears that some schools took advantage of ‘Aunt Mary’s Children’s Corner’ and used it as an exercise for their class. In 1905, children from the York district sent letters to Aunt Mary, many of whom were students in the Infants School. For most of them, it was their first letter. Dated 29 June 1905, they wrote on one side of a sheet of paper and shared a small part of their lives with Aunt Mary.

Jessie Linto was seven years old, and it was her first time writing a letter. Supporting her was her sister, Lilly, who held her hand. She asked Aunt Mary if she could instead call her Aunt Winnie as she liked the name. Jessie was attending the Infants School in York and enjoyed it so much that she did not want to miss a day. Students that attended every day were given a prize, and Jessie hoped that at Christmas, she would receive one.

Tom Mead’s first letter to Aunt Mary was short and to the point. He described the weather they’d been having; rain and hailstones followed by a nice rainbow. He explained that he had lots of Aunts but only one Aunt Winnie. He liked that name, next to his name, Tommy.

Victor Prunster explained that he had no Aunt Winnie but asked Aunt Mary if she could be his. He also wanted another uncle. Like Jessie, he was ensuring that he attended school every day in the hope that he would receive a prize at Christmas.

Emily Meehan was writing her first letter, and she hoped it was legible. It was cold in York, and there was a lot of rain. She also wanted Aunt Mary to change her name to Aunt Winnie. Poor Aunt Mary was perplexed. She pondered, “I wonder why you all would like me to be called Aunt Winnie.

Micky Linto wrote his first letter to Aunt Mary and had his sister, Mary, hold his hand so that he could “make the words right.” He was the youngest child in his family and was attending school every day with his two sisters and his brother. Micky requested that Aunt Mary be Aunt Macky, and if that was not possible, she could be Aunt Winnie instead. Finally, shedding some light as to the identity of Winnie, Micky said that Winnie was his mother’s name, and he was very fond of her.

With all the letters from children asking her to be their Aunt Winnie, it was most likely a relief to read others that did not.

Cecil Clark wrote his letter on 27 June 1905, and he aimed to send one each week to the Western Mail. He told Aunt Mary that York had had a lot of rain, and the countryside was looking green. The crops were sown and the farmers were busy. Cecil was 13 years of age and was in the fourth standard at school. He hoped that the school children would have another opportunity to go on a holiday. In the previous year they visited Perth and went on a trip to the zoo, which he enjoyed. He liked reading the ‘Children’s Corner’ and found other children’s letters interesting. With his letter at an end, he signed off, “Dear Aunt Mary, I must now say good-bye, as it is getting late. Cecil J. Clark

Avon Terrace in York circa 1900. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (Call Number: BA533/316).

The letters to ‘Aunt Mary’ and the children’s section of the Western Mail continued for decades. Reading the letters (written by generations of children in various Western Australian towns) gives us a fascinating glimpse into their lives, their families, their pets, and all that was important to them at the time.

This story originally featured on ABC Mid West and Wheatbelt’s Saturday Breakfast with Nat on 7 November 2020. You can listen to that episode via the following link: https://ab.co/2C67gqO

Sources:

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