Unlikely start to long-distance friendships

BRIDGET RAILTON
Last updated 05:00 23/09/2013
Stanley White
BRIDGET RAILTON/Fairfax NZ

Mataura man Stanley White reminisces over letters from long-lost pen friends during World War II.

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Stanley White was just a teenager when he struck up a pen friendship of the most unusual kind.

As a 17-year-old boy he worked at the Mataura Freezing Works during World War II, packing lamb livers into billies destined for butcher shops in England.

"I was packing away one day and I thought to myself: ‘These livers will be going to all these different houses and butchers' shops and I thought I must put my name and address in them."

So he did, and half a dozen people wrote back, sparking friendships that lasted the war years and provided food and companionship to his new friends on the other side of the world.

"I would send them food parcels, we used to do them up in the old sugar bags.

"Nothing was sent back with their letters, just their thanks. It was marvellous, wonderful."

Mr White had several different penpals who would share with him snippets of life during the war.

There was Alan Steggles, a 15-year-old boy working in a butcher's shop in Barking, Essex, who wrote of his family and their experiences during the Blitz. He also included an impassioned request that Mr White introduce him to a "gorgeous female penfriend, ideally a cross between Betty Grable and Dorothy Lamour".

There was Aubrey Ledden, a sanitary inspector with the Billericay Urban District Council, who sent several letters, one thanking Stan for his package containing soap and honey because his 4-year-old son had never tasted honey before.

And Harold Birtchnell, of Forest Hill in South London, who wrote his appreciation of the offal sent over by New Zealand and spoke highly of New Zealand lamb.

The letters had been hidden away in chocolate boxes, forgotten about for decades, until one day a few months back Mr White approached Gore District Council heritage projects officer David Luoni, who is refurbishing the Mataura Museum.

Mr White invited Mr Luoni to have a look at some old photos, and that's when the old letters resurfaced once more

"It's magic, really," Mr Luoni said.

"There's this element of this young Mataura man who for some inexplicable reason had this sense of connectedness with the wider world and it's come out in an unexpected way."

"It's almost like Facebook."

"I wonder if there was an element of boredom coming through at work so he sought to make day-to-day life a bit more exciting."

Mr White and his wife Mary visited England in 1989, but never thought to look up his penpals.

"I never even thought of it. It's just one of those things in life that happened and I never really considered it again."

"The nicest thing to do now would be send a Christmas card."

The letters will now be displayed in the soon-to-be reopened Mataura Museum, at Clematis Cottage.

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- The Southland Times

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