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11 Apr 2019

The Jacob letters from the House of Dun

Written by Ian Riches and Emma Inglis
Photograph of Harry Jacob in his BEF uniform with his mother Violet, possibly 1914 or 1915
This article features a number of letters from the early 20th century, written by Violet Jacob and her son Harry, which illustrate their friendship with the Kappey family.

This selection of documents is part of a wider series of letters found in the Charter Room at the House of Dun, Montrose. They mainly relate to Violet Jacob, the Scottish author and poet and one-time resident of Dun, and her son Harry Jacob (1895–1916).

Violet Kennedy-Erskine was born in 1863 into a family who had lived at Dun since the 15th century. In 1894 she married Arthur Jacob, an officer in the British Army, and they had their only child Harry in 1895. After spending four years in India with her husband, Violet returned home and began writing books and poetry, including Flemington (1911), probably her most famous work.

Some of the letters shown below have come from the collection of the late Joan Kappey of Windsor, Berkshire, and the recipients of several of the letters are Joan herself, her mother Lily, her sister Christian and her brother Reggie. Harry Jacob was at Imperial Service College in Windsor, which is how he met Reggie and the Kappey family. Harry formed a very close relationship with Reggie and his family, and a few of the letters relate to this friendship as well as to Harry’s death resulting from injuries received at the Battle of the Somme.

Other letters concern Violet’s grief at the loss of her only child, her time living in the south of England, and how she later developed as a writer and poet.

Arthur Henry Augustus Jacob (Harry) joined the British Army in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. These telegrams and letter from December 1914 show that he was leaving for Southampton and then on to the Western Front. The letter to Reggie Kappey demonstrates Harry’s affection for him and his family.

Harry was a lieutenant in the 4th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) which, as part of the British Expeditionary Force, was engaged in the major military operation at the Somme.

Photograph of Harry Jacob in his BEF uniform with his mother Violet, possibly 1914 or 1915
Harry in his British Expeditionary Force uniform along with his mother Violet; it’s undated but is possibly from 1914 or 1915. The original photo is currently on display at the House of Dun.

In this letter to Reggie, dated 4 June 1916, Harry writes that he is not ‘able to write for some time as there is a “wind up” and we are moving, but of course I can say nothing.’

Letter from Harry Jacob to Reggie Kappey

The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916, continued for four months and was one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War. An early phase of the Somme offensive was the Battle of Bazentine Ridge, which began on 14 July. Harry’s battalion of the Royal Fusiliers was part of the 3rd Division of the 4th Army under the command of General Rawlinson. It was during the attack on Bazentine Ridge that Harry suffered fatal wounds and died on Sunday 16 July.

Photograph of the memorial in the Mausoleum at the Dun parish churchyard
Photograph of the memorial in the Mausoleum at the Dun parish churchyard, near to the west walled garden at the House of Dun.

The poignancy of the sentiment from Violet and Arthur in the memorial to their son – whose love was their joy – and their grief at his loss is reflected in the letters written by Violet to the Kappey family after Harry was killed.

Letter from Violet Jacob to Mrs Kappey, August 1919
Letter from Violet Jacob to Mrs Kappey, August 1919

This letter, three years after Harry’s death, shows Violet writing to Mrs Kappey from the Park Hotel, Preston. Here, Violet writes about the little cross which ‘came back to me with Harry’s things’. She had wondered whether Harry had worn this cross but decided that she knew now for certain that he did. ‘It will never leave me while I live. He is ­so near me often …’

As well as showing the enduring love Violet had for her son, the letters she exchanged with the Kappey family also give us an insight into her life as an army wife. In the early years of her marriage to Arthur, when the couple were posted to India, Violet proved to be anything but the traditional British lady. Instead of taking pleasure in the usual round of tea and visits she preferred to spend her time exploring the countryside, searching intrepidly for native Indian plants and coming to understand local customs and religion. Her life back in Britain during the closing years of the First World War and its immediate aftermath was more mundane but still involved moving around from one army town to another, and making do in different rented houses.

As she expressed it to Mrs Kappey: ‘A move is such a nuisance, tho’ being a nomad I can’t help liking it.’ Violet spent several years living in the south of England and she took the opportunity while there to visit many places of interest, commenting on them in her letters. All the while she was pursuing a career as a writer and poet, drawing on the history and traditions of Wales, her mother’s home, and her memories of the people and landscape of her beloved Angus.

One of the most charming aspects of the series of letters is the glimpse they give us of Violet’s character. Her kindness to the Kappey girls shines through in the conversational little notes she sends as thanks for their gifts. They regularly sent little paintings and other items they had made, and their mother, Mrs Lily Kappey, sent flowers every year on the date of Harry’s death. The personal stories Violet shares in her letters show her sense of humour and ability to tell a good story. In referring to her donkey named Palliasse – a joke, it seems, on the words pal, ass and palliasse (a straw mattress) – she concludes ‘It won’t be as speedy as a car, but will be less expensive so I shall have to stick to it’. Her account of a moment of terror when her horse bolted is somehow dramatic yet beautifully understated. ‘I was so alone I could not hold her, and why my chair didn’t turn over, heaven alone knows. We rocked and pitched and I was wedged into it by a trench burberry, a rug, a shooting stick, and a pair of heavy field glasses. But here I am alive.’

Through all the letters there are quick references to Dun, where her brother Augustus was Laird, and to other members of the Kennedy-Erskine family. In one letter dated 1919, she refers to her niece Marjorie being engaged to a Captain Norman who was departing at short notice for South Africa. Unfortunately for the family the engagement ended early the following year and Captain Norman became engaged to a widow of the First World War. Marjorie died unmarried at the age of 37 in tragic circumstances. In another of Violet’s letters she mentions her nephew William coming home for a holiday after two years’ hard work in Rhodesia. She also describes having to do the washing up during a visit to Dun, a sign of encroaching servant shortages and a changing way of life for those living in large houses. What might have seemed incidental to Violet as she penned her letters now adds such character to our view of the past.

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