Among the hundreds of letters my grandmother kept are dozens from the 1940s with "Examiner" stickers affixed to them. These censorship stickers were the result of wartime efforts to prevent information of value from potentially reaching enemy eyes. During World War II, there were over 10,000 postal censors staffed in the United Kingdom and in excess of 14,000 in the United States. What an interesting, yet difficult, task it must have been to read through mountains of correspondence.
On April 1st, 1941, my cousin Tilly sent my grandmother two letters. One from her husband, Arthur John Evans (John) and one from herself, Louise Matilda Evans (Tilly). They were opened and read by Examiner 6883, whose sticker was affixed to the exterior side of the envelope; resealing where the letters had been opened and extracted. The transcript of those letters can be found below.
I know very little about John or Tilly and was excited to read these letters but I became equally curious about Examiner 6883. Who was Examiner 6883?
It is not likely that they knew my cousins any more than I. Or did they? Were the words of my relatives similar to words 6883 might have written? How did they choose which segments to cut, which words to strike? Was there concern over John's reference to a "very big one [mistake] made 18 months ago"? Would eyebrows have been raised at the mention of Musso and Hitler? Did they appreciate the 'clout' John received for being 'saucy' and think of their own relationship with loved ones? Were their scissors poised to clip Tilly's words about the explosion in her backyard, gas masks or rations?
Did 6883 think John was talking to them when he wrote "That is, freedom to do or say what we like"? A subtle jab, perhaps, at the likelihood his words risked censorship? Is it why only his address was stricken? Was nothing stricken from Tilly's letter because 6883 wanted the recipient, my grandmother, to feel some freedom had been won?
I find myself wanting to know the anonymous 6883, just as I desire to know my ancestors.
So I Googled Examiner 6883, in search of this stranger who read the letters of other strangers. While doing so, it occurred to me that even more strangers are reading these letters again, along with my virtual letters. We are all pen pals in cyberspace. Our identities to each other known and unknown. Clues to the past and present tucked between our words. From obvious to obscure.
Cousin John's contribution toward the freedom I have to write any word I want without the censorship of Examiner 6883, is not lost on me. Though that freedom allows the same right to others, to do or say as they wish, for and against my words. Both a blessing and curse in this digital arena. We are all virtually exposed.
My hunt for Examiner 6883 was met with negative results. No data about their identity, but there was photographic evidence of their censorship career. Someone sold an envelope on eBay, sealed by Examiner 6883, sent in 1941 to Miss McMurdes of Charlottesville VA. An old chat board referenced a censored letter sent from Burnham-On-Sea to Massachusetts on Nov 19 1941. That was it. Two dead ends. How many more were lost to the ages?
How many days, months, or years did 6883 censor letters? How many words did they snip from paper? How many times did they laugh, cry, smile or possibly wake with nightmares from the stories they absorbed? I will never know and shall continue to wonder as I read other censored letters from the past, marked by Examiners 5981, 7166, 4985, 5644, 738, 5533 and many others.
While I may have failed to uncover the identity 6883, I am profoundly altered by these fragile portals to the past. The struggles that paved the way for the freedoms I enjoy today. The strength of the human spirit. The gratitude, hope, love and appreciation my cousins held for each other, for life.
These fading mementos of the past provide much more than insight to my ancestors. More than history lessons. To me, they are reminders of the power of words and the fragility of existence.
Genealogy Letters from London April 1, 1941
[Note: All letters are transcribed as written. Mistakes, missing punctuation, absence of paragraph breaks, and run on sentences are left true to the original authors penmanship. I have only broken the paragraphs at the page turns of the letters.]
Gen. Evans A.G.
[Address cut out]
Dear Hilda, Ben & Robert.
I hope they don't take the address off this time. I don't know why they did it last time. I wrote a very stiff letter to the war office about it. (on a piece of sheet iron) I've been promoted from General to Gunner. I am getting on, aren't I? Of course, I have plenty of officers to look after my welfare. You'd be surprised the way they see that I don't make any mistakes. the sergeant major is the soul of kindness. If I lose anything he sees that I get another one (and pay for two). I don't think
Tilly realizes how clever I am. Of course, even I make mistakes. I made a very big one, 18 months ago, but I can't tell you as Tilly will read this before I post it. At the time of writing, I am home on 7 days leave. It's great to be home, but its not so nice when its time to part again. I think I must have a sneaking regard for my wife. I must say something like that otherwise she'll get wild. Well, how are things in America? All is ok I hope. I think I'll pop over for a weekend when this war is over. That won't be long now. Did you hear about poor old Musso's Navy? It's a sad story
isn't it. Then of course, he used to have an Army. That was a long while ago tho. Where he made his mistake, he didn't know there was an Evans in Egypt with the Army. Everybody in England is alright. Some of them are having a rough time, but there is nothing Hitler can do that they can't take on the chin. Seriously, the civilian population are marvelous. The boys in the Army are anxious for old nasty to try to invade us. You'd be surprised to know what we are going to do with them if they do try it. Old England is O.K. Now that you people are helping us, it will shorten the
war tremendously. I'm confident it will be over this year. Then you'll see one soldier go mad. Just to think of peace again. We do know that what we're fighting for, is the right to live the way we like living. That is, freedom to do or say what we like. Well folks here's wishing all of you the very best of luck, and please give my love to your mother.
Best wishes to all, John.
P.S. Tilly just gave me a clout for being saucy in my letter. A.J.E. (The one and only.)
April 1st, 1941
11 Kenninghall Road
Edmonton London N.18
Dear Cousins Hilda & Ben,
It was nice to hear from you again, but your letter was censored just as mine are to you. This moment I am very happy as John is home on leave which I wish was for good. He has wrote you a few lines & is still as jovial as ever so don't take him serious about being a general will you. You were asking if my trouble came at Christmas no it was the day after Boxing Day when a land mine was dropped at the back of the house & I was busy writing to John & getting his parcel packed to send
to him & everything seems to be quiet & I thought of returning to bed when all of a sudden I saw the walls coming towards me & I gave one scream & jumped the stairs missing the debris & the landlady was penned in with all the falling wall & furniture & couldn't move till help arrived while her husband was bleeding & didn't know where till he was taken to hospital recovering wounds on the head & legs they both are still wondering how I got clear of everything had I have been in bed I would have been killed but God spared me & I am thankful. My furniture of which is left was broken up terribly but have
managed to save some which John's mother has got. I suppose I shall have to wait till the war is over before I get compensated. I would sooner have my little home than all their compensation in the world. I shall never forget that sight. We were all near death again the other week when a bomb was dropped 4 houses away from here & poor Grace, Frank, Helen, John & I crouched together in the shelter. Hitler is following me up I think but he won't get me. We have had it quiet now for over a week with no air raids & we are wondering what is happening & what his next move will be. The people are wonderful.
You cannot imagine it after what we have gone through. John & I went to see Mother yesterday & she is alright but refuses to leave her home. She is British to the back bone. Emmie received a lovely letter from John which came by the Yankee Clipper which she is keeping as a souvenir. They were pleased to hear from him & his writing was indeed sincere. Also Aunt Alice tell her all is well with us & not to worry we shall pull through with God's help, give her my love & tell her we are proud of her. Emmie also received a lovely letter from you & Robert which I was pleased to read & how clever he is to write that poetry. I brought it home to show Grace
he is a clever child tell him I would like also a letter from him & I hope he makes good progress with his violin lessons. I love to hear the violin & piano together don't you. He really ought to appreciate you & Ben for having him taught. Is Ben musical we all are. Frank is fond of Opera. I hope Robert's cough is better now. How is Madeline & Walter not forgetting baby Janice. Does Walter have to register for service. How old is Ruth & John's little girl now, Joan must be getting quite a young lady. How lovely it would be to meet you all one day.
I have just had a letter from Wills boy who was wounded at Dunkirk & is still in hospital this 10 months now & he has just had another operation I don't now how many this one makes & he writes so cheerful. Jack & his family are still at Yorkshire & hope to come back to London when the war is over, he writes every week to me & says he would like me to go there for a rest. I'm tough I guess & will stick it out. Rationing is a problem at the shop these days, we are now only allowed a 1/s a week for meat, 2 oz butter 2 oz tea 8oz sugar a week & now cheese is rationed also jam. Eggs are like gold dust to get. I am glad America has
come to our aid & hope it won't be long now before victory is ours. Helen is a lovely girl & Grace said I am spoiling her so it is a good job Robert isn't here with me says you, I should spoil him alright. John has fell asleep by the fireside while it is raining outside. The day before he is due to go back he is very silent & miserable. Tell Ben there will be plenty of building to be done here when this war is over that is his trade isn't it. How is his daughters that you were both anxious about. Grace is just trying out her gas mask & has put Helen in her gas mask & she cries & doesn't like it.
I hope we don't have to use them & may God strike Hitler for such a wicked action. The gas masks look weird. How are you keeping Hilda? Grace has just managed to get Helen in her gas mask & trying to get her used to it as we have been asked to get used to them. You haven't heard from Annie yet have you Hilda? Well Cousins I will now conclude with love & sincerity to you all from
Your Affectionate Cousin Tilly
P/S Write soon again & remember me to all my cousins & tell them we are safe & well.
To learn more about details of WW II mentioned by Tilly & John visit:
Tilly's Address at the Time of the Letter - via Google Maps 38 miles outside of London
The Battle of Dunkirk - on Wikipedia
Egypt during World War II - on Wikipedia
Blitz Bomb Map - 1940 The First Day's Attacks Listed in Full on The Guardian