At the outbreak of war in 1914, 20 year old Miss Iris Mary Hotblack was at home with her family. They lived in a large, Edwardian, detached, seven room house called The Boltons, on King Henry’s Road, Lewes in Sussex.
Mary had been sent away to school in Cheltenham so was used to living away from home and writing letters to stay in touch. She wrote regularly to her brothers, and various other friends (male and female). Several bundles of these letters, some redacted, were passed to the Liddle Archive by Mary's daughter in law for safekeeping in 1985. Catriona Pennel came across them during her research for 'A Kingdom United', while Jonathan Vernon, researching his MA on an event in Lewes during the First World War, read through them all too.
Mary met Alan Morton when the families were on holiday on the Norfolk Broads in 1908. Nicknamed 'Balmy', Alan was then 18 and had just left Rugby to join the Royal Artillery. (The nickname 'Balmy' stuck when a sweaty Alan had joined a class late and the teacher had noted the boy's 'balmy' complexion). Alan only dropped the monicker after he got engaged to Mary, signing off from then on as 'Alan' rather than 'Balmy').
During the war Mary wrote several letters a week to Alan, to her brothers, as well as to other male and female friends.
With the outbreak of war in August 1914, Alan was sent to France on 7th August 1914. He wrote to Mary about his experiences as a junior officer with the Artillery and later as a 'spotter' with the Royal Flying Corps to whom he had successfully applied and where he was placed on secondment. Mary, like so many back home, was eager for detailed news that until later in 1915 the newspapers struggled to provide with adequate accuracy due to censorship and a ban on correspondents on the front. As a result the papers fell back on rumours, exaggerated hearsay and letters home that came to their attention.
Alan’s letters were typically two pages on paper pulled from a notebook, at first in ink, but later in pencil. Writing his memoir in the early 1970s Alan could detail the dangers of being caught up in Mons and the retreat to Paris, aerial reconnaissance trips in these early months of the war and the many close shaves he had while others were shot out of the sky or bombed back on land.
Mary also wrote regularly to close Lewes ‘pal’ Cecil Fawssett, and her brother Gerald Hotbalck. Both had enlisted early, both joining the 6th (Cyclists) Battalion, Sussex Regiment.
Cyclists of the 2/6th (Cyclists) Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment
Whilst Alan’s letters might be described at this time as long notes that are sometimes quite perfunctory, Cecil on the other hand wrote chapters at a time, his letters often 14 pages long, gushing and expansive, waxing lyrical on every theme that took his fancy, as well as gossip about friends and family.
In a number of letters in August 1914, Mary wrote eagerly to Alan about the rumour of Russian soldiers landing in England and being sent to help the British soldiers on the Western front; she presses Alan for any sighting of these men. In turn, Alan wrote that the famous pre-War aeronaut Gustav Hamel, he had heard, was a spy. While in other letters Cecil Fawssett joked about the rumour that Lewes barber, German-born 'Dusard' had been thought to be a German spy and that Iris’s father, who ran a manufacturing business, should watch out. Here Iris and Alan, though perhaps not Cecil, were being caught up by popular, unfounded rumours and common fears.
A few weeks later, when Mary had been staying with a friend in Hove, as she did regularly, she met some wounded men in Brighton and heard detailed stories of German atrocities carried out during the invasion of Belgium, in this instance she told Alan that there had to have been some truth in what they had read in the papers. The realities and scale of this ‘great war’, this European War that Carrington described in The Times as the ‘first’ ‘world’ war, were gradually being understood. Lewes took in Belgian refugees, losses began appearing regularly in the local newspapers and the hospital took in the injured.
At this time Mary wrote sorrowfully to Alan to say that her cousin Nell, married only two months, had been left a widow by the war. She also declared, with a good deal of pride, that she had recently persuaded two young men to enlist and didn’t know any men who had not done so. She often signed off her letters saying how proud she was to be the sister to, and friend of, so many men who were serving.
Mary wrote to Alan in detail about life in Lewes, including on the spectacular so called 'invasion' of some 10,000 recruits for Kitchener's New Army in mid-September 1914. Billets had to be found for them in a town that had a population itself of not much more than 10,000. At first, around half went into public buildings, including the Town Hall, Council Chambers and old Warehouse, while the other half were billeted on the public - whether they wanted men or not. The Hotblacks took in four men to start with, and then with the sudden closure of the old Workhouse when deemed as insanitary, a further two.
Prompted by advertising and promotions to volunteer in papers, posters, pamphlets and public meetings, as well as the news of defeat in France as the British Army retreated, there was a massive rush to enlist in late August 1914 and early September 1914. Rather than turn these men away for weeks or months, plans were quickly put in place to share some 120,000 or more men between a dozen UK locations where they would be trained up over 8 to 9 months. Men would go to Aldershot, Dublin and Wareham, Swindon and Salisbury, with two batches of around 10,000 men each destined for the South Downs, one group sent to the east of Shoreham near Patcham, the second headed for Seaford, via Lewes.
Mary remarked in her letters to Alan that 'her' men, all Welsh, would sing at the slightest invitation : national anthems and 'glee songs' were their favourites, with one a soloist of notable skill. At 'The Boltons', where the Hotblacks lived in Lewes, they had singing in the evening or took them around to a neighbour’s house for ‘'illuminated concerts' in the garden. 'Her' men, indeed all those who had been billeted on the Workhouse, were sent to Eastbourne after a week due to 'sanitary reasons'; some went into private billets, others public. With a Regimental goat leading the way - a gift from the people of Lewes, the Cardiff Commercials marched off to Eastbourne on the morning of Monday 21st September 1914.
This friendly 'invasion' ended after two weeks, culminating in a Wales vs Lancashire football match on the Dripping Pan on Saturday 27th and a Church Parade on Sunday 28th September at the Convent Field, with many soldiers having to attend services in other places of worship around town. Mary was there with her friends. She described to Alan how proud and excited she was, so much so that she had wanted to join in.
Mary had been eager ‘to do something’ from the start of the war, and frequently expressed her frustrations to Alan. Iris had at first taken on the organisation of women's hockey on the Convent Fields, though this, like all organised sports such as football and cricket, even rowing and tennis, were frowned upon in a time of war and thought of as frivolous - the last Association football game was played in November.
Mary recruited girls, ‘the best looking 16 girls in Sussex’ is how she described them, she took membership fees, paid the costs to use the Convent Fields and was the coach. Mary had lobbied those responsible for the Convent Fields and had even been interviewed by the Mayor. However, complaints frustrated her and being charged for using the grounds as if they were putting on a full game when only five or six of them had been down to practice irritated her further and the hockey gradually came to an end.
Instead, Mary and a friend turned their attention to nursing as volunteers. Their intention had been to spend 3 months in London cleaning floors and changing beds, only to learn that a 13 guinea fee was required to pay for food and lodgings. Neither she, nor her father was unwilling to pay this, nor did she feel committed enough to undergo 5 years training required to become a nurse. In November 1914 Iris applied for and got a 'nanny governess' position with a family who lived near Hull. It was while here, on learning that his pal and Rugby study-mate Hugh who lived close by to where Iris was now staying in North Lincolnshire, had met up with her, that Alan’s anxieties about ‘her close male friends still at home’ pushed Alan to act, if only by letter, he proposed, or rather suggested they might get engaged. Mary didn't turn Alan down, but rather, in the kindest words gave him ample hope and told him to wait. Mary also wished to explain and excuse the attention she received from Lewes boy, Cecil Fawssett who was her ‘closest male pal’, and the brother of her dearest female friend - one of his sisters. Cecil was in training in Norfolk at the time and would return to Lewes on leave - on one occasion teaching Iris how to ride his motorbike that on several occasions she took out on trips around the South Downs and later turning up in his 40 hp Daimler.
Meanwhile, Alan and Mary continued to write and meet when he was on leave. In the summer of 1915 Alan completed RFC training at Gosport (having started as an artillery spotter and Observer he went on to become gain his pilot's certificate). It was while on leave in April 1916 that Alan formally proposed and Mary accepted and in early May they had an engagement party with Alan’s cousins at The Savoy. They had intended to wait until the end of the war to get married, however, when Alan was given three weeks leave in June 1916, they agreed to get married then.
On the afternoon of Saturday, 3rd June 1916, ‘a pretty war wedding took place at St.John’s Church, Lewes’.
Alan’s father, and Mary’s brothers had each secured leave. Alan’s father, ex-military, in his fifties and having been turned down when he had tried to enlist in 1914, had gone personally to Kitchener at the beginning of the war and joined the Suffolk Regiment.
Mary was ‘attired in white satin Charmeuse, draped with white Brussels net, with embroidered ornaments of crystals and diamanté. The full court train was of white tulle. The bride also wore a veil and chaplet of myrtle and orange blossoms. Her only ornament was a string of pearls, the gift of the bridegroom, and she carried a posy of lilies of the valley’. In letters from Alan in July he mentions finding a sprig of these lilies in his breast pocket. The bridesmaids were Miss Helen Culley and Miss Phyllis Kent. Captain Leslie Kent R.E. was the best man. The reception afterwards was held in the garden at the family home on King’s Road, Lewes. The wedding cake was ornamented with a miniature RFA gun and a model of an aeroplane.
The couple honeymooned in a house leant to them in Salcombe. Alan, now a Captain, returned to the Battle of the Somme and photographic reconnaissance duties with the Royal Flying Corps.
DH.4 over Biache-Saint-Vaast
Mary meanwhile, the young wife, shared her time between her mother in law's, the Morton apartment in London, her family home in Lewes and a 'club' in London where she had more independence and could be with Alan when he was on leave.
Alan was awarded the Military Cross and ended the war a Major - his exploits written up in daily letters to his wife.
There are also letters from the war period to Mary from her brothers, and from her friend Helen who had married an American and spent her war in California and Hawaii, making remarks about how in America you could 'talk with the son of a miner or the son of a lord and not care who their grandfather had been' and that she hoped that ‘her snobbery had been knocked out of her’.
After the war Alan remained with the Army, Mary giving birth to their first child in 1920. Her brothers Elliot and Geoffrey survived the war, but her youngest brother Hugh died in a bomb attack in Dublin in 1921 while serving with the Army.
Major Morton and his wife Mary were sent by the Army first to India for a number of years, then to Hong Kong and finally to Malta before returning to England for good in April 1939. They had two children.
Remembering and treasuring their honeymoon, Mary and Alan retired to Salcombe in the 1950s and it was here that Iris died in 1969. Alan wrote up his memoir in 1971, ending the story with Iris having a stroke and passing away a few days later. Alan moved to Eastbourne where he died in June 1974.
Based on research conducted into the 'Friendly Invasion of Lewes 1914' when 10,000 new recruits descended on the town for two weeks. This became his MA Dissertation while studying British History and the First World War at the University of Wolverhampton.
Written by Jonathan Vernon, Digital Editor, The Western Front Association