Hundred years later letter by an Albury sailor to a schoolboy offers snapshot into life on the seas during World War I

In the wake of history: Petty officer Joe Kemp in uniform in World War I. His letter to a schoolboy gave a dramatic insight into his time on the North Sea and in London.

In the wake of history: Petty officer Joe Kemp in uniform in World War I. His letter to a schoolboy gave a dramatic insight into his time on the North Sea and in London.

HOW do you bring home to a Border schoolboy the damage caused by bombs exploding in London during World War I?

Naturally as a self-described old Albury boy you would look to compare the havoc to what would happen in your hometown in such a situation. 

That’s exactly what plumber-turned-sailor Joe Kemp did when he responded to a random letter sent by Bowna schoolboy Claude Mullavey in October 1917.

“A raid in London would make you cry to see the poor women and children all rushing for the Underground Railway, it is cruel, the people get in a panic,” Mr Kemp wrote.

“I will try to explain the damage a bomb or bombs will do.

“I dare say you know Albury.

“Well, if one or two bombs were dropped in front of the Town Hall, they would wreck the street, from Olive St to Kiewa St.”

That vivid vignette is contained in a letter which is a remarkable story in itself.

It was a response to a ‘letter to a lonely soldier’ penned by Claude and published in The Albury Banner in June 1917 as part of a writing competition.

Claude detailed his life at Bowna, fishing in the Murray River, rabbit shooting and how his teacher enlisted but was declared unfit after a week in camp.

“I will now conclude, hoping that by the time it reaches you this terrible war will be brought to an end, and that you will once more be able to return to the land of your birth,” Claude wrote.

Mr Kemp, a petty officer in the navy, spotted the Banner article after receiving the newspaper from friends.

“On reading it I noticed that well worded letter of yours, which I feel sure was well worthy of the small prize,” he wrote.

“I wish to highly congratulate you on your letter, which I really enjoyed.”

Mr Kemp then related his war experience, which involved nearly two years with the Grand Fleet to that point.

“We often lose a man or two over the side, but that is nothing, no stopping to pick them up, it is to riskie (sic),” he wrote.

While on the North Sea in May 1917, Mr Kemp’s vessel came under fire from German airships.

“All eyes were fixed on the Zeps, & (we) were admiring it,” he recalled.

“All of a sudden she started to bomb us, just missing the magazine I had just left, pieces of Bomb blew in board.

“She used to let about 5 bombs go at a time.

Young master: Claude Mullavey as a boy before writing his prize-winning letter to a lonely soldier which evoked a response from Joe Kemp.

Young master: Claude Mullavey as a boy before writing his prize-winning letter to a lonely soldier which evoked a response from Joe Kemp.

“We were useless, just trusting to our Skippers (sic) Seamanship, the way he maneuvered (sic) the ship was wonderful.”

Mr Kemp later told of working as a plumber in Albury and wistfully reflects on fishing from the Hawksview bridge across the Murray.

“How only wish I was there now, with my old friends, but never mind it will all come right some day,” he wrote.

“Life is hardly worth living sometimes, but when we get back in the land of Australia we will forget everything.”

Mr Kemp offers good wishes and stresses his loyalty in signing off.

“I am afraid I am making this letter too long, you might think am writing a book,” he opined.

“I will close now, hoping this letter will find you and your parents enjoying the best of health.

“Believe Me

“I Remain

“An Old Albury Boy,

“Joe Kemp

“No relation to the Kemps in Bowna.”

The five-page letter has since become part of its own adventure with the sender’s and recipient’s families only learning the full story last month – 100 years later.

It was at a Mullengandra school gathering that Albury Historical Society member Greg Ryan and his wife Cheryl (nee Mullavey) learned of the existence of Mr Kemp’s letter from Claude’s daughter Joan Bourke who had travelled from her Geelong home.

The Ryans later recalled having seen the Banner article on the Trove website while researching family history five years ago.

Claude’s grand-daughter Colleen Jennings had found Mr Kemp’s letter in a wardrobe drawer while cleaning out her pop’s personal effects following his death in 1998.

“It had always been a mystery to us as to the connection between the soldier and my pop,” Mrs Jennings said.

“That was until two weeks ago when Greg forwarded on to my parents the letter written by pop to lonely soldiers.”

Decades later: Claude Mullavey pictured at a family reunion in the mid-1990s.

Decades later: Claude Mullavey pictured at a family reunion in the mid-1990s.

Mrs Jennings said she was “blown away” when she found the letter.

“I opened it up thinking it was an old receipt, then upon closer inspection I realised it was more than just a bit of paper, it was an actual letter,” she said.

The letter has been offered and rejected by the Australian War Memorial and Claude Mullavey’s descendants are now considering donating it to a Border museum.

Mr Kemp’s youngest child John Kemp lives in South Albury, where he fiercely guards a diary his father wrote of his war days.

Joe Kemp began his own plumbing business in 1923 and at one stage employed 13, while Claude Mullavey became a shearer.

Both never spoke of the war with Mr Kemp dying in the late 1960s without suspecting his letter would stir readers 100 years on.  

When we get back in the land of Australia we will forget everything

World War I sailor Joe Kemp