“The biggest surprise I ever got”

Richmal Crompton's desk (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)
Richmal Crompton’s desk (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)

So, what about William? I want to draw your attention in this post to the letters in the Richmal Crompton archive, primarily the letters, not written by Richmal Crompton herself, but by one fan, who I have called David to protect his identity. I want to share with you David’s reading of the ‘Just William’ stories and illustrate how much they meant to him.

Richmal Crompton’s books and letters were a central part of David’s life in the 1950s and 1960s. He must have first contacted her as a boy in May or June 1953. In this letter he is delighted that she has taken the trouble to write to him and he almost seems very deliberately to be taking on a William like character.

This letter opens with: “I have had a lot of surprises in my life, some unpleasant and some pleasant – unpleasant surprises – well, like the time I was doing a sketch “on the sly” in my copybook during class. The subject of my sketch was the teacher who was droning away up at the blackboard. I felt somebody shoving against my elbow…. I said, “chuck it, you ass” – It wasn’t [a] pal – It was the Rev Headmaster! What followed came as no surprise. I got what I expected – and it was not pleasant. But pleasant surprises – your lovely letter this morning was one of these, in fact, it was the biggest surprise I ever got. You see, dear Miss Crompton, I never expected to get any reply from you – “Cross my heart”, as William would probably say, I didn’t”.

David then went on to exchange letters with Richmal Crompton until her death in 1969.  And we have 13 of them in the Roehampton archive. However, we only have one other letter of David’s from the 1950s, received only three days after the last letter I have just quoted and dated 25th June 1953. From these two early letters we find out that the boy is confined to bed for much of his life, suffering from chronic ill health. These are two very different people but with a shared experience and they have made a connection which resonates throughout these letters.

In this second June 1953 letter we learn that Richmal Crompton has sent David a book: “your precious autographed copy of “William and The Tramp”. At first I was too happily surprise[d] to do anything but gaze at the wonderful book, then I gave a yell of joy – giving “Nursie” a slight touch of blood pressure (whatever that is, but that’s what she said), she got such a fright…. Your letter the other day came as a huge surprise, but your book today – Well, it has taken my breath away. I can hardly believe that I honestly and truly possess a “William book” actually signed by you. Thanks over and over again, dear Miss Crompton, I will always treasure this book and remember with deep gratitude your amazing kindness to me”.

Letters, photographs and postcards from 'David' (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)
Letters, photographs and postcards from ‘David’ (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)

We do not have another letter from David until September 1962 and in this letter David calls her, “My dear Fairy Godmother Richmal Crompton”. Now David in the 1960s is a much older boy but he continues to be ill. We do not have Richmal Crompton’s letters to him, but we know that she was concerned about him and that she was a loyal and caring friend. She clearly asks him how he is getting on and what he has been up to while he has been confined to bed. We also learn that she shared part of her life with him: “Thank you so much for telling me about yourself and your home”, writes David.

In his letter of September 1962 David is delighted to have received another book. I assume this was William’s Treasure Trove published in 1962: “Your latest William book, the one you so generously sent me, is, in boy language, super. You understand the workings of a boy’s mind, his thoughts, his make-believe world, his hopes, his dreams and his little fears far, far better than many a Dad. Often when I laugh at Williams antics I am really laughing at my secret self. Your books and your stories are always true to life, all your characters, both young and adult, have their flesh and blood counterparts in the everyday world”.

These letters are very much a story in their own right, about a boy and young man who develops a close relationship with a caring and loyal writer and friend. We learn that he must have lost his parents at a very young age and he struggles with long term ill health which sometimes prevents him from replying immediately to the letters he receives. We know that his mother was an artist and poet. He loves nature and the birds in particular that he looks at from his window. And what is really striking is the extent to which his reading of Richmal Crompton’s stories and her letters become a lifeline for him.

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