Sepia Saturday – Letters from the H.M.S. Birmingham

Sepia Saturday provides an opportunity for genealogy bloggers to share their family history through photographs.

My first thought upon seeing today’s prompt was of a Christmas card sent from the H.M.S. Birmingham to my grandmother, Eveline Coates.

I thought I had a scan of the card or maybe the card itself, but unfortunately, all I have is a Xerox copy. Drat.

I’m going with it anyway.


The Christmas card, featuring a Navy vessel, was sent by this handsome young man.

George Elgey

George Elgey was my grandmother’s cousin.

George signed his name on the back of this photo. Eveline added his surname.

Eveline in brother John's WW1 uniform

George was born in Easington Lane, Durham, England on June 10, 1899. Eveline was born in Mystic, Appanoose, Iowa, USA, on February 15, 1901. Although first cousins and close in age, they never met.

George’s mother, Jane Ann (Jennie) Coates, and Eveline’s father, Joseph Coates, were siblings. Joseph boarded a ship as a young man sometime around 1889 and made the journey across the Atlantic. As far as I know, Joseph never saw his parents or siblings again.

George joined the Royal Navy sometime before August, 1918. Eveline graduated from Mystic High School in 1918 and entered normal school in the fall in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Both away from home for the first time, but under very different circumstances.

Eveline corresponded with her Aunt Jennie and several of Jennie’s children for many years. I am fortunate to have copies of a few letters sent to Eveline. It is one of my fondest wishes to find an “English cousin” in possession of the letters Eveline wrote.

I have a copy of one other bit of correspondence from George to Eveline, sent from the HMS Birmingham in August of 1918.

Friday Aug. 30th 1918.                                                         H.M.S. Birmingham,
C/o G.P.O. London
Dear Cousin,

Just a few lines – hoping this finds you in the best of health as it leaves me in the pink at present. I think sister Lizzie will have sent you word by now to let you know I joined the Navy a good while since well I can assure you it is a healthy life besides that we can learn a good deal which will be very usefull to us after this war is over. I meet many of American Sailors while I were down the south of England 400 miles away from my home called (erasure) a very beautifull place to. By the time you receive this I will be some where on the mighty ocean hunting for fishes which have done damage during this great war but now we have got our friends the Americans to help us it should not be long before it is finished let’s hope so. Can you remind of the time you sent me a letter calling me for not writing to you well I will excuse you for that as I know you did not mean it. I would have wrote to you sooner only I did not know your address untill I went home on leave. I suppose you will often hear from sister Lizzie as I think she does a great deal of writing but not so many as her brother George not by a good deal. Before I joined up I never wrote above two letters in all my life and now I do nothing else in my spare time. Please give my best love to all at your home also to Cousin Mr. and Mrs. Carl Coates. I have sent home to tell them to send you one of my photoes taken while in civil life and will do my best to send you one I have had taken in my sailors clothes. This is my address,

G. F. Elgey, Stoker II
SB. No 9213
H.M.S. Birmingham
C/o G.P.O. London

Eveline had a strict policy regarding correspondence. She promptly answered letters she received. In turn, she expected a reply within a reasonable amount of time. If one of Eveline’s letters went unanswered, she would write to you again, but with an admonishment and possibly a note that this would be the last letter you received until she heard from you. I know this from personal experience. The letter above confirms that grandmother instituted this policy early in life – evidenced by the scolding previously delivered to George. Now aboard ship, George had plenty of time for writing letters.

The cousin, Carl Coates, referred to in the letter is one of Eveline’s older brothers.

H.M.S. Birmingham 1916

George’s signature indicates his rank as Stoker II. The little research I have done informs me that stokers were in charge of generating steam for the turbines that powered the ship. The HMS Birmingham carried both coal and oil as fuel. Young George may have spent many hot and dirty hours shoveling coal into the boilers. Or he may have done maintenance on the engines. In any case, he made no complaints about his duties, assuring Eveline of his healthy life aboard ship.

Although the H.M.S. Birmingham was involved in several battles during World War I, most famously for being the first cruiser to sink a submarine, the time George spent on the Birmingham seems to have been relatively uneventful.

I wonder if George prepared his Christmas cards before the war ended on November 11?

I still have a lot of research to do regarding George and his service in the Royal Navy. In fact, I still have a lot to learn about all of the “English cousins”.

Lastly,the prompt above suggests not only ships, but crowds and travel. As I am posting this on Friday Oct. 5th, I’ll finish with something completely unrelated to George, the Navy, or ships and pay tribute to the British invasion that began 50 years ago with the release of this song:



37 thoughts on “Sepia Saturday – Letters from the H.M.S. Birmingham

    • I never knew the names of any of the English relatives and it took me some time to sort out the connections among the photos and letters. Now I at least have some families put together!

  1. Jana, this post is so neat. I liked all the original correspondence, and learning about your relatives. George is very handsome! I also appreciate how they wrote back and forth even though they never got to actually meet. All part of chapters for your book!

    Kathy M.

    • You’ve mistaken me for Jana – but I won’t complain as I loyally follow Jana too! You and I, however, share the same first name and last initial. 🙂 I am so happy to have copies of some of the letters. They were a mystery to me at first as I didn’t know the name Elgey and I didn’t know who they were. Have a good weekend!

  2. I’m sure stokers didn’t see many sunsets while at sea but they certainly did their part!
    I was a bit surprised you transcribed Georges letter. I mean his handwriting is so clear! It is also the kind of writing I learned in grammar school, a little over 60 years ago.. I can hardly imagine the youth of today is unable to read this. Or am I wrong?

    • Peter – you are right about the younger generation and cursive handwriting. Although my children (now 21-28) were taught handwriting in school, the use of cursive was only required during the year it was taught. They have a difficult time deciphering script. I always had to read their grandmother’s letters to them as they complained they couldn’t read it.
      George did have beautiful handwriting – his might not be difficult.

    • I wish I had more of George’s letters. Since he says he wrote so many, surely he wrote more than this one to my grandmother. Thanks for your comments!

  3. I am really enjoying the Sepia Saturday posts. The letters and pictures in this one are treasured keepsakes. I am always impressed by the beautiful cursive writing of our ancestors. Have you located any “English cousins”?

    • Hi Danita. I like the Sepia Saturday prompts. Sometimes I feel so scattered about where I’m going with the blog, but this gives me a focus for at least one a week.
      I have a lead on an English cousin. I noticed someone adding a record on to one of the members of this family, so I contacted him. It is his wife who is related. I shared a few pictures and she had a couple of the same pictures, so it looks like a match. I really need to get in touch with her again as great gaps exist between our correspondence. Eveline would not approve!

  4. George looks very handsome in his picture. It is interesting that he was such a good letter writer when he hadn’t really written letters before being in the Navy.

  5. A strikingly handsome fellow, but to work in the engine chambers surely was hard work. Did he ever make it to America? He must have been proud though to be on the HMS Birmingham.

    I was good, once upon a time, with corresponding with people, but those days are gone as I now blog, email, but hardly ever a letter do I sign… Good for him for keeping it up, and to Eveline for being as dedicated.

    Thanx 4 sharing!!
    I enjoyed the bit of family history entangled with History itself.

    • I don’t think he ever made it to America, but I have a suspicion that someone in his family went to Canada. I’m with you on the letter writing. Just doesn’t happen. Thanks for your comments!

      • Georges son Kenneth emigrated to Canada in the mid 1960’s. George was my maternal great aunts husband. I new him as Uncle George. I stayed with him and Bella frequently. George died in 1974, his wife Bella in 1977 and Ken about 2014 in Oakville, Ontario, Canada

        • Thank you for your comment! I’m dealing with chemo fatigue and brain, so I’m late in reading your comment. I’ll try to be in touch soon!

  6. A most excellent Sepia Saturday contribution. Those letters and cards are such wonderful mementos from cousins who never met. And beautiful penmanship to boot.

  7. I think it’s awesome that George and Eveline corresponded though they had never met. Do you know if they continued this their entire lives? And yes, he was quite a handsome young man!

    • This is the only letter I have, but later in life, George’s mother lived with George and his family. I have a couple that she sent and she signed George’s name with hers. Not sure that counts!

  8. He is such a handsome man, and happy that he survived it all! She looks very official in her brother’s uniform! I wish you much luck in all your research, which can always be so exciting as often you happen on other links and of things you may never have known before!

    • I was surprised at how well the uniform fits her. Thanks for your comments. I’ll have to do an update if I find any new information.

  9. Fascinating post. We forgot how large the world used to be. Imagine the cousins meeting today on Skype.

    And his handwriting is to die for. So beautiful.

    • Yes, the world was much larger. A decision like Joseph’s meant only communication by mail and photographs – hard for me to imagine. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Yes, he did. I believe I have a picture from his wedding, although no one is identified. I’ll have to write more about George another day. Thanks for your comments!

    • Sorry it has taken me a while to respond. I have not been feeling well. My great-grandfather’s sister, Jane Ann (Jennie) Coates married Frederick Elgey. They lived in Durham. My grandmother corresponded with Jennie and her children – one of whom was George on the H.M.S. Birmingham. I have identified several of this Elgey family in the posts about George Elgey’s wedding photo. Do any of them sound familiar to you? I have a few letters my grandmother received from her Elgey cousins and am always hopeful that I will find someone who has a few of the letters she wrote to them!

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