In February 2017 the BBC ran a story about two soldiers exchanging love letters during World War two. Gunner Gilbert Bradley is pictured above and the handwriting belongs to Infantryman Gordon Bowsher. From my perspective this was unusual for two reasons a) at the time homosexuality was illegal and as serving officers punishable by Court Martial and b) Gordon shares my surname.
Mark Hignett- a Curator at Oswestry Museum had bought the letters on ebay because one of the men Gunner Gilbert Bradley was based locally at Park Hall Camp in Shropshire. He also appreciated the significance of the letters as a valuable piece of social history.
The story has resonated across the world. The Oswestry Museum is now exhibiting the letters and in partnership with Heritage Open Days started a public art project. Artist Olivia Winteringham has asked the public to compose love letters and commit it to a Flame of Remembrance. The ashes from all the burned love letters will be transformed into a commemorative diamond ring (the post box/furnace is pictured below outside Oswestry Museum.) This symbol of love will serve as a wonderful tribute to Gordon and Gilbert and indeed anyone who is not able to share their love freely. In 2018 the ring will be presented to Oswestry Town Museum.
As Gordon’s relatives the museum kindly asked our family to say a few words at the closing ceremony (10th September 2017) and I thought I’d share them here for posterity:
“It’s a strange and wonderful feeling to be here today. Gordon is my relative. Until February I didn’t know who he was. Today we (my Mum Julie, Dad Nigel and I) have the privilege of representing him.
Representing someone you don’t know is a difficult thing to do. So I’ve thought carefully about what to say to you all.
Gordon had to live his life in secret. He didn’t have the freedom to live openly. Until 2008 his partnership and love for Gilbert was invisible to the world and the risk of being caught could have meant imprisonment or worse still. It’s hard to imagine how hard it must have been to suppress love; to hide the most profound feelings in the shadows and fear being discovered.
Hate, fear and ignorance still exist all over the world. I didn’t feel I could represent Gordon fully without speaking to people who are forced into secrecy today.
I spoke in confidence to a man about his experiences of keeping love hidden. His partner comes from the Middle East and his family don’t know their son is gay. They have been together for 5 years and married in secret. He described the need to constantly risk assess every environment when they are not behind closed doors. He told me that context is really important and surprisingly that he can often be more affectionate with his partner in company in the Middle East than in some social circumstances in the UK. He also told me that homosexuality in not only illegal in his partner’s country but also could be punishable by death. Ramifications would also be felt by his partner’s immediate and extended family if the truth ever came out.
He described how his partner is coming under increasing pressure to marry and start a family as the eldest son. Imagine knowing one day your partner may be forced to commit to someone else. He told me he chooses to live life in the present, despite difference in age, ethnicity and religion he and his partner have found a way to make their relationship work.
I asked him if he could pass one message on to you all today what it would be. He replied with “no labels.” He hopes for a time when sexuality is no longer a label; no longer significant and that people could relate to one another without sexuality being a “thing.”
As we finished the conversation I left feeling humbled by his determination, clarity and bravery. He is a proud man who is deeply in love with his partner; when he wakes each day he reminds himself everything is ok because that love still exists despite all the challenges and boundaries. Their love reminded me a great deal of the affection that leaps off the pages from Gordon’s letters. 66 years on and humans all over the world still experience the same challenges.
However, Gordon’s wish of the letters being published in a more enlightened time has come true. The public reaction to the letters is cause for hope and optimism; this has been magnificently celebrated today and captured by the museum for others to benefit from.
We’d like to thank Mark Hignett for purchasing the letters and bringing an incredible piece of social history to life in the museum. We’d like to thank all the staff and volunteers at Oswestry Museum for the sensitivity, thoughtfulness and kindness in which Gordon and Gilbert’s story has been shared. Thanks to all of you for sharing this experience and making this possible. Thanks finally to Olivia Winteringham for commemorating this whole experience so perfectly.
Today is a celebration of more than anything else that love endures and transcends even the most impossible of circumstances. The idea of using love to build a tribute to their love is both kind and poetic. I hope there are Gordon’s and Gilbert’s all over the world who hear about their story, I hope it offers hope and allows light into the shadows.
May Gordon and Gilbert both rest a little more peacefully knowing they have supported, enlightened and encouraged others.
If you are interested in finding out more please visit Oswestry Town Museum, The Guidhall (3rd Floor), Bailey Head, Oswestry SY11 1PZ. Telephone : 01691 680241. email : firstname.lastname@example.org or click on http://www.oswestrytownmuseum.co.uk you’ll also find them @OswestryMuseum or on Facebook.