Today’s Fantastic Find for Friday comes from the papers of RCOG co-founder William Fletcher Shaw, and is something which really shows how unexpected items can crop up in an archive collection. In May 1925, William Fletcher Shaw toured France with his wife, and sent back home to his 11 year old son, William Meredith, letters which were later typed up and bound. Fletcher Shaw senior had just been appointed to the Chair of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Manchester, and was obviously making the most of the summer vacation; William Meredith Fletcher Shaw was at boarding school. It starts off ‘I wonder if you know anything about French history? I knew nothing about it when I was a boy…During this holiday I have taken photographs of Chateaux which have played important parts in French history and if I send these to you with a short description of what occurred in them I think you will understand much more of French history than I knew until I grew up.’ He goes on to describe how the history of French and English rulers was intertwined over the years, and his own feelings on seeing these historic sites, including the ruins of the Castle of Chinon, the abbey at Poitiers, and the story of Joan of Arc.
The letters also include a very emotive description of the dungeons at the Castle of Loches: ‘Just imagine spending years in a room in which nothing can ever be seen, just black unfathomable darkness and yet one man at least spent 12 years here and came out alive. This room was also used for the purpose of getting rid of undesirable prisoners without the necessity of bringing them to trial. An opening in one corner dropped straight down a shaft into the river below; this opening could be left uncovered and the prisoner, unused to the darkness in his made despair feeling along the walls in the hope of finding some door or opening would suddenly fall down and be heard of no more.’ This attempt to educate his son in French history seems bittersweet given that William the younger was destined to die on the battlefields of Normandy in 1944 at the age of 30. This sad fact was summarised by Professor Robert W Johnstone in 1950 in the preface to his William Meredith Fletcher Shaw Memorial Lecture: ‘My personal recollection of him is of a lively and most attractive youth who was determined to do all that lay in his power to ensure the comfort and entertainment of his father’s guests. The same unselfish energy led him early into the Territorial Army, and after six years of active service he was killed in Normandy in the performance of a duty calling for sustained and cold courage of the highest order. Posthumously his gallantry was recognised by the award of the Military Cross.’