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Recovering from chemotherapy during lockdown, Stu Prince found a new mission – reuniting old postcards he'd found at online auctions with their owners. With one card in particular, he helped revive memories that had been buried for decades.

The postcard had been sent a year after World War Two ended, but it still looked bright and colourful. On its front was a cartoon of a rabbit asleep in a crib underneath the heading: "You're one to-day."

On the reverse was a stamp bearing the head of King George, postmarked 27 September 1946. Next to that was an address: Miss F Kaye of 12 Northumberland Mansions, Luxborough Street, London, W1. And there was a neatly written message, too.

"To our loving grand-daughter," it read, "wishing you many returns of the day. And may your future be a happy and peaceful one."

Since he'd begun collecting postcards from online auction sites, Stu Prince, 62, had amassed thousands in the home in Crewe, Cheshire, which he shares with Kim, his wife. But something about this one in particular stood out to him.

He had just started a Facebook page and he posted a photograph of the card asking – more in hope than expectation – if anyone could help reunite it with the one-year-old it had been addressed to. Then he thought nothing more of it.

But not long afterwards he received a message: "I found the baby."

Back in 2019, Stu had been diagnosed with leukaemia. "That meant heavy, heavy chemo," he says. He had no idea whether the treatment would work, and he was shocked by how much it took out of him.

Previously he'd walked five miles a day. Since his retirement as a therapist he'd been active in his community, organising a local carnival. Now he was too exhausted to get up from his sofa. Before long the first Covid lockdown was announced, and Stu came under strict orders to shield.

He knew he needed a distraction, one that wasn't too physically demanding but that would keep him occupied. Then one day while browsing the web looking at old letters and possessions for sale and he came across a bunch of old postcards on eBay, dating as far back as 1900.

"I thought, these are fantastic, they're all different, and they're all somebody's ancestor," he says. Sometimes they would function like modern-day text messages – thanking their hosts for Sunday dinner, or letting a relative know they would be passing round the next day. Other times, they would be more profound notes between loved ones.

image captionStu Prince holding postcards

He'd always been interested in genealogy, and a thought occurred to him. What if he could help trace the owners of the postcards and their relatives and reunite them?

"I've got very little of my own from my family – just a few photographs – and I thought, if I could do it for someone else, I can't imagine how they'd feel," he says.

"You get a little insight, don't you – deeper insight into the person than any cold census data can produce."

It was then that Stu set up a Facebook group, titled Reuniting Postcards With Families, and began taking photos of the postcards and posting them, six at a time.

Quickly the page built up a following. People would "like" the page at first, watching in case any of the postcards he put up were related to them in any way.

Soon Stu had over 2,000 postcards in his house. "There's thousands and thousands, hovering around these various auction sites all over the shop, with addresses, with names."

But tracking down the owners of the cards was proving too onerous a task for him.

"I could hardly walk to the window to take the pictures of the cards," says Stu. "I needed a lot of looking after, early on."

Luckily for Stu, from the ranks of his Facebook page's followers a small army of volunteers came forward, offering their help.

"The researchers just stepped in and took a lot of the workload off me and for that I'm very grateful," he says. "The only way I could cope was with my researchers."

Christine Bennett, 70, is a former chartered accountant. She lives in Bushey, Hertfordshire, and now spends a lot of her time singing both professionally and at open mic nights. Genealogy has been a hobby of hers for around 20 years, so when she came across Stu's page it caught her attention immediately.

Some years ago, a stranger contacted her out of the blue with a postcard they had in their personal collection. It had been sent in the 1940s by her late father to her mother.

"I wasn't expecting it at all – and somebody took the trouble to then find my contact information and email me to let me know about it. And I know when I got that in my hand – gosh, that was special," she says.

"And knowing how I felt about that, that's, I think, my motivation, that kind of feeling is why I'm happy to spend time tracking down descendants of the recipient of a postcard."

image captionChristine Bennett

Christine says she has to resist the temptation to research all of the cards she spots. She tries to focus on the ones that shouldn't be too hard to track down – where the name is distinctive and the address is clear.

Then she heads for census records, as well as registrations of births and marriages – she says are all vital sources of information, as is the British Library, where digitised versions of local newspapers are held.

"The bread and butter for local papers are births, marriages, deaths, wedding accounts, and funeral accounts telling you who attended and how they were related, even maybe what they did for a living – these are all things that the local papers loved," she says. "Now you don't see that so much. And that's a loss for the local paper, and perhaps for future historians, that those kinds of records are not going to be around so much."

Christine is not the only one who helps track down people connected with the cards.

Beneath each postcard Stu posts on Facebook, there are often hundreds of replies. "There's a big community feel in this, that people are supporting each other," he says.

Stu says he has around six active researchers and many more budding enthusiasts. He estimates that he has reunited hundreds of cards since he started the Facebook page in 2020.

When the recipients of the postcards can be traced, the result can be enormously satisfying.

Soon after one of Stu's researchers contacted him to say she had found Miss F Kaye from London – the one-year-old baby to whom the 1946 postcard had been addressed – Stu received another message by email. It said: "That card is me, the baby is me."

Frimette Carr – formerly Kaye – is beaming as she looks at the postcard in her hands. Carefully wrapped in plastic by Stu and cushioned between two bits of cardboard, it still looks as good as new.

Before lockdown, 75-year-old Frimette had lived an active social life in Edgware, north London. Every week she and her husband had played cards with friends.

image captionFrimette Carr

Then Covid struck. "Within the first three weeks we stopped counting when we lost 10 friends," she says.

"After that there were more, we did lose some very, very, very dear friends, right at the beginning, and more after – it really scared us."

There were no funerals in those early days and no closure for Frimette. She was frightened, too. She didn't want to die – not yet, anyway.

And then, in the midst of all the death and sadness, Frimette received some good news. "I got a text from my daughter-in-law saying she'd been contacted, and asked if she knew me."

The call was from a researcher on Stu's page. This researcher asked not to be identified by the BBC – but said that once they had established the "F" in "Miss F Kaye" stood for Frimette – not a common name in the UK – they had been able to find her fairly quickly. They told her about Stu's page and that he had a card of hers.

"He sent it to me and I was amazed," she says.

It had been sent by her paternal grandparents. Frimette says that at that time she had been living at her maternal grandparents' house, along with her mother and father.

Her paternal grandparents were Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe – specifically, a territory in Pomerania known as the Polish Corridor. They also could not write English, and Frimette could tell help had been enlisted when the postcard was composed. "It was obviously written by my aunt – I know that aunt's handwriting, very, very well," she says.

The card brought back memories of distant times – Frimette's last grandparent had died almost 50 years ago.

image captionFrimette Carr's maternal grandparents

"My mother's mother was an amazing cook. I don't remember her ever not being at the cooker, at the stove. She'd she put a three-course meal on the table in the time it makes most people to make a cup of tea," Frimette says.

"The other grandma was much more a lady. She was much more groomed, much smarter – couldn't cook at all. They were just wealthier, the two families were very different."

Frimette wonders about the journey of that postcard – how it made it from her family's home to an online auction. She remembers clearing out her grandparents' home when they died.

"We were going, 'Do we want this? Do we want that?' – but I don't remember any documents in her house at all. It's amazing, this card has just travelled through time."

The discovery was all the more poignant to her because she has so few records of her family's history.

"I can't even do a genealogy search on them," she says. "The records in Eastern Europe, where they came from – many have been wiped out."

Her message to younger generations is to ask older relatives for their stories while they're still around. "If you've got an interesting history – do it when you're young, when they're still around to answer your silly questions. Don't let them die off without you knowing things."

Stu is currently in remission and says he is getting back his strength. He's proud of what the page has achieved.

"I just wanted to do something and people joined in and I'm grateful for it – people supported me," he says.

"It was part of my recovery really, to feel useful. And I think that for any person recovering from leukaemia or cancer to feel useful it's big, it's massive. I can't describe how massive that is.

"I feel marvellous about it, I feel brilliant – out of adversity came something really nice and something really valuable. And I felt really good about it – I felt good about myself, in the first time for quite a while."

Amanda Kirton's television report on Stu and Frimette appeared on Breakfast, on BBC One, on Friday 24 September 2021.

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