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1st June 2001 at 01:00
When history teacher Jim Butt was given an old biscuit tin by a school governor he turned detective, setting off on a quest that took him from East Sussex to the battlefields of Flanders via a Midlands library. Along the way he inspired his pupils, co-wrote a smash-hit school musical and got to understand his late father a little more. Harvey McGavin reports on a chance find that led to a treasure hunt into the past.

It was a Huntley and Palmer's biscuit tin, what they call in the trade a figural tin, made in the shape of a water bottle, that caught antique dealer Stuart Cropper's eye. The tin was one of several in a lot described in the auction room catalogue as "sundry tins in mixed condition". At home that night Mr Cropper looked through his day's purchases. Inside one, "a fairly unprepossessing brown, embossed tin with flowers on it", was a collection of letters and photographs, dusty and faded with age. As he opened and read them, a tragic story unfolded. These were the effects of a soldier, mostly his letters home from the trenches in the First World War.

Mr Cropper says: "I read them and thought, 'gosh, that's interesting'. Not so interesting that I thought I must do something about it, but interesting enough for me to think I should not throw it away either. The letters were very simple. That's what was really moving."

The tin and its contents hung around Mr Cropper's home for a few years, half forgotten, until he took it to Priory school in Lewes, East Sussex, where his sons were pupils and he was a governor.He handed it to Jim Butt, head of history. "I said to him, 'I think you'll find this interesting. Do what you will with it.' What's happened since has been amazing. It's like an unexploded bomb that just blew up and produced a wondrous fireworks display."

The contents of the biscuit tin certainly sparked the imagination of Jim Butt. He turned detective, setting off on a two-year investigation that would see him scour the public records of a Midlands town, walk its streets in search of the soldier's relatives, travel to France and co-write a musical.

At first he had little to go on. A birth certificate showed that the soldier, Private Rupert Freeman, No 27958, had been born in Kingsthorpe, near Northampton, in February 1897. The letters, mostly to his mother and with some of her replies, gave little away. Coming from an ordinary soldier, his correspondence would have been censored, and he would have been unable to write about the fighting. In one he wrote: "I have not much to say. As you know we cannot say all we should like to." Instead, he would ask for cigarettes and razors, or enquire after the health of family members, or his father's latest crop of potatoes.

There were photographs too, unidentified people who turned out to be a younger brother, Edgar, and Rupert's sweetheart, May. A casualty clearing station label showed he had been wounded in the arm in November 1916, sent for recuperation to a hospital near Worcester and returned to the front the following June. A letter from the lance-corporal of the East Yorkshire regiment to Private Freeman's mother describes how her son was killed by a shell on August 3, 1917, aged 20.

When Jim Butt read the letter telling of Rupert Freeman's death, "it was a heart-tugging moment", he says. "And there was a letter written home the day before he died. I felt quite upset by that."

The letters had added poignancy for Mr Butt, whose own father had volunteered for the army in 1914, aged 16, and saw action at Gallipoli, Ypres and the Somme. One night in 1917, he was working as a stretcher-bearer, looking for wounded soldiers in the dark, when his leg was almost blown off. Of five friends who had volunteered together, Mr Butt senior was the only one to survive the war. Private Freeman's story had obvious parallels with that of his father, who was already fairly old when Jim was born, and whose eccentric behaviour would annoy him as a child. "I think they were the same sort of emotions. He was a young man who didn't know what he was getting involved in. I don't think any of them did. It was just an adventure to them, a tragic adventure."

With a historian's nose for detail, Jim Butt set about filling in the blanks. He wrote letters to anyone who might know more about Rupert Freeman's life - to Northampton's museum and library, to the county record office, to his old regiment and the Army records office. He dug up an obituary in the local paper, unusual for an ordinary soldier, but it seemed the family was well known in the town, and Rupert had been well liked. He even went to Kingsthorpe and knocked on the front door of Rupert Freeman's old house. He didn't expect to come across a relative but, after being directed a few doors down to the house of an elderly neighbour who knew the family, he found one.

Rupert's 97-year-old sister-in-law, the wife of his much younger brother Bill, had just moved into a home nearby. She told him about the family in no uncertain terms, describing Rupert's father as a "gentleman" and calling his mother a "tartar". He found out that Rupert had left school at 13 to work as a shoemaker, and had three brothers and a sister, Connie, who had died a few years previously. Connie's son had sold her belongings after her death, which is how the biscuit tin ended up in a London auction room.

Jim Butt began to read through the letters again, adding in this new information and "piecing together his life". Many of them said: "I hope this letter finds you as it leaves me - in the pink." This curiously old-fashioned phrase, resilient yet cheerful, seemed to sum up the letters' mood, and it stuck in Jim's mind. A keen guitarist, he started thinking, "if I could write a musical, that would be just the ticket for a title".

On a Thursday night in May, a few hundred parents, friends and fellow pupils are packed into the main hall of Priory school, waiting for the curtain to go up. In The Pink is a sell-out. Jim Butt's story - and that of Private Freeman - has made the local newspaper, and cuttings are displayed on boards outside the hall next to photocopies of some of the letters and posters of past productions, including Oh! What A Lovely War. But as we are about to find out, it wasn't lovely at all.

The action begins in the present day, when a group of girls find the biscuit tin while playing hide-and-seek in an attic, and Private Freeman appears to them as a ghost. The production then flashes back to 1915, as Rupert and the other men of the village answer a local recruitment drive and sign up for the army. With a mixture of duty and regret they leave their loved ones and set off for France. Between scenes, archive film of shell-shocked soldiers, munitions factories and the muddy fields of no-man's-land is projected on to the backdrop. But the story's progress towards its grim conclusion is leavened by the slapstick comedy of bayonet class and the love story of Rupert and May.

The songs range from falsetto laments of the women and factory girls left at home, to boisterous tunes such as The Jocks Are With Us. Like this confident declaration by Rupert on returning to France accompanied by a Highland regiment, many of the lyrics are directly inspired by the letters. It is one of the most entertaining and moving history lessons you are likely to see.

The performance ends to rapturous applause and thanks all round, with the show's director, drama teacher Susie Lawrence, and Colin Burgess, who wrote the script, receiving special mentions. Mr Butt plays guitar in the band, but doesn't read music, so spent hours playing his compositions to pupils and to three fellow music teachers, including head of music Terry Steele, who could transcribe and arrange them to suit the children's voices. Some have said that Mr Butt's efforts in researching, writing songs and overseeing seven months of rehearsals go beyond the call of duty. As the show closes, a slide bearing the tongue-in-cheek tribute "Jim is a legend" is projected on to the stage. He insists it was "a great team effort".

The following day, a group of children set off from Lewes for Croisilles in northern France, where Rupert Freeman is buried. They find his grave, read out a letter of remembrance and observe a moment's silence. Even though he died long before they were born, the life of Rupert Freeman seems to have made a connection with the children of Priory school, perhaps because many of them are only a couple of years younger than he was when he signed up.

"I have been heartened by their reaction," Mr Butt says after the weekend trip to Flanders fields and the war graves at Ypres. "It brings home to them that war is not glamorous."

The story will come full circle later this year, when Private Freeman's effects are presented to Northampton museum. The cast and crew will travel there in July to perform the play at Lings upper school, where, by another happy coincidence, a former PGCE student who trained at Priory, Richard Abbott, is head of history. "It will be a kind of welcome home for Private Freeman," says Jim, adding that Rupert's 97-year-old sister-in-law will be invited to the show. Meanwhile, Priory school's record of excellence in art, music, dance and drama has led to a bid for performing arts status from the Government. Funds are being sought, too, to put the entire story behind In the Pink on a CD-Rom so that others can learn from their lucky find.

The day Stuart Cropper brought the old biscuit tin into Jim Butt's office seemed inauspicious enough. "It was the week before Christmas, when you wish term had finished the week before," Mr Butt recalls. But the "sundry tin" turned out to be a treasure chest, inspiring and entertaining a school, presenting the teacher with a professional challenge, and helping him understand his late father a little better besides.

"I soon realised this was an exceptional piece of information to have - almost unique. I just wanted to get to the bottom of it. As a teacher, you rarely get the chance to do real history - you are too busy just getting on with the job. I've had a lot of help in the school with this, but really it fell into my lap. It was almost like fate."

But he is in no doubt as to who is the real hero of the piece. "I don't think I was doing anything out of the ordinary, really. It was just a wonderful opportunity. We were lucky to have Rupert Freeman come along. We owe it to him really."

Contact: Jim Butt, Priory school, Mountfield Road, Lewes, East Sussex BN7

From Private Rupert Freeman, East Yorkshire Regiment, British Expeditionary Force, France

September 18, 1916

Dear Mother and Father, Just a few lines in answer to your loving letter. Glad to hear that all at home are quite well for I am in the pink. I have seen old Don out here and I am still with Jack and the other boys. Before we got on the boat we had 3 or 4 hours look around Folkestone and it was fine too on the beach and we had some sport you can bet.

We all get the same money out here that is 5 francks (sic) each, that is 42d in English money and we shall draw the other when we come home. I hope Dad gets a good crop of potatoes this year and I hope the boys help him as much as they can.

I don't think I have much more to say this time only just remember me to Arthur and to Aunt Ada and Annie too and to Mrs J Gibson. Don't worry now I shall be alright. So goodnight and God bless you all at home from your ever loving son, Rupert.

Kiss little Connie for me, bless her.

October 13, 1916 Dear Mother and Father, You must excuse me for not writing for we have been on the move this three or four days and I wish you would send me some toothpaste and some writing paper and envelopes as we cannot get any now. I hope you won't worry for I shall look after myself you can bet.

You say that Dad has got all the spuds up and they never turned out very well. Never mind, as long as you have got enough for yourselves. Anyhow, I should like some baked now. You ask me if I want a razor. Well, I'm alright, Jack gives me one when I want it but I should like a bit of cake for once...

Don't worry I shall come back alright. From your ever loving son, Rupert July 10, 1917 (back in France after being wounded and a month before his death) Dear Mother and Father, Just a few lines hoping they will find all at home in the best of health as they leave me in the pink still. But most of my pals that came out with me have gone up the line and my pal has gone up who enlisted the same day as I did... There is only one Northampton chap left here with me now. I had a surprise the other day I saw one of the chaps that was in the same hospital as me at Worcester.

I expect by when you get this you will have had that rosary. I hope so for that is the best way I could send itI I see by the papers that there has been a big air raid over London. I wondered if it was near where Art lives.

Dear Mother I don't think there is any more time so I must ring off now with the best of love to you all at home from your ever loving son, Rupert

July 14, 1917

Dear Mother and Father

I received your letter which came in very useful and it was very good of you to send those cigs and thanks for the money. Well mother I shall not be able to send any more rosaries as I have moved and you may guess where to. But keep on smiling as you never know your luck in these hard timesI and the chewing gum is A1 which you sent. You tell me to look after myself. You leave it to me, I bet I look after myself, but I know what you mean. Well Mother, I have not much to say as you know we are not able to say everything we should like to.

With the best of love to all at home from your ever loving son, Rupert

From May, Rupert's sweetheart in Worcester

My Dear Boy,

Many thanks for kind letter I received today. Pleased to hear you are keeping well as I am myself keeping A1. Munitions are going down fine. Been to an outing today to Tewkesbury from the works. Well dear, I only wish you were hereI I am pleased to say my brother is keeping well but is not in France yet thank God. Worst luck for you to be there but still I suppose it is your luck. Never mind dear keep smiling. I'll see you have some cartridges. I am on a Captain lathe and can make 140 cartridges a minute. That's the stuff to give them. Well dear will send you some smokes later. Will close my letter having lovely weather lately. Best love and kisses. Remain yours always, May


From his mother, Kingsthorpe, Northampton

My Dear Son

Just a few lines in answer to your loving letter and card. Well, I am hoping that you are keeping well and in the pink. I dare say you thought I had forgot all about you...

All kind friends wish to be remembered to you and wish you the best of luck, so may God bless you and keep you safe and bring you back to me.

From your ever loving Mother and father, sister and brothers

From Rupert's section commander August 17, 1917

Dear Mr and Mrs Freeman,

I now take the pleasure of writing these few lines to let you know of your son's death. He was at the time acting runner to an officer of the platoon, and I am pleased to tell you that your son was well liked with the boys in the company, and he was a brave soldier too and he died a fighting soldier. He did not live to be in pain, we was all sorry to lose him. You will have to excuse me writing to tell you of your son's death. I thought we would try and let you know before the Government sent word. The last words he asked us to do was to write and tell his mother, and I said I would, with being his section commander. So I close my letter with the best wishes, Lance-corporal Leitch

From Rupert's platoon officer, August 22, 1917


In answer to your letter of the 17th re the death of your son No 27958 Pte R. Freeman, I, as his platoon officer on behalf of the NCOs and men of my platoon, sincerely sympathise with you in your sad loss, not only yours but ours.

He, although only with us a short period, was one of the cheeriest and finest soldiers that I could wish to have under my command. I regret to say he was hit in the first place in in the arm which was very slight. After being bandaged I gave him a cigarette and then I walked a few yards away from him to attend to another poor fellow who had been wounded.

My stretcher bearer who had already been wounded was helping your son to a light when another shell came and carried them both away instantly, neither of them suffering any pain. Regarding any personal belongings which were found on him, these were collected and sent through the usual channels and should reach you in due course. In conclusion I must say that your son died the death of a soldier and one among many of England's finest men. Please accept our deepest sympathy.

He was buried with other fallen comrades and a cross erected to their honourable memory.

I remain yours faithfully, G MacMahon, Second lieutenant, East Yorkshire Regiment

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