My husband loves to find me little treasures in antique shops and through online auction sites, and this month he surprised me with an empty envelope. Yes, empty--at least there is nothing inside. The exterior, on the other hand, is crowded with enough stamps and postmarks to have taken it at least halfway around the world, or so it seems anyway. The "special delivery" in actuality only traveled from the tiny borough of Oakdale, Pennsylvania (about a mile from where I live), to Cabin C-47 on the ship Georgic, berthed at New York City's Pier 54, the same pier from which the Lusitania departed on its ill-fated voyage in 1915.
Thankfully, Miss Elsie Townley, to whom the envelope is addressed, did not suffer the same fate as the Lusitania's passengers. The letter was received by the White Star Line offices on 15 May 1937, and eventually made its way to England. But who was Elsie? Why was she going to England? Did she ever come back to the U.S.? And how did she know Mrs. E. Downs in Oakdale, Pa.?
The envelope was postmarked in Oakdale and Pittsburgh, Pa. on 14 May 1937, and then at Grand Central in New York, and the North River Piers receiving office of the White Star Line on 15 May 1937. Air mail was pretty fast back then too, I guess, and just in time! The M.V. Georgic departed New York City on May 15th and arrived in Southampton, England, on 23 May 1937. Aboard was Florence E. Townley, a 36-year-old U.S. citizen headed to 75 Merriman Road, Blackheath. Her occupation was listed as "assistant checker."1
The visit to London appears to have been a short one, as Florence Elsie Townley returned to America on 19 June 1937 aboard the Britannic, headed home to 841 Eastwood Ave. in Chicago, Illinois. She was traveling as an American citizen, naturalized 26 June 1930 in Chicago.2 Soon after her return from England, Elsie married Harry Ray Henderson on 2 October 1937 in Chicago.3 The couple soon settled in Portland, Oregon, where Harry was Executive Director of the Oregon Motor Hotel Association. Harry died 4 June 1965 while on a trip to Chicago.4 Elsie survived her husband by more than a decade, passing away in Portland on 16 Jul 1976. Her closest surviving relatives were her daughter, Ruth, and younger sister, May Allen of London.5
Elsie Florence Henderson was born 8 February 1901 in London, England, and first arrived in the U.S. as a 19-year-old on 1 March 1920. She appeared to be traveling alone, heading to Randolph, Wisconsin, and identified her occupation as "box maker" or "box packer," probably in a factory.6 Her closest relative in the UK was sister Mrs. T. Rule in Islington, London, likely the Minnie Townley who married Thomas Rule in London in 1910.7 Elsie and her sister, Minnie, were the daughters of house painter James John Townley and his wife, Elizabeth Garrett, of Shoreditch, London, along with siblings John, Hubert, Ethel, Percy, Frank, Walter, Dorothy and May Townley.8
As for the sender of the mystery letter? In 1940 John F. and Elizabeth Downs were living at 315 Clinton Avenue in Oakdale, Pa., the same return address given for Mrs. E. Downs on the letter for Miss Elsie Townley.9 He was a furniture upholsterer born in Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland, on 3 July 1879, while she was born in Tyler, Pa. about 1891. They married on 23 February 1908 in Salina, Westmoreland, Pa. and had settled in Oakdale by 1924.10 Their relationship with Miss Florence Elsie Henderson, however, remains a story for another day...
1. Manifest, M.V. Georgic, New York to Southampton, arriving 23 May 1937, passenger no. 244, Florance E. Townley, age 36; "UK Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960," digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 July 2012); citing Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and successors: Inwards Passenger Lists, series BT26; The National Archives (U.K), Kew, Surrey.
2. Manifest, S.S. Britannic, Southampton to New York, arriving 19 June 1937, page 35 (stamped), line 7, Florence Elsie Townley, age 21; "New York Passenger Lists, 1920-1957," digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 July 2012); citing National Archives microfilm publication T715, roll 5995. Manifest, S. S. Britannic, departing 12 June 1937, image 11 of 14, ticket 130928, Elsie Townley, age 21; "Passenger Lists Leaving U.K. 1890-1960," digital images, findmypast (http://www.findmypast.com : accessed 23 July 2012); citing Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and successors: Outwards Passenger Lists, series BT27; The National Archives (U.K), Kew, Surrey. "U.S. Naturalization Record Indexes, 1791-1992 (Indexed in World Archives Project)," Florence Elsie Townley, 1930; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 July 2012); citing National Archives microfilm publication M1285, roll 169. Florence's age is very clearly typed/penned "21" on both passenger lists, however her birth date on the referenced naturalization is 8 February 1901, corresponding to an age of 36.
3. Cook County, Illinois, marriage certificate no. 1552808, Henderson-Townley; Cook County Clerk's Office, Chicago.
4. Harry R. Henderson obituary, Oregonian, 7 June 1965, page 27, col. 4.
5. Elsie (Florence) Henderson obituary, The Sunday Oregonian, 18 July 1976, page c9, col. 2.
6. Manifest, S.S. Cedric, Liverpool to New York, arriving 28 February 1920, list 5 (stamped), line 20, Florence Elsie Townley, age 19; "New York Passenger Lists, 1920-1957," digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 July 2012); citing National Archives microfilm publication T715, roll 2734. The outgoing U.K manifest lists "box maker," while the Cedric passenger list has "box packer" crossed out and "factory girl" penned on top.
7. 1911 Census of England, London, Islington, Thomas Rule household; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 July 2012); citing PRO RG 14/882, registration district (RD) 10, sub district (SD) 5, enumeration district (ED) 11, schedule number (SN) 146. "England & Wales, FreeBMD Index: 1837-1983," database, FreeBMD (http://freebmd.rootsweb.com : accessed 23 July 2012), marriage entry for Minnie Townley [Thomas Rule is one of two possible husbands identified]; citing December [quarter] 1910, Holborn, vol. 1b: 1139.
8. 1901 Census of England, London, Shoreditch, Hoxton Old Town, folio 26, p. 43, John Townley household; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 July 2012); citing PRO RG 13/275. "London, England, Marriages and Banns, 1754-1921," digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 July 2012), marriage Townley-Garrett, 23 May 1880, p. 246; citing London Metropolitan Archives, Saint James, Clerkenwell, "Register of Marriages," P76/JS1, item 59.
9. 1940 U.S. census, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Oakdale, Enumeration District (ED) 2-414, sheet 8B, household 168, John Downs; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 July 2012); citing National Archives microfilm publication T627, roll 3413.
10. John Downs declaration of intention no. 102732 (1924) and petition for citizenship no. 89397 (1930), Naturalization Petitions of the U.S. District Court, 1820-1930, and Circuit Court, 1820-1911, for the Western District of Pennsylvania; "U.S, Naturalization Records - Original Documents 1790-1974," digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 July 2012); citing National Archives microfilm publication M1537, roll 833.79