CRAMMED into a battered old brown suitcase, amid the usual bric-a-brac of a car boot sale, a terrifying but precious glimpse into wartime life in a North-East town has emerged.

The collection of letters, photographs and other memories might easily have been thrown away. Instead, they are to be treasured after being passed into safe hands.

The suitcase, recovered from a house clearance in Hartlepool, was acquired at Sedgefield car boot sale by historian Geoff Hill and he describes the contents as a “treasure trove” of wartime artefacts.

They belonged to Marjorie Pattison, who married Harry Elliott, and their letters from the 1940s make fascinating reading.

In neat handwriting, from a house in Hartlepool’s Tunstall Avenue, Marjorie keeps “My Dear Harry” up to date with what’s happening back home, while he serves in different parts of the country as a medic with the RAF Hospital Staff:

August 30, 1940: “We had our longest night last night – 6 ½ hours – it was a night of nights. We’ve had fires all over the place from incendiary bombs and the lower part of the town is terribly smashed up. The bombs were so large that they’re said to be aerial torpedoes and the din they made was terrific. They’re charging a penny to see the craters in aid of the Red Cross!! What a place for ideas.

“We had as clean an escape as we’ll ever have. Two bombs were dropped in the Cameron Hospital field and did no more damage than break the windows…the bombs whistled right over our house before dropping behind the hospital. In that few seconds, as we heard them making for us, we just looked at one another…We fully expected to be hit – to go up in the air. When they exploded, the house trembled as if it was going to come on top of us. As you may guess, it gave us a bit of a shaking, but when we realised we were still alive and kicking, we started to sing to drown the noise of the other bombs. It’s a horrible feeling having those things scream through the air, expecting them to land on top of your head.

“At present, there are 15 people buried in a cellar beneath one of the houses that was hit in Hilda Street. Whether they’ll come out alive or not remains to be seen. If they do, what an experience…I wonder what we found to write about before this latest war activity.”

Monday 26th ’40: “What a night! There were a lot of bombs dropped in the town and a good bit of damage done. The explosives and A/A (Ack Ack – anti-aircraft guns) were terrific. I honestly thought a bomb must surely land on us. As I’m writing, the planes are over and the A/A are going for them. There’s just been a terrific explosion that’s shaken the whole house…I’m writing with the aid of my cycle lamp – I’m holding it with one hand.”

January 29, 1943: “There have been some heavy planes over as I have been writing. There’s another going over now, making a frightful din. I should think our boys have been paying a visit somewhere, or perhaps they are going to give the Nazis a present.”

Happily, photographs and other records testify that Marjorie and Harry, along with their children, survived the war.  Documents show that Marjorie’s father owned Pattison Chemists in York Road, West Hartlepool, while Harry was president of the Hartlepool Photographic Society. He was also clearly a keen golfer and a football fan. A handy, pocket-sized fixture list, sponsored by Cameron’s brewery, contains the 1968-69 matches for the North-East teams, with Hartlepool kicking off the season at home to Bournemouth.

The couple also owned a Hillman Minx in the 1950s and, as well as being dog-lovers, they appear to have had a love of tortoises.

As chairman of the Middleton St George Memorial Association, Geoff Hill’s passion is to keep wartime memories alive for future generations. He has built an impressive collection of memorabilia that was on display at St George Hotel, formerly the officers’ mess when Teesside Airport was an RAF bomber base during the war. Since the hotel’s recent closure, the collection is in storage until a new permanent home is found.

The suitcase was handed to Geoff at the car boot sale by a friend who knew of his interest in wartime memorabilia, but its significance wasn’t immediately obvious.

“I didn’t think much of it at first because there was a lot of water damage but the more I looked into the contents, the more I realised its historic value. It’s a treasure trove that brings the past to life,” he says.

“The letters make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck because you can sense the terror and uncertainty. It really brings it home what it must have been like.”

The story of Marjorie and Harry might easily have ended up on a rubbish dump. How wonderful that it will live on.

FINALLY, a painful post-script to last week’s column about the British Town Crier Championships in Darlington.

Deputy Mayor, Councillor Chris McEwan, was a judge but I hear he had to make a sharp exit before the contest began so he could be treated at Darlington Memorial Hospital.

During a reunion with friends in Middlesbrough the day before, Chris had been bitten by a dog he’d tried to stroke.

The wound had been inadequately dressed, so he ended up in A&E, wearing his civic chains, a bloodied bandage and a grimace.

When the dog sank its teeth into his ring finger, the councillor’s cry could apparently be heard back in Darlington.

Instead of being a judge, he may well be in with a shout as a contender next time.