A transatlantic correspondence, started by two ten-year-old girls during dark wartime days, blossomed into a lifelong friendship which has endured for 70 years.
On Saturday, the two women, both celebrating their 80th birthdays this month, met up in south Norfolk to raise a toast to their letter writing which has spanned seven decades and more than 3,000 miles.
Muriel Cowley, of Edward’s Court, Attleborough, and Peggy Shafer, from America, enjoyed a high tea at the Banham home of Mrs Cowley’s daughter, Elizabeth. Mrs Shafer and her husband, Dave, had flown in that morning to spend a few days in Norfolk, enroute between a birthday cruise of the Norwegian Fjords and their way back home to the States.
The young Peggy sent her first letter to the young Muriel in August 1944.
Mrs Cowley said a neighbour, who had gone to America to help build defences against the Japanese, had arranged for an American girl called Hazel to write to her sister.
“I thought it was a nice thing to do,” Mrs Cowley said, “and I wanted a penpal too. Hazel had a younger friend, Peggy, and she wrote to me out of the blue.”
To start with, because it was wartime, their letters were censored. The two girls told each other about their experiences, school life and things such as sweet rationing.
“When we were into our teens we had other interests, so we didn’t write quite so often, and then when we were married we wrote about our families. Now we send emails. It’s quicker but it’s not quite the same as receiving a letter,” Mrs Cowley said.
After they had been writing for 31 years, Mrs Cowley travelled to America to see her friend. “I was very apprehensive about it and wondered if she would be anything like I had imagined her. But I needn’t have worried as it didn’t seem like I was meeting her for the first time, but for the hundredth time. She was such a lovely person and they were all a lovely family. Our daughters became friends too and also wrote to each other.”
Mrs Shafer paid a return visit to the UK to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of their correspondence and the two friends visited Shakespeare country together. They most recently met on a shopping trip to New York in 2004.
The two women have supported each other through many things in life, including the sad death of Mrs Cowley’s son, Robert, from a brain tumour four years ago.
“Peggy is my oldest friend and we have grown up together,” Mrs Cowley said. “It doesn’t feel like she is all those miles away.”
The two women have also found they have much in common. “We were born in the same year and same month. We both originally had the same initials - Muriel Herman and Margaret (Peggy) Hicks. We both had a sister and a brother and had married naval personnel whose fathers had died when they were young,” Mrs Cowley said.
“We got married on the same day but one year apart and our first babies were both daughters born in the same month and our second babies were sons born in the same month.
“The most incredible thing was that, without knowing what the other one was doing, we both booked separate trips to the Norwegian Fjords to celebrate our 80th birthdays.”
The Cowley family checked with the Guinness Book of Records to see if the marathon correspondence was a record-beater, but the record stands at 87 years, so the friends have a little longer to go yet - but Mrs Cowley is sure they’ll get there.