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One of Molly’s letters survived the BOAC Lockheed Constellation crash, which killed 33 people. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Pen pal letter survives fatal plane craft

Letters that made their way from rural New Zealand to a Parisian commune in France survived 56 years, a sporadic post, and even a fatal plane crash.
Half of the letters belonged to Sybil Woolmore’s mum, Molly May Woodward, while the other half belonged to Molly’s life-long penpal, Helene Marthe Madeleine Messageot.
The discovery of the women’s friendship, plus the serendipity of some of the snail mail stories, had been a “great journey” for both families, Sybil said.
Molly and Helene began a pen pal relationship back in 1938, when they were both 16.
Growing up in similar environments – Molly in rural Waikaretu in the Waikato, and Helene in Chelles, an eastern suburb of Paris, France – the young women sparked a friendship that spanned more than five decades, despite neither being able to read in the other’s language.
“I [translated] some of mum’s letters earlier on because I was taking French at high school,” Sybi, from Paeroa,l said, “but mine was just school-girl French so then she found somebody who could translate them for her, and Helene would’ve done the same.”
A lot of the recovered letters talked about their isolated hometowns, as well as family life. For Sybil, who went away to boarding school at 13, they “filled a few gaps” of her mother’s history.
She has Helene’s family to thank for that.
“I didn’t really get to know anything much about my mum’s earlier life, and she died when she was 72 – 30 years ago,” Sybil said. “Helene died in 2018 and her children were clearing out her house. They found all these letters that mum had sent over and wondered if any of her children were still alive.”
Using the internet, Helene’s children found Sybil’s family and made contact in February, 2023, and even though the two women never got a chance to meet, their children did.
Last month, Helene’s family spent five days in New Zealand with Molly’s family, and will depart back to France on March 8.
“It was so exciting,” Sybil said. “We all knew about Helene but we never really talked to mum about her.”
Two weeks before Helene’s family flew out to New Zealand, they discovered another letter sent by Molly – dated 1954. It had been stamped with a note that said: ‘Salvaged Mail. Aircraft Crash. Singapore’. Notable scorch marks were evident.
It came to light that Molly’s letter was travelling via Air Mail on a BOAC Lockheed Constellation aircraft, flying from Sydney to London. The plane exploded on March 13, 1954, shortly after landing at Singapore-Kallang Airport, killing 33 of the 40 passengers and crew.
The crash remains the deadliest of any aviation accident in Singapore, with a public inquiry finding that the accident occurred when the aircraft struck a seawall on approach to the runway, attributed by crew tiredness.
The letter was still readable and spoke more of Molly’s life with her six children.
“It’s sad that they never got a chance to meet,” Sybil said. “But this has blown us all away. It’s been a great journey and the fact that [Helene’s children] bothered to come over here and meet our whole family has been really special.”