Life

By Alex Matthews


These pensioners’ lives define friendship to the letter – as they have been pen pals for 70 years.

Barbara Finch, from Didcot, Oxon, struck up a written friendship with New Zealander Elizabeth Martin when the two were 14-year-old girls.

Pic by Michael Scott/Caters News 

Now both 84, the pair continue to send weekly emails to keep each other informed of their lives over 12,000 miles apart.

Great grandmother Barbara has kept every single letter and card and printed every email Elizabeth has sent to her.

And after finally meeting up for the first time over 30 years into their friendship, they have crossed the globe 15 times for visits.

Barbara, a former betting office and grocery wholesale worker, said: “Seventy years is a very long time now and it’s been wonderful to have her as a friend.

“I don’t even have any friends in the UK who I’ve known as long as Elizabeth. Our friendship is very special to me and rather remarkable when you stop and think about it.

“We have been there for each other through the good times and the bad. I lost my husband and my son, and she has lost her husband and her daughter to cancer.

“We bonded as teenagers chatting over which magazines and books we liked, and over the years that progressed to boyfriends and husbands to children and families.

Pic by Michael Scott/Caters News

“We email each other now rather than write letters, partly because it’s quicker but mostly because it’s free.

“I have no idea how much we will have spent sending letters, cards, and parcels around the world over the years, but it must be an awful lot of money.

“It has certainly been worth it though.”

Barbara and Elizabeth began their correspondence in November 1947 when Barbara was a pupil at Boxhill Secondary Modern School in Abingdon, Oxon.

Her school had an exchange teacher from New Zealand and, when she returned home, she offered to post an advert for pen pals in the Women’s Weekly magazine.

Unsure at first, Barbara and her friends persuaded each other to take the teacher up on the offer.

Pic by Michael Scott/Caters News 

However, she and Elizabeth were the only ones to form a successful long-term friendship.

Barbara said: “I was not sure about it at first but, as girls do, me and my friends said, ‘I’ll do it if you will’.

“Several people wrote to me originally but Elizabeth was the only one who kept it up.

“Back then airmail used to take several days to reach New Zealand and normal post could take weeks.

“I was constantly keeping an eye out for post with a New Zealand stamp and would get so excited when letters from Elizabeth arrived.

“In the beginning it felt very exotic getting post from the other side of the world. While that feeling has gone, it’s still special when her emails and cards arrive.”

After writing to each other for 34 years, Barbara finally fulfilled her dream of visiting Elizabeth in Hastings, New Zealand in February 1981.

Since then the two ladies have been back and forth, with Barbara flying to the southern hemisphere 10 times and Elizabeth making the return trip on five occasions.

Pic by Michael Scott/Caters News

The last time Barbara flew out was four years ago, when she surprised Elizabeth for her 80th birthday and they held a joint party.

Barbara said: “I felt so nervous the first time I went over. For the entire flight I kept thinking what would happen if we both hated each other?

“It’s one thing writing to somebody but something entire different to meet them in person.

“But I needn’t have worried – her family is so welcoming and absolutely wonderful. I fell in love with New Zealand on that trip and have happily gone back ever since.

“It’s like my second home, and Elizabeth’s family is my second family.”

Elizabeth comforted Barbara when her husband Joe passed away in 1994, and Barbara flew to New Zealand to help her friend look after her husband Cliff just before his death ten years later.

But the pair have also shared happy times, including the births of Barbara’s three children, one of whom is named after Elizabeth.

Pic by Michael Scott/Caters News

Their families are also close, with Barbara’s grandchildren keeping Elizabeth supplied with family pictures and flying over to visit themselves.

Barbara said: “The best times are when I have been over to New Zealand. Nothing replaces seeing each other face to face.

“But I love getting Christmas cards and little gifts through the post from her. I adore the country and any little reminder I have is nice.

“This is a friendship for a lifetime, and I hope we have a few years of writing left yet.

“And even when I’m gone, my family will have some lovely momentos as I’ve kept everything she has ever sent me.”