President of Malta’s romantic Navy letters

On August 3, 2014, The Times of Malta revealed secret romantic letters sent by their first female president to a British signalman on its front page.

Three months earlier however, these letters were locked away in a North Stainley attic and, had it not been for one woman’s curiosity, may never have seen the light of day.

Ann Wickham with The Times of Malta

Ann Wickham with The Times of Malta

Ann Wickham, 71, began searching through her brother Derek Barnes’ photo albums after her niece asked to see pictures of her late mother.

Searching through images which traced Derek’s life; the ships he travelled on, the foreign lands he visited whilst on Navy duty and his friends and family, Ann stumbled upon her brother’s address book.

Perhaps for Navy officers, contact details of individuals in foreign lands are not out of the ordinary, but Ann was slightly surprised to find a royal Maltese address.

The address read: ‘Miss Agatha Barbara, The Legislative Assembly, Care Of The Palace, Malta.’

Ann said: “Now, who did he know at the palace? I thought what my family must have thought through the decades. She was a young woman who worked there, a secretary perhaps.”

However, after a quick search on the internet, Ann discovered that Agatha Barbara would go on to make political history by becoming the first female President of Malta.

Agatha went from being born to a poor family in Zabbar, Malta, to joining the Malta Labour Party and, eventually, becoming one of the most important political characters in the country’s history.

Seen by many at the time as a gruff politician, Ann’s next discovery from her brother’s past shed light on a more sensitive, caring side of the then 26-year-old political figure.

“A further search revealed the letters of Agatha Barbara to my brother. One letter, two letters and then a hand-written one.

“I was blown away by them, I was absolutely amazed.

“The first one is a hand-written one from February 1949. It starts: ‘I’m sure you will be surprised with this letter. I haven’t seen you again since the concert at the Hotel Phoenicia, but I haven’t forgotten you.’ And that’s the first indication we have of a friendship, a budding romance?

“She then invites him to the hall of St Michael and St George at the palace to watch His Excellency, the Governor deliver a speech.

“I was left wondering, did he go, did he not go? Then digging among his things I found the programme - the address delivered by his excellency the governor and the date 1949 so we know he went.”

Ann had discovered evidence of a budding relationship between her brother Derek and the then first, and only, woman among the 40 MPs in the country.

She said: “In the next letter, Agatha discovers the ship Derek is on and that the ship is leaving Malta. She writes: ‘Dear Derek, It was with the greatest regret that I read this morning you will be leaving the island on Wednesday.

“‘I’m very pleased to have met you, but now I shall regret that meeting because, most probably, I will not be able to see you again, unless of course you are posted here or I come over there.”

“‘I enjoyed the very few meetings we had and I am sure you yourself did not regret the meetings.

“‘I do wish that whenever you have a little time you will think of me and let me know how you are getting on in dear old England.”

Despite Agatha’s evident disappointment after Derek’s departure, Ann’s discovery of a third letter confirmed that another final encounter had taken place, although with this one ending on a sour note.

She said: “He obviously did return because this letter was dated in March 1949 but the final letter we have is from October that year but, in this one, we find out that she and Derek have had an argument.

“Agatha writes: ‘It was a surprise for me to hear from you. I thought our friendship was completely broken after the argument we had at the Vernons.

“‘At least that is what I thought as you left my company without even saying ‘excuse me’.

“‘Have you read Malta’s struggle for survival, if not please let me know and I will try to get a copy for you.’ So, she’s making another way to keep the friendship going after the argument.

“Then she just slips in ‘I’ll be going to the Amethyst dance at the Vernon’s on Wednesday’ so she just keeps finding ways to keep this friendship going without actually saying it in so many words.

“‘I do wish that whenever you have a little time you will think of me and let me know how you are getting on in dear old England.’”

After reading the letters, Ann decided the information had to be shared in the wider domain

Ann said: “I didn’t know any newspapers in Malta but amongst one of Agatha’s letters, The Times of Malta is mentioned.

“I emailed them, I gave them a very brief outline and they followed up wanting to see the letters to verify the signature because they said these letters are hugely significant.”

The letters were so significant, in fact, that The Times of Malta made the story front-page news, with the headline reading ‘Agatha Barbara and romantic Navy Letters’.

The national paper also managed to track Agatha’s sister Joan down who said she was delighted for the story to go ahead.

Ann said : “The thing that Joan was most pleased about was that this whole story revealed a different side to her personality. She was just seen as a tough fierce woman in a man’s world and she had to fight her corner every inch of the way.

“She just spent her life fighting causes for the rights of the underclass basically from which she came.”

Ann discovered no more letters from Agatha as, tragically, Derek was killed on December 20, 1949, in a motorcycle accident whilst on Christmas leave.

Speaking of the incident, 65 years later, still brings tears to Ann’s eyes who said Agatha may never have known why her correspondence with Derek ended so abruptly.

She said: “He came home on Christmas leave and was killed. We don’t know if Agatha was ever told. We don’t know if she just thought he vanished from her life, forgot about her perhaps.

“She never married, we don’t know if she carried a torch for my brother the rest of her life or if she just decided to devote her life to politics.

“During her tenure, Agatha oversaw 44 schools being opened, she set up a teacher training college for the schools and established the first school for handicapped children.

“She also ensured that science lessons were opened to girls as, in those days, girls were excluded from science lessons.”

Never knowing the full story behind the relationship, Ann wrote her own version of events, from Agatha’s point of view, set during the time of the third and final letter.

‘Crossed Letters’ includes Agatha’s supposed first-person narrative of the dance when the argument erupted and a poem Ann wrote to her brother when she was just eight years old.

Ann said: “I sent Derek a poem as a little girl and he always printed his litters to me because I was too young to read joined up writing. I still have his letters he carefully printed out to me.

“I thought, if this is going to go to the Times of Malta, I don’t want my brother to have a lesser part in the story than Agatha herself.

“Obviously, she is the star in Malta, but Derek is the star to me but I thought I must tell the story my way.

“I told the story of my brother, how kind he was, how lovely he was.”

Ann is now considering auctioning the letters and donating the proceeds to a Maltese educational charity, in honour of Ms Barbara’s origins as a teacher, and is planning a visit to Malta to visit Agatha’s burial site.