During the early stages of the Peirs project, the team was plagued by several mysteries regarding the content and context of Jack’s letters. Does Peirs speak French? Who is Gladys? What on earth is “Pop”? Perhaps none of these questions was as longstanding as that of the pram. The letters contain repeated, consistent references to it, and some are entirely devoted to its welfare. But what exactly was the Peirs family pram?
Several team members independently came to the conclusion that the vehicle Jack fretted over so often was a boat. While some of the early letters might not contradict this inference, mentions of features such as “the tyres on the front wheels” and “something broken in the cylinders” ultimately indicated that the pram was in fact an automobile. The Peirs family was reasonably well-to-do and tried very hard to keep up with current fashions, so it is at all not implausible that they would have owned a car at the outset of the war in 1914. The make and model of the pram unfortunately remain unknown to us; we may at least assume that the car was not a Peugeot. In his 16 January 1916 letter to his father Jack wrote that he had recently heard of his aunt’s purchasing one, noting “They go like anything but I think the pram is probably more suitable for our requirements.”
The first reference to the vehicle comes in the sixth letter in the collection – actually quite late considering Jack’s utter devotion to his car. Though he was abroad, at war, and struggling to find billets for his men, he devoted two pages of his letter to his concerns about the pram. He was vehemently opposed to his uncle’s offer to buy the vehicle, instead expressing his hope that “some of you will soon learn to use it… I should like to hear that you are having runs in it.” By the end of 1915 Charlotte, Hugh Vaughan, and Cecily were all driving, and Jack happily approved.
The Peirs pram was evidently not a robust vehicle, as it appears to have been nearly always under repair. Wardill, the Carshalton mechanic, is frequently called upon and alternately plays the roles of hero and villain. Jack sometimes seems to hold a blind faith in his abilities while at other times he is extremely critical, noting to his mother “if Wardill lets you go out without oil you will get fined & he ought to be strafed.” Regardless of his abilities as a mechanic, it seems as if Wardill must have been a remarkably patient man.
While Jack discussed the pram with each of his family members, he most often addressed his concerns to his father. Hugh Vaughan appears to have driven the car regularly and to have displayed the most interest in the technical aspects of its operation. On 9 January 1916 Jack writes to Hugh Vaughan, and though he touches on several business topics, the possibility of purchasing a new carburetor for the pram takes center stage. At the close of the letter he adds, “I have written another letter to-day home,” silently acknowledging that his mother and sisters would likely have little interest in the subjects he’d already covered. Indeed that letter, addressed to Cecily and fully twice as long, describes the landscape surrounding Ypres, relates a story about a battalion’s foolish adjutant, and describes plans for an upcoming trip to Poperinghe – and yet he cannot resist adding a postscript about the car.
The pram is Jack’s pride and joy. He sends detailed instructions for its maintenance, he worries about obtaining fuel and parts, he subscribes to Autocar magazine to stay up-to-date on the latest automobile news. When Hugh Vaughan and Charlotte Peirs are involved in an accident in April 1916, Jack is nearly as relieved to hear the car is salvageable as he is to learn that his parents are unhurt. “You might have had a very nasty smash,” he writes his mother on 14 April, “but as it is you have got off lightly. I am glad the pram is not badly hurt.” Over the summer he inquires excessively about the vehicle, and is glad to hear that “the pram is recovering,” “the pram has recovered her equanimity,” “the pram is her own bright little self again.”
Much might be said about how Jack uses the car as a distraction, fixating on its wellbeing as something he could ensure while his own was so uncertain; or how his continuous offers of its service worked as small expressions of gratitude for his family’s support; or how the pram served as a symbol of home, happiness, and simpler times as he faced the unfamiliarity and danger of the trenches. Nevertheless Jack’s fascination with cars and the particular fondness he possesses for his own are also just parts of his personality, and recognizing them helps us get to know him better on a purely human level.