Penny Phelps, the daughter of an unemployed labourer, was born in Tottenham on 24th April 1909. One of ten children, she left school at the age of thirteen. She worked in factories, in service and in dressmaking. In 1927 she began training as a nurse at the Eastern Fever Hospital in Homerton. She completed her training as a State Registered Nurse at Charing Cross Hospital.
In January 1937 she became a nurse working for the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. After the offensive at Jarama, Phelps became Medical Officer to the Garibaldi Brigade. Phelps later served with the XVth Brigade. While stationed at Quintanar she fell in love with Roberto Vincenzi, a young Italian member of the International Brigades. They made plans to marry after the war but they were separated when Vincenzi was sent to another part of the front-line.
At Brunete six people in her medical unit were killed. Phelps was herself seriously wounded in the spring of 1938 and was forced to return home. During her convalescence she met Dr Michael Feiwel and they began a relationship. Phelps wrote to Vincenzi: "I felt that living in Spain and living in England were two completely isolated experiences. During this period, Roberto, I had not forgotten you - far from it - but what I felt about the whole of my life in Spain I felt also about our relationship. I loved you in Spain - you stood for everything out there - you were part of it - you were a real fighter for the rights of mankind. I still do love you, Roberto, but in a different way... But in England, while I was ill, Spain seemed so remote - almost another world. And now there is something I want to tell you Roberto. While I was feeling like this, there was someone who helped me to get well again." Phelps then went onto tell Vincenzi that she had married Dr. Feiwel.
Roberto Vincenzi received the letter in a refugee camp in France. He replied: "I thought that the wounds to your body caused by the fascist plane had taken your life... Penny, you have married - you have done the right thing! I do not reproach you for it at all... In my situation, how would I have been able to keep my promise? I find myself here surrounded by barbed wire, with no prospect of freeing myself, without knowing when we will leave here, and in the certainty that the bourgeoisie of whatever country we go to will make it difficult for us to find work, and besides, they will impose restrictions on our movements, seeing them as suspect. We are subject to imprisonment, persecution, unemployment, etc., because we will continue with our fight, even when we must conduct it secretly, the only thing that matters to us is to arrive at the moment when all humanity is liberated from capitalist oppression... In your letter you tell me not to feel bitterness towards your husband. What blame has he? How could I nuture mistrust for a man who would give you the happiness that I am unable to give you. He has given you his name, the pride of bearing it and bringing it honour. Be a worthy companion for him."
Penny Phelps kept in touch with Roberto Vincenzi until the German Army invaded France in the summer of 1940. Like many soldiers of the International Brigades living in refugee camps in France, Vincenzi was probably executed during the occupation.
Great Love Letters
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