A brief encounter with Malta VIP

ROMANTIC letters written by a former president of Malta to a Royal Navy signalman from Hartlepool - have been unearthed.

It reveals an affair, an all-too brief encounter, between 21-year-old Derek Barnes and Agatha Barbara who later became one of the most influential women in Malta’s history.

But this was an encounter where “romance” never had a chance to blossom.

Derek left port never to return and was killed two years later at a mere 23 years old, in a tragic motor bike accident in Hartlepool.

Agatha never married and poured her life into politics - eventually becoming the president of the sun-kissed island of Malta.

But this is no trashy novel, no fictional story from a romantic book.

It is the real life tale of Derek Barnes, and his brief friendship with Agatha Barbara who later changed the face of Malta forever.

For the first time in 65 years, their story can be told thanks to Derek’s sister Ann Wickham, 74, a retired teacher.

Ann, a former Hartlepool woman, kept the letters that Agatha sent to her brother as well as two albums filled with photos from his travels all over Europe - from Turkey, the Greek Islands, Scandinavia.

Ann, now of Ripon, said: “He was fit, he was tanned and handsome, he was the beautiful, beloved only son, my brother Derek Barnes.”

“My childhood recollections are of the excitement when he was due home on leave; of the gifts he would bring. He was a wonderful brother and totally adored.”

Derek was a Keswick Street resident who joined the Royal Navy in 1945 and by 1949, he was a signalman on board HMS Glory, stationed in Malta.

He quickly rose through the ranks. He made it to petty officer. Tragically, he never learned that he’d been promoted. The letter of confirmation only arrived at his family’s Hartlepool home days after his death.

He’d been the typical sailor with a girl in each port, said Ann.

“We have albums full of photos of Derek with girls.

“Yet among all his bits and pieces, the only letters he kept were the ones from Agatha.”

Derek met Agatha, the daughter of an illiterate tugboat man, in February 1949 at a concert in the Hotel Phoenicia in Valetta. He clearly made an impression.

Agatha, already a rising star in Maltese politics and the first woman MP in the country, wrote a letter to speak in fond terms of that first date. It was addressed from the Legislative Assembly of Malta, a sign that she was going places.

It read: “I haven’t forgotten you.”

And it included an invitation to a second date with a real difference - in the grand Palace of Valetta where the next Maltese legislature was being sworn in.

Derek accepted.

He watched as the Governor of Malta delivered speeches from the grand throne in the Hall of St Michael and St George.

But the brief “liaison” soon took a turn for the worse. The pair had their first row.

The next letter from Agatha - in October 1949 - talked of Agatha’s surprise that Derek had kept in touch with her. She wrote: “I thought our friendship was completely broken after that argument we had at the Vernon’s.”

The Vernon’s is thought to be a reference to a social club for the Armed Forces in Valetta.

She describes how Derek had walked away from the argument “without even saying excuse me.”

The trigger for the row had been “the innumerable ingratitudes shown to the Maltese by the British government.”

Ann believes this may refer to Agatha’s father being rejected for a pay rise despite passing exams with flying colours.

Or possibly to Derek’s whinge at Maltese taxi drivers for “ripping off” British servicemen.

Either way, Agatha’s letter continued with a hope that she and Derek would meet again.

The final letter was written two months later, just before Derek left for England.

It reads: “I am very pleased to have met you but now I shall regret that meeting because most probably I shall not be able to see you again.”

She was right. They never met, Agatha never married - and Derek’s life was cut tragically short.

And when asked whether romance was ever on the cards, Ann said: “I think Agatha would have liked it.”