As greetings card manufacturers cash in on Valentine’s Day, it has to be asked, whatever happened to the love letter?

When Judy Rebbeck Watten of California began investigating her family history she discovered 32 letters written by her grandfather James Knight Rebbeck to his fiancée Lili.

Born in 1848 in Lockeridge, near Marlborough, James Knight Rebbeck, the eldest of Cornelius and Caroline Rebbeck’s nine children, was raised by his maternal grandparents. By 1851 two-year- old James was living with James and Caroline Knight in a house described in the census of that year as Near Assize Hall in Devizes.

In 1863 James, 15, was sent to his Uncle James Knight in Calcutta where he studied mechanical engineering.

James junior worked as superintendent in the railways workshop of the Howrah Foundry in Calcutta until the beginning of the 1880s when he was seconded to Hong Kong.

By the mid 1880s James was based at the Victoria Foundry, Hong Kong, employed on the ambitious Peak Tram project, a cable railway from the summit of Victoria Peak to the commercial centre of Hong Kong.

In 1887 a business trip to Haiphong, Tonkin – modern day Vietnam – saw him supervising the delivery of a paddle wheel steamer to French businessman Jules d’Abbadie. It was here that James met Lili, who lived with her bachelor brother, acting as his hostess when he entertained.

After a whirlwind romance, James returned to Hong Kong an engaged man and so began the couple’s correspondence. James sent Lili a photograph of himself, which he asked her to keep next to her when answering his letters.

“Ours is indeed a sweet and sacred love story,” wrote the 39 year old bachelor who once thought love and marriage had passed him by. “It seems as if it were ordered for us, a kind of ordination, a link in that life we are designed to run, one of those chances which seem so mysterious for which we shall be thankful always.”

Nine months and 32 letters later James and Lili were married in Hong Kong on May 21, 1888. They made their first home in Macao where their eldest two children were born. A son, Brian d’Abbadie Rebbeck, was born in Devizes in 1891, but only lived two months. Another daughter and Judy’s father James Waller d’Abbadie Rebbeck were born in Canada.

James died on September 1, 1910 in Victoria, Vancouver Island. Lili survived him by nearly 25 years, dying on February 12, 1935.

The letters James wrote to his future bride remained hidden until 1993 when their granddaughter Judy Rebbeck Watton discovered them in a decorated satin folder among some old papers belonging to her father.