My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
I am itching to start this blog at the beginning, with Norah’s first diary, a Letts’ Schoolgirls Diary for 1938. But before I do, I should introduce her family and set the scene a little bit more.
Norah treasured this photograph of her parents, my great grandparents, Tom and Milly Hodgkinson. It was taken on the occasion of their engagement on Milly’s 21st birthday, 18th October 1908.
Tom (1882-1945), in his dark suit and checked waistcoat, a pocket watch bulging under his jacket, is tall and handsome, with dark, curly hair, a moustache and a discernible twinkle in his eye. (It is an odd thing, that twinkle. It skipped all but one of his own children to reappear thirty years on, an appealing flash of blue, in unexpected combinations of grandchildren and great grandchildren.) Milly, seated just far enough forward to allow Tom’s protective arm to rest on the back of her chair, wears a dark skirt and a pale blouse with a lace collar and an embroidered motif to the breast; all, including the lace, made by her own hand. She is tall and well-built and her features are strong, her heavy jawline and brow balanced by the shiny sweep of a loose chestnut bun, and offset by delicate, pretty eyes and a general air of shyness.
Tom Hodgkinson came from farming stock in the Derbyshire Dales, and had been a Grenadier Guard in the South African Wars. He arrived in Castle Donington in 1910, to take a job as a postman. Two of the things we know about him are that he supported Derby County FC and he liked a good argument. He was a passionate socialist and most of all, he argued about politics. Norah and her siblings enjoyed telling stories about their father’s daily altercations with the Vicar of Diseworth and various local grandees – Major Dalby, Gillies Shields of Donington Hall – who waited to engage him in political debate as he cycled round the villages on his postal round. There were other stories about his sudden dashes down High Street in the lead up to an election, to tear down the ‘Vote Conservative’ banners that lined the road, pinned to the old oaks in Dalby’s field. And his furious response to the formation of the National Government in 1931, when he tore down a poster of Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, shoving a poker through the politician’s eye before trampling it and throwing it onto the fire, all the time roaring ‘you turncoat! You blasted turncoat!’
I can’t find an election poster for 1929, but this is one from 1923, the year the Labour Party won a record 191 seats and, through an alliance with the Liberals (159 seats), was able to form its first minority government in 1924. Please humour me with the second picture. It is from the manifesto for that same year and I like the possibility that it once adorned a wall at Hill Top.
Norah’s mother, Milly Leadbetter (1887-1964), had spent her childhood in a lock keeper’s cottage at Weston-on-Trent, on the Trent-Mersey canal. Her parents were also socialists, early ILP-ers in the 1890s and enthusiastic readers of Robert Blatchford’s Clarion, a lovely paper that came out of Manchester from 1891 and which carried stories, poetry and art, notably the beautiful paintings of Walter Crane, as well as news and comment. Norah used to say that her mum was rather disapproving of her parents, for while they were warm and kind and she shared their values, they neglected housework and their children, preferring to spend their days reading to one another from Walt Whitman’s poems. It is a slight diversion, I know, but the Clarion is too lovely to not post here:
Source: Working-Class Movement Library, Salford http://www.wcml.org.uk/contents/creativity-and-culture/leisure/clarion-movement/robert-blatchford-and-the-clarion-/
Milly left home to go into service at the age of 12, first of all in the household of the Mayor of Loughborough, and then in big houses in Birmingham, London and finally Derby. In all of these places, she was part of a Christadelphian community. I haven’t yet got to grips with the Christadelphians. I don’t know where they fit into the rich and complex religious cultures of C19th and early C20th Britain. I don’t know whether Milly considered herself to have ‘married out’ or even whether it would have mattered, or how she felt when she attended Methodist and Baptist services in the village and whether it was usual to be so relaxed about her children’s lack of involvement with her (any) church.
We used to believe that Milly had found the Christadelphians while she was in service, but when I was sorting through Norah’s books after her death I found a copy of Elpis Israel (1849) by John Thomas, the sect’s founder, with the name of Milly’s father, Arthur Leadbetter, inside the front cover, dated 1862. So: there is much I don’t know, but I am interested in this gentle, loving woman and her beloved circle of Christadelphian friends – Sister Hodgkinson, they called her, in the letters that were sent to her later in life – and there will be more about them anon.
After their marriage, Tom and Milly set up home in a ramshackle cottage adjoining the Nag’s Head pub at Hill Top, Castle Donington, on the border of Derbyshire and Leicestershire. Hill Top was a scattering of farms and cottages, almost a hamlet in itself, just south of the main village, to which it was joined via High Street, the rather grand main Ashby-Nottingham road. With its big Regency houses, High Street reveals Donington’s past grandeur, its heyday as a Georgian market town, and in the early C20th as now, was in stark contrast to Hill Top and much of the rest of the village.
If you would like to get your bearings, please take a look at the map below. We are close to J24 of the M1, just south of Derby (9 miles) and Nottingham (13 miles), and north of Loughborough (11 miles) and Leicester (22 miles). Ignore the red pin below (which is for The Priest House Hotel at King’s Mills; I can’t seem to find a map without it) and follow instead the road from Castle Donington in a southerly direction towards the A453. Hill Top is situated just before the shaded area that is now East Midlands Airport. (To the west of the airport and to the north of the road that runs from Melbourne to the A453 is Donington Park Race Track, venue for Monsters of Rock and more recently, Download).
This is a recent picture of the Nag’s Head, taken from High Street at the junction of Diseworth Road. The Hodgkinson’s cottage, long demolished, stood where the flat-roofed extension stands now, its shared yard now the pub garden.
Tom and Milly married in January 1911, and the first two children came fast: Dennis in January 1912 and Helen, my gran, just thirteen months later. Family lore has it that Milly had a heart condition, and was told by the doctor to slow down on the child-bearing front. It was seven years before Richard arrived, in 1920. Here they are, those first three children, in a photograph taken in 1922:
Two more children were to follow. Next was Frank, in September 1922, surely in the running for the World’s Most Beautiful Baby award:
And here they all are, in the summer of 1938, at the start of our story. All except Dennis, that is, who was in lodgings in the south of England where he was training to be a pharmacist with Boots the Chemist.
You can see Milly and Tom have dressed up for the occasion. At each end are the younger boys, fifteen year-old Frank looking shy and a bit awkward, Birdy (Richard), just 18, relaxed and smiling. Helen and Norah stand in the middle, in cotton dresses and ankle socks, both tanned and squinting in the sun.
1938 was an exciting year for Norah. She turned 13, began writing her first diary – and she fell in love with a prince…
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