My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
With Norah’s 1940 diary missing, I decided to survey the local newspaper in a bid to get a flavour of her year. Norah was a regular reader of both the Daily Herald and the Derby Evening Telegraph and I have wondered on occasion if her diary entries echoed news headlines. This hunch was confirmed by the appearance of a particularly evocative phrase in another Derby wartime diary: May Smith’s note in November 1943 that the French fleet had ‘scuttled’. Remembering my enjoyment of this same word, I returned to Norah’s diary for that month and sure enough, there was the proof: the poetic choice was that of the editor of the Derby Evening Telegraph and not the two young diarists.
The DET: It used to interest me as a Saturday girl in a newsagent’s shop how people became so fiercely attached to one local evening paper over another; why we would only read the Derby Evening Telegraph while other families a few doors down with no lesser or greater geographical attachment should be equally devoted to the Loughborough Echo or, still more foreign, to the red and black print of the broadsheet Nottingham Post.
I welcomed the opportunity to make a return visit to Derby Local Studies Library where some years ago I researched an undergraduate history dissertation on the silk strike of 1834. The short journey from the railway station into town meant I could walk through the landscape of Norah’s diaries: past the former location of the Midland Drapery department store on the corner of East Street; in spitting distance of the Art Deco glass and blue frontage that once was Ranby’s, another of Norah’s favourites; past the Victorian market hall where she would sometimes nip in for a lunch-hour shop, towards the Georgian shop fronts, shown off to their best advantage by the curve of Iron Gate ahead. (Right: Midland Drapery, one of the biggest department stores in the country, c 1906 http://www.picturethepast.org.uk )
Derby Local Studies Library has expanded and moved premises since I was last there, from a small reading room to the former Edwardian school building behind. I book in and settle down at a microfilm reader while the young male librarian fetches the Derby Evening Telegraph from the drawers at the end of the room. 3 spools: January-February, March-April, May-June1940.
1. That however many hundreds of time I’ve used microfiche, I still need help fitting the reel to the correct spool, feeding the film into the right slot. When I press the button it whizzes round at that always alarming speed.
2. 1940 began not with a bang but with a freeze. Temperatures plummeted, pipes burst, the rivers froze and snow drifts kept thousands of children away from school. January and February were the coldest they’d been for forty years.
3. In the midst of this chill, rationing began. The shopper had to register with their chosen retailer beforehand and so the DET was full of ads: ‘Join the Meat Rationing Register Now at any of the Butchery Shops of the Derby Co-operative Society Ltd.’ Rations for bacon or ham (4oz per week), butter (the meagre 4oz raised to 8oz on 29th), and sugar (12oz) came in first, then meat – 1s 10d per person per week and 11d for the under sixes – two months later. When the day came, 8th January, ‘Coupon Monday’, most shoppers remembered their ration books but forgot the means to cut out the coupon. ‘Can you lend me your scissors?’ echoed in queues across the town.
4. The ARP had a rough ride. Their night-time cries of ‘Put that ruddy light out’ were widely resented by the letter-writing public. The Telegraph urged support, reminding its readers that these were men who had done a full days’ work before embarking on black-out surveillance. Offenders were named and shamed: torch flashers, bonfire lighters and others who were too free and easy with car headlights and bicycle lamps.
5. Derby picture houses stayed open. The list is extensive: the Gaumont, the Coliseum, the Hippodrome, the Cavendish, the Empire, the Regal, the Rex and the Gloria. I wonder if Norah saw Jack Helyer play at the Art Deco Gaumont Palace (below) on January 21st 1940…
6. … and whether as she and Marsie stole a bargain in Ranby’s Winter Sale or were wooed at Whitsuntide by Midland Drapery’s promises of ‘Unrepeatable offers in … Dainty Undies’.
7. All of a sudden: the blitzkrieg. I imagine Norah’s diary: ‘Battle for Narvik’ and ‘RAF swoops on Stavanger and the fjords’. By May, we are bombarded with multiple headlines: ‘French Troops at Cambrai Outskirts/ BEF Withstand Onslaught/ Positions Held in Arras Sector/ Nazis Through Gap.’ The DET is unable to decide which is the more momentous.
8. ‘Epic Battle!’ It is clear from the news reports in May 1940 that something momentous is happening, although it is well nigh impossible to work out what it is. Until, that is, the paper reveals the ‘Ferocious Fight at Dunkirk’, and then, finally declares, ‘Epic withdrawal goes on.’
9. On 4th June, the first of the Derbyshire BEF members arrive home, exhausted. They are greeted in person by the Mayor and by a whip-round organised by Rolls Royce. ‘Almost every time a man was asked if he needed anything’, reports Mr Fletcher, the secretary of the Derby and Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce and organiser of the Tennant Street Soldier’s Rest Centre, ‘The reply was “we could do with a good pair of socks”. Considering what they have been through, I think it is the least that we can do to see that this need is met.”
10. I note how socks, at the heart of Norah’s story, crop up again and again. In the long spells between escorting cinema-goers to their seats, torch in hand, and the final lights-up at the end, usherettes at the Gaumont were knitting comforts for the war effort. The manager Mr Smidmore had been inspired to open his Special Depot at the cinema by the example of Lady Mountbatten. ‘When I was at Gaumont Palace,’ writes the Telegraph reporter, ‘I saw Mr Smidmore wading about in a welter of wool, needles, Balaclava helmets, scarves, mittens, pull-overs and the like, and giving advice to would-be knitters as if knitting and not cinema management was his work. But, as he said, we all find ourselves doing queer jobs these days.’
See Derby Evening Telegraph, 1, 3, 8 January; 11, 18 April; 10, 13, 23, 30 May; 1, 4, 25 June; and Jan-June passim.
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