Socks for the Boys!

My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948

The scholarship girl and the 1938 Letts’s School-Girl’s Diary

The Charles Letts’s School-Girl’s Diary for 1938, at 5×3 inches, is slightly bigger than a standard pocket diary. The rusty-red leather fabric cover is now brittle and crinkly to the touch, but the design on the front is still quite clear: an embossed oval shape made up of hockey sticks, tennis rackets and lacrosse mallets.

Letts, a London stationers, printers and bookbinders formed in 1796, published its first diary in the early C19th and, expanding throughout the 1800s, continued diversifying its range well into the C20th. The Girl-Guides Diary was published during WW1, as part of a new specialist focus (1). My guess is that the School-Girl’s Diary was a slightly earlier introduction. By 1938, it was well-established. The designer was Marc Ceppi, a writer of French language books and an inspector of French teaching in British schools.

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The first printed right-hand page gives the full title of the diary and the range, in terms of quality and expense, that was available to purchase:

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The pencil and loop have long gone and there never was any gilt, but I am pleased to see that Norah’s parents could stretch to a sturdy, serviceable leather cloth version. On the facing blank, cream sheet, the diary owner has written her name in now-faded blue ink. (NB This was difficult to copy because of the way the pages are stuck together rather than my carelessness!)

The fifty-seven printed pages of fore-matter that preface the diary are striking for their confidence about what an English schoolgirl needed to know. Indeed, the diary was not just a means for a schoolgirl to chronicle her days. Its aim was to provide knowledge and a range of interests and hobbies thought appropriate for its readers. The diary can be seen as a template for a certain kind of middle-class girlhood.

The diary’s market would be the 12.2% of girls born between 1910-1929 who continued their education up to the age of 16. Norah fell into this category. While most of her peers from her elementary school in Castle Donington stayed at the same institution, the recipients of an uninspiring, time-biding instruction until they were allowed to leave at the age of 14 (after 1921) or 15 (after 1936), she was one of the tiny minority who passed the 11+ scholarship exam and, her school fees paid by the local authority, gained a place at a nearby Grammar.  This system purported to open up education to bright working-class children, but for every child who won a free place in 1931, seven fee payers were also admitted. A secondary education of this standard was received by roughly 10% of schoolchildren throughout the 1930s.(2)

The first printed page of the 1938 diary announces the results of the previous year’s diary competition. Letts, it seems, was canvassing constructive suggestions from its readers. Hundreds of girls entered, some from as far away as South Africa, Australia and Iraq. The winner of the best entry, Joan Wisdom of North London, received a leather-bound set of Rudyard Kipling’s novels.

The diary fore-matter kicks off with a category termed ‘Daily wants’, which lists term dates, Bank Holidays, postage rates, sizes of sports grounds, the costs of various licenses (driving, dog) and the temperature at which water boils.

This is followed by seven pages of ‘Careers for Women’: jobs in the civil service, nursing, teaching, domestic science, librarianship for example, as well as some less predictable suggestions in horticulture, engineering, as chemists. ‘Nursery Nursing means a pleasant life generally, with pay from £45 a year or more’, the author writes. ‘Certain government departments and manufacturing firms admit women Analytical Chemists in their laboratories… [but] in Industry, the demand for women is small compared to that for men’.

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Details of examinations come next, including the Oxford School Certificate which Norah was to pass in 1941. Then we have sovereigns of England, British Prime Ministers from 1721, the lighting up table, world time, Latin verbs (seven pages), French verbs (eight pages), German Strong verbs, the metric system, tables of weights and measures, and so on and so forth. The recommendations of Books to Read include A Handbook for Young Gardeners, Photography and Its Mysteries and The Wonder Book of Pets and How to Keep Them. The diary is keen to emphasise that these are ‘supplements to the classics which you will hear in school and mainly intended as helps to various hobbies and interests’.

Five pages of recent sporting triumphs follow: the winners of the boat race, the champions in skating, rugby, athletics, golf and swimming, women’s lacrosse, hockey, cricket and lawn tennis. ‘Some pioneers of aviation’ gives the diary a modern feel, while ‘Things to See in London’ evokes solid English tradition.

It is difficult to get much of a sense of Norah from these pages. She inks in her own term dates and adds ‘Oxford, 1937’ to the boat race winners. She updates the Prime Ministers to include ‘Neville Chamberlain (1937)’ and above his name, next to Stanley Baldwin, she writes the word ‘(Fool)’. We’re getting closer to her now.

On the page for personal information, we can see how she first filled in her name, birthday and addresses at home and school in pencil, later inking over all but one of them. Her parents had put in for a brand new council house in the village and Norah was hopeful that they would move that year.

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Some details remain blank and rather fancifully, Norah fills in a car registration number. In a different blue pen, she gives her personal details, all entered on the day the girls were weighed and measured at school. (22nd July 1938: 3rd heaviest & 2nd tallest… The doctor said I have a ‘wonderful physique’.)

Next come the ‘memoranda’ pages, the six blank pages which culminate with Prince Birabongse and Norah’s ‘crazes’ (see previous posts). These start with a faint pencil list headed with the words ‘DERBY COUNTY’:

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No mere list, this is a sketch of the team’s 2-3-5 pyramid formation. Norah recorded Derby’s result every Saturday and noted their FA Cup delights and disappointments. It strikes me how the extensive list of sports mentioned in the diary – from the boat race and lawn tennis to the more obscure skating championships and lacrosse  – doesn’t include football or motor racing, Norah’s twin loves. Norah is bringing together two worlds of leisure here: the middle-class expectations of the diary and the sports enjoyed in her working-class home.

Overleaf, on the second page of memoranda, is an unfinished, half-hearted column for ‘Girls in our school who left.’ This is followed by ‘tongue-twisters’: ‘The Leath police dismisseth us’ and ‘Are you copper-bottoming ‘em?’ ‘No I’m aluminiuming ‘em, mum!’ Next is a full page devoted to ‘Races at Donington Park’ and a list of Stoke City’s fixtures for December 1938, discussed in previous posts. The latter, along with her list of crazes, was no doubt written as Norah lay in bed nursing her scalded foot and admiring the handsome Stoke City striker, Frank Soo.

The Letts’s School-Girl’s Diary is both daily and looking to the future. It provides a framework within which to acquire new interests and knowledge. It allow us a glimpse of a young woman as she crafts herself, making a journey to adulthood and arguably, as a scholarship girl, to a new class.The memoranda pages in Norah’s diary, with their entries about crushes, celebrities and sport (and celebrity sportsmen, of course), give a sense of what was important to her, a scholarship girl in 1930s England.

(1) Letts Keep a Diary: An Exhibition of the History of Diary keeping in Great Britain from the 16th to 20th Centuries in commemoration of 175 years of Diary Publishing by Letts (London, 1987).

(2) Ross McKibbin, Classes and Cultures, England 1918-1951 (Oxford, 1998), p. 260.

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