My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
Arthur the removal man appears mid-table on thirteen year-old Norah’s list of school-girl crushes. He was present in her life for one day only: the Saturday in June 1938 when he drove the Co-op van that moved the Hodgkinson family from the rundown cottage at Hill Top to a brand new council house at the opposite end of the village.
18th June 1938: Got up late. John made a trolley and used it with Jimmie on the hills. Jimmie went out. Had a letter telling that we had got a house. I went to pictures with Jimmie. Dull, thundered & lightened. Rained. Cold.
19th. Rich painted our bed white. John & Jimmie played trolleys on hills. Planned our new house. Pa & Ma and I went down to the house. Went through lane. Sunny but cold and dull after. Joe left for Webbs for Williamsons.
20th. Burton house meeting. I was elected artist for the house. Frank & I went up to the house. Absolutely lovely. Four rooms. Going on Saturday? Told Peggy.
25th. Left our old house in Co-op [van]. I like ‘Arthur’ the Remover. Called me ‘sweetheart’. Mrs Robinson and Mrs Bostock gave us flowers. Emma cried. Didn’t want to leave them & Jimmie. Sunny, rainy, windy.
Absolutely lovely. Four bedrooms. Norah’s diary entries do more than just hint at her delight at the new mid-terraced house with its huge westerly facing back garden. But while we can read in them the pride and fondness that she felt, they do not quite do justice to the place that this house occupies in the emotional history of Norah’s family.
There are other sources – plans, tenancy agreements, government reports, for example – which would locate Moira Dale in the broader history of C20th council housing. But they do not take me closer to my main interest: what it meant to move into a brand new house such as this in 1938; or, what it meant to live well, with pride and dignity, on a British council estate in the years immediately before, and for a few short decades after, WW2 (1).
While there is no-one left to talk to who can remember the houses being built, Norah’s niece, my mother, was born at 18 Moira Dale in March 1941 and knew it well. I ask her to take me on an imaginary walk, from the front gate, through the house, and into the back garden. It is a journey into her memory and my imagination. It might border on the nostalgic, although it is possible that there is a case to be made for reviewing the ease with which we dismiss as ‘sentimental’ the history of the postwar working class; or even to see nostalgia differently, as a critique, in this case of the way in which council houses have become stigmatised rather than a source of pride (2). I am interested also in the potential of memories of domestic artefacts and material culture to evoke an emotion that is partially obscured in Norah’s account.
My mum tells me that it was a proper cottage garden at the front of the house. The boys, Richard, Frank and Helen’s husband-to-be, Joe Twells, ripped out the privet and replaced it with lilac trees, Marsie’s favourite. By the front gate there was a snowball bush and then flowerbeds either side of the slabbed path that ran up past the lawn to the front door.
Norah’s diary confirms these memories as she mentions the sowing of the grass seed, the friends from Hill Top who bought plants as gifts which she helped set, the day Joe arrived with the lilacs, and Pop’s poor attempt to make the path, re-done by Marsie the following day (‘Pop didn’t mind!’ she wrote, clearly expecting otherwise).
This photograph is of Tom (Pop) and Milly (Marsie) in the front garden in the early 1940s.
I wish the photograph could convey the colour of the bricks: a rich red with hues of orange, a warmth that was lost when the house fell victim to a cheapskate council cladding scheme in the early 1990s (below). It doesn’t look very inviting now. The front garden is paved over and the lilacs gone forever. The house, sold under Thatcher’s legislation and now in the hands of a private landlord, has a new tenant, who very kindly let me nosey round days after she moved in, and told me that some of her friends had arrived with expressions of mild alarm as they pulled up outside for the first time.
‘As you went in the front door…’
I stop my mum. I want to know the colour of the front door, and she knows why. We laugh. Council house front doors interest us more than they should. For the first fourteen years of my life, we lived with my grandparents in a postwar Nye Bevan beauty of a house on a big corner plot round the corner from Moira Dale. When the men from the council arrived every few years to re-paint the front door, giving the tenant a choice from one shade each of blue, red or green, my gran would choose red (for Labour!) and then, in her own small protest at this excess of local authority uniformity, would get her paint-brush out the following day.
‘Did she ever just ask them not to paint it?’ I ask.
‘Oh yes, but they had to. They knew what she’d do. Nobody batted an eyelid when she got that olive green tin out’.
It turns out the front door at Moira Dale wasn’t a colour, but was plain brown wood. You went in and were greeted by the aspidistra at the foot of the stairs on the right. Above the door to the living room were some stag’s antlers that Pop had picked up in Donington Park on his postal round. He asked permission to take them and they had them mounted for him. The front room was a living room; it was cosy and got the morning sun. As you walked in, the gramophone and later, the telly, stood against the front wall. Then, in front of the window, covered with a crocheted throw, was a dark horsehair sofa, replaced in the 1950s by a pink moquette. At the far end, in an alcove, there was a built-in cupboard where Marsie kept the darning wool, the needle box and Sunday evening games: Sorry, draughts and a pack of cards. On the shelves above was her Crown Derby and the green china tea set she’d received as a wedding present. On the other side, beyond the black range, a tall bookcase stood in the other alcove, holding encyclopaedias, book prizes from school and Sunday school, and Marsie’s Bible. In front of the range were two chairs: Pop’s was polished wood, with arms, and Marsie’s, upholstered and more comfortable for knitting and darning. (See here for Julie-Marie Strange’s discussion of the father’s chair, ‘respectability’ and material history.)
‘It sounds a bit full’, I say.
‘It was. Marsie liked clutter. But it was homely. There was also a dining table and chairs in the middle of the room, can you believe! We we all used to sit there to watch the TV in the 1950s.’
And there’s more. On the wall that ran from the alcove to the door that led into the kitchen, stood Marsie’s piano, above which hung a wall clock and two or three prints of Derbyshire countryside scenes. And then there was the oak sideboard with glass knobs. The wireless sat on the top of it, and arranged underneath, from the late 1940s when she was a working woman, was Norah’s multi-coloured collection of high-heel shoes, a big attraction for her young niece.
Into the kitchen, there was a Belfast sink, a long pantry with a meat-safe at the end, a crowd of coats on the wall near to the stair-hole door, a brick copper in the corner and next to it, the door to the much-prized bathroom. The kitchen door led out into a small passage and, past the lavatory and the coal house, into the back garden. This was Marsie’s pride and joy: her rambler rose, Frank’s peach tree, a small lawn, and beyond it the vegetable beds and raspberry canes, blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes, plum trees, another lilac, the hen house and a compost heap to the left of the bottom gate.
This picture is of fourteen year-old Norah at her sister Helen’s wedding party in the back garden in August 1939. She is standing before the rose trellis, hand-made from young tree branches, and you can make out the hollyhocks, in full bloom to her left.
All that love and hard work is now paved and grassed over, but the new tenant is excited by its potential too.
18 Moira Dale, my family’s ancestral home. I thought about this house when I read Penelope Lively’s A House Unlocked, a delightful account of her grandmother’s Edwardian country house. The absence of heirlooms and imperial artefacts in the homes of the poor emphasises the sheer laughable impossibility, at Moira Dale, of a chapter headed ‘The Knife Rests, The Grape Scissors and the Bon-Bon Dish’ (although I bet she had a pair of stag’s antlers too). But council houses come with their own stories. ‘The Bathroom and the Four Good Bedrooms’ evokes a life without the daily struggle with the squalor of poverty. ‘Marsie’s Bible, the Encyclopaedias and the Rag Rugs’ or ‘The Lilac, the Peach Tree and the Chicken Coop’ express my great grandmother’s faith, her resourcefulness, her creativity and sense of beauty. ‘The High Heels Under the Dresser’ represents the greater affluence of the 1950s, as well as a new style of femininity, contrasting nicely with ‘The Mangle in the Wash-House’ at Garden Crescent, where my grandmother, Norah’s sister, fought a battle every Monday with my grandfather’s blood-stained butchering slops.
(1) For an absorbing history of British council housing from the inside, see Lynsey Hanley, Estates: An Intimate History (Granta, 2007).
(2) See Andy Medhurst, ‘If Anywhere: Class Identifications and Cultural Studies Academics’, in Sally Munt (ed.), Cultural Studies and the Working Class: Subject to Change (London: Cassell, 2000), p. 21; John Kirk, Class, Culture and Social Change: on the Trail of the Working Class (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007).
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