My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
1st January 1941: Went to Hemington with Ma.
9th: Bombs dropped at Diseworth and Wilson.
10th: Helen, Ma and I went to Long Eaton to buy coat for M.
13th: Washing. Good day.
15th: Started school. Kath form captain. Raids.
18th: Ma went to Dr about her hand.
19th: Very deep snow.
22nd: New Tec boy from Diseworth Robert Lee Warner
24th: Frank & I went to dance.
25th: May Twells married.
Norah is more tweet-like than ever at the start of 1941. The weather is bitter, so cold that Marsie needs a warmer winter coat. The latest local bombs have dropped on the starfish sites located at the edges of the villages of Diseworth and Wilson. A New Tec boy is her latest crush and on the 24th January, she goes to a dance with her brother Frank. The wedding the following day is that of her sister Helen’s sister-in-law’s sister, May Twells, and her soldier fiancé, Jim Sharpe. (It is confusing I know: if this were a novel, I would not have two sisters named Mary and May – or indeed, an assortment of brothers, uncles and celebrity footballers all named Frank).
The dance. With the 1940 diary missing, I don’t know if Norah went to any dances during the previous year. I suspect not. Not only was she a mere fifteen years of age, but 1941 was the year the night-life really took off in Castle Donington, Norah’s home village. According to the late Miss Hetty Carr, Donington was ‘over run with billeted soldiers’ that year. (1)
The dance that Norah attended with her brother Frank would almost certainly have been in the dining hall at the council school on Dovecote, where entertainment was put on for the army units stationed at Donington Park. Donington Hall and Park – where Norah had seen Prince Birabongse of Siam compete in the British Empire Trophy Race two years earlier (see earlier post here) – had been requisitioned at the start of the war as a subsidiary of Chilwell Transport Depot, where army vehicles were serviced and maintained. The RA (Royal Artillery) came first, followed by the RE (Royal Engineers). Dunkirk had also bought several thousands of men, including a number of Frenchmen and Belgians. Miss Carr worked at the Post Office and remembered exchanging their French francs for sterling.
Donington Hall was a stately home rebuilt by the Earl of Moira in the late eighteenth century in the ‘Strawberry Gothic’ style. It didn’t fare well during the war. ‘It was wrecked,’ local historian Bruce Townsend told me. ‘Whilst the owner Gillies Shields was waiting for the Derby train at St Pancras station, on his way back from Europe at the end of the war, he saw an officer nursing a large pewter salmon, taken from a fountain in the grounds.’ The man was of a senior rank, so Shields couldn’t challenge him. (2)
In addition to local billets, empty buildings in the village were commandeered to provide further sleeping space. The churches provided hot meals and entertainment was put on every Friday night.
‘Oh it was exciting’, Kath Jones told me. ‘I met your Aunty Mary at those dances, that’s where we became friends.’ (3)
There was never any doubt that Kath would be my first choice of interviewee. For as long as I can remember, my Aunty Mary regaled us with stories of the fun she and Kath had at the dances, both at the council school and then, after the RAF arrived in 1942, at the local aerodrome. (This is the same Mary Twells who had enjoyed a brief flurry of friendship with Norah in 1939, when they were bridesmaids together at the wedding of Norah’s sister and Mary’s brother. They had since gone their separate ways. Mary, sixteen months older and with no scholarship opportunity (or desire for one), was already working at the local factory known fondly as Sammy White’s. She lived for fashionable clothes and nights out. Even walking up Big Hill on her way back from work, she’d be dressed to the nines and at the heart of a raucous gaggle of laughing girls.)
‘It was a good time’, Kath said, as we sat drinking tea in her first-floor flat one summer’s afternoon. ‘The friendship was different somehow, you could talk to people and make friends.’ Kath worked at Chilwell Depot and girls from her office would often come back with her on a Friday night. ‘There could be four of them, they used to love to come over, all staying at our house.’
The venue was nothing special. ‘It was just a kitchen really, with a wooden floor, chairs lining the walls, a stage where the band would play.’ The name of the band escaped Kath’s memory, but not the music: ‘they played a Ladies excuse me, and Glenn Miller, oh all the old favourites.’
Cups of tea were available but not alcohol, so some girls went down the pub first. Did Kath and Mary?
‘Ooh no!’ she said, laughing.
Kath and Mary both met their future husbands at the dances. Ron Jones was a big, gentle Welshman who had been at Dunkirk, arriving in Donington after a spell in hospital, and billeted at a farm on Apiary Gate that is now the village museum. He plucked up the courage one Friday night to ask Kath to dance, having first spied her in her cap and gown in the church choir.
‘I see we’ve got a full choir today,’ the vicar would say drily, as the regiment turned out in force.
Ron had a four-day pass so on the Saturday Kath and her mum went to Leicester, clothes shopping, and bought a green silk outfit with a plain skirt and a top with a tie bow. ‘I had to have it shortened. I said “well I’m being married on Wednesday” and they said “we’ll get it to you.”’ Kath borrowed a fabric orchid from an aunt (‘she kept telling me, “I do want it back, you know”’), a pair of shoes from a girl at work, and a little brown fly-way hat from Mary’s elder sister, May. ‘It had a lovely band of silk tied on and a flare. I didn’t want to part with it.’
The night Mary Twells met her future husband, John Davison, on his first night at the airfield in 1944, she and Kath weren’t supposed to be there at all. Their dads had insisted they were ‘not to go up High Street’, largely on account of the short-cut home across a desolate misty wasteland between village and airfield. Of course, the girls ignored their fathers’ orders. Kath’s mother was in on the secret.
‘I told her, it was better up there, with the RAF, not so rough. And we were invited.’ She laughed and paused. ‘I remember one time, I was wearing a pair of nylons that Ron had sent me from Germany, and on the way back, I fell. I heard Mary say, “Oooh I hope that’s not Kath in her nylons.” It was me, of course, and I got a big hole in them.’ As Kath speaks, I hear my Aunty Mary’s voice, her accent very broad, a mixture of fun and anxiety; no-one would have appreciated the value of nylons more than her.
On another occasion, Kath’s new coat – green, full length, with a half studded belt, bought at Ranby’s for thirteen guineas – got muddied up when she fell in the field.
‘I said to Mary, “my dad’ll kill me if he sees this. He’ll know where we’ve been”’.
The girls went back to Mary’s house, making a bad job of removing the top layer of mud in the Twells’ kitchen. When Kath arrived back at the house attached to her dad’s painting and decorating shop on Borough Street, she pushed the shop door ajar a couple of inches and reached up to muffle the bell with her hand as she slid in. Heart beating fast, she prepared to make an anxious dash past the living room door and up to her bedroom.
‘I’ve heard you’, her dad called out, deadpan.
Quick as a flash, she turned the coat inside out and left it on the stairs before entering the living room to greet her parents with the least guilty expression she could muster. On her way to bed, she removed the coat to her wardrobe, where it would hang to dry before being stiff-brushed clean. (3)
Of course, there’s lots here for the academic historian to get her teeth into. We might note the burgeoning class and leisure differences between Mary and Norah, or the respectability implicit in not going to the pub before the dance. We might comment on fathers and daughters and the anxiety about the aerodrome, or the greater promise – class again – of the dances with the RAF.
But oral history for my purpose, for a book that is more life-writing than academic history, needs to do different work. The interview was not what a public historian colleague describes as ‘guerilla oral history’: jumping in with your recording equipment, discussing a prepared topic, intensely, and for a short period of time, before bagging the story and taking off. I was certainly no less prepared. I’d read widely, watched films, even listened to ‘Songs that Won the War’ whilst digging my garden. I had my question sets written out, had pondered nostalgia and the issues of inter-subjectivity involved in interviewing a family friend.(4) But it is the case that my focus was less the longer life story, and more the dances during wartime. And it is the images, characters, emotions that I am most interested in, not the academic analysis. There was pleasure too in reconnecting with a family friend, now ninety and house-bound, and providing an opportunity for reminiscence. (Kath phoned my mother much later that night to tell her she’d remembered the name of the army band. ‘The Alhambra!’ she said triumphantly.)
I am most struck by the sheer excitement generated by these dances: the possibilities they created for different sorts of friendships, the fun of clothes swapping, the excitement of a whole new world of men the village girls wouldn’t otherwise have met. All of a sudden, they could look beyond the boys they’d been to school with. You might say that the gene pool in Castle Donington had remained relatively unchallenged for some time, centuries even. It wasn’t until the postwar years and the development of transport links to Derby, Loughborough and Nottingham that the village saw an exponential growth. I wonder about the local lads who had their noses put out of joint, although those who were conscripted and billeted elsewhere would be causing a stir in some other village.
This is corroborated in lots of evidence, of course, and not least in novels. ‘War … was sex’, concluded Prudence, a character in Henry Green’s novel, Caught, written at the time of the author’s own affairs in London during the Blitz. It wasn’t simply that her lover was a pilot and he might soon be dead. There was an intensity about daily life, which gave rise to an openness to connection and experience; meeting a glance, straight on, and holding it instead of averting the eyes. As Elizabeth Bowen wrote in The Heat of the Day, the black-out made even a pair of tapping heels sound suggestive, like ‘an illicit semaphore’ in the night.(5)
But back to Norah and the dances. Even though she and Frank went along that Friday night in January 1941, she wasn’t a regular. Kath Jones can’t remember her being there and she makes no further mention of dances in her diaries. I can only ponder as to why this was. Maybe her mother considered her too young in 1941, whereas by 1942 she was in love with (a rather possessive) Danny. Perhaps on this one occasion, Marsie had given in to Norah’s pleas and asked Frank, just eighteen and not yet joined up, to accompany her, or maybe he’d persuaded their mother to let him chaperone his giddy younger sister. Maybe the whole evening – the girls who rolled in from the pub, the absence of local lads, the excitement over the soldiers, that everyone else had gone to the village council school bar the two of them – meant it wasn’t their cup of tea. Whatever the reasons, Norah’s dancing opportunities were limited.
It is rare that I feel frustrated by Norah’s diary entries, but this is one such occasion. Just a few more words – ‘a good time’, or even ‘a bit rough’ – would have made all the difference.
But thinking about the dances gives us an insight into the atmosphere, the frisson, involved in meeting men who were servicemen, in these years. It gives me a context for understanding the arrival of Norah’s first letter from Sailor Jim, in late February 1941.
And of course, not going to dances didn’t stop Norah from enjoying a flirtation. As far as men were concerned, she was not backwards at coming forwards:
24th February 1941: Saw Jock in Barroon. Nearly fainted, we both stammered & smiled. Fools!
3rd April 1941: Tec boys broke up. I have a bad crush on “someone”!
4th April: Broke up for Easter. Peggy & I stayed in Loughborough to see “someone”. Went in Boleworth’s for a snack on 1/6. Three soldiers made eyes at us all the time!
And then there’s the airfield, with its steady supply of airmen to walk past and flirt with and, occasionally, to receive kisses from. 15th July 1941: Man at the aerodrome gave me a super kiss.
Thank you for reading – and for sticking with me. Pressures of work have meant I’ve had no time for blogging and writing in recent weeks. However, I plan to post shorter pieces regularly from now on, as Norah makes her acquaintance with Sailor Jim.
(1) Local Wartime Memories folder, Castle Donington Museum.
(2) Conversation with Bruce Townsend, August 2012.
(3) Interview with Kath Jones, August 2012. A ‘ladies excuse me’ was when the band invited the women to ask a man to dance.
(4) The book I find most useful, for my own oral history interviews and for teaching my students, is Lynn Abram’s Oral History Theory (2010).
(5) Lara Feigel, The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (2013), p. 85.
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