My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
As I was preparing this post on knitting socks for the war effort, a 1941 Charles Letts’ Girl Guides’ Diary dropped through my letterbox. I’ll say more about this and the other pocket diaries I’ve been steadily acquiring another time. But for now, it is enough to report that 12 year-old June Metcalf from Pickering, North Yorkshire was also a schoolgirl knitter. On the first page of her diary, titled ‘Memoranda from 1940’ – the equivalent to Norah’s pyramid diagram of the Derby County squad and list of schoolgirl crushes in 1939 – she itemised her knitting achievements for the previous year:
Things Knitted in 1940
1 table-runner for Mam.
1 book-cover for Dad.
1 pair of gloves for (me).
1 pair of gloves for Kathleen.
1 pair of gloves for Bryan.
1 pair of gloves for Dad.
1 pair of gloves for Grandad.
1 pair of gloves for Mr Lipson.
1 handkerchief satchel for Church Sale of Work
1 pair of socks – March 9th
I note how quickly June progresses from the simple strips and squares of book covers and table runners to the greater complexity of gloves. I assume from their timing and the absence of any known recipient that the socks were knitted ‘for the war effort’.
The absence of Norah’s 1940 diary has meant that there is no information at all in her little archive about the socks that are so central to this story. The only clue is that Sailor Jim’s first letter was sent to her school. I have the pale blue envelope here in front of me, the address written in pencil in an over-careful hand: Miss N. Hodgkinson, Lower IV, Loughborough Girls’ High School, Burton Walks, Loughborough.
But I wanted to know more about the socks: where they were knitted, who provided the patterns and bought the wool (which was rationed and therefore on points), how the finished items made their way to the Royal Navy Comfort Fund. It was possible that the school had adopted a ship, like the grammar school in All the Nice Girls (2009), Joan Bakewell’s novel set in wartime Liverpool (1). How could I find out? Maybe there were other High School knitters – or even romances with sailors – just waiting to be discovered.
There is an array of very lovely images of wartime knitting available to the idle Googler: the little girls sitting on the kerb outside their Carshalton Infant School, concentrating on their half-knitted squares; even smaller boys at a Gotham primary, handling their pins awkwardly and receiving help from a smiling teacher; the photographs of WVS ladies and British soldiers, standing either side of a table piled high with socks; men in scarves and balaclavas and non-regulation cowl-neck jumpers; gloves in all shades of khaki and brown (some of which came from the US in the Bundles for Britain scheme. Who knew that American gloves are a different shape?). I haven’t dropped in any pictures here – I am hopeful I’ll be given permission to do so – but you can see some images on this website and this blog.
One afternoon – during more random searching – I stumbled across a reference to an Old Girls’ Newsletter for Norah’s school. After a swift and very helpful email exchange, I was kindly invited to place a small article in the next edition. I explained about Norah and the socks, the sailor and his airman brother. For good measure, I threw in a mention of some key events – the trenches that the schoolgirls helped to dig during the Munich Crisis, Loughborough War Weapons Week and the Wings for Victory campaign – as well as a long list of the names of Norah’s friends. I dug out a couple of photographs, one of Norah and her friends Betty Garrod and Peggy Stevens, lined up elegantly on a wooden bench in the quad in 1941, the elegant ivy-clad school building and chapel behind them.
A second snap shows Miss Husband, Miss Martin and Miss Caddy sitting on the same seat and looking nowhere as fierce as the diaries suggest they should.
The first reply, by email, was from a lady who could remember the air raid shelters under the tennis courts but who hadn’t overlapped with Norah at all in her time at the school. It was the second, a notelet that I found on top of a pile of essays in my pigeonhole at work, that made me whoop with delight (2).
I was very interested to read in the recent Loughborough Old Girls’ Newsletter your article about LHS during the war years. I was actually there at the same time and in the same form as Norah. I remember all the names on your list and recognise Norah and Peggy in the photograph. The photo of the three teachers is very familiar to me as I had/have one identical to it. I think it must have been taken on one of our last few days at the school.
I too knitted for the war effort and also sent sea boot stockings to the merchant navy. I too had a letter from one of the recipients who had been torpedoed and survived but when I replied to his new ship my letter was returned undelivered so I never knew what happened to him. I do remember that I was summoned to Miss Bristol’s office to receive the letter and told to be sure to show it to my mother! Miss Bristol was very protective of her “gairls”.
We always had to have an emergency ration box with us in case we had to stay long in the air raid shelter. I am afraid that mine was very much depleted when I did need it as the contents were very tempting at lunch and break times.
If I can help in any way with other memories I would love to hear from you. There can’t be many of us left!
Mary Belton (Freeman)
It was not just the fact of Mrs Belton’s acquaintance with Norah – in the same form for six years! – that delighted me; nor even (wonderful as it is) that she was also a knitter. It was the tone of her letter, the details she chose to share: the invocation of Miss Bristol’s Northern Irish accent in her protective warning to the girls; the emergency ration box which, she told me later, would have contained chocolate covered raisins and a caramel wafer from the Home & Colonial if she hadn’t dipped into it when she felt peckish during her school day.
There is so much I could write about my trip to Leicester that bright June day. I could tell you some of the things I learned about the make-up of the school: the preponderance of lower-middle class girls who were there on scholarships, that very few stayed on into the sixth form, the expense involved in kitting them out (outdoor shoes, indoor shoes, gym shoes, pleated gymslips, white blouses, a red and white tie, black lisle stockings, a navy gabardine, all for winter, and faun stockings, a straw panama hat, a blazer and summer dresses in a choice of blue, brown, yellow, pink and green.)
I could provide evocative sketches of each of the teachers, including Miss MacKenzie, Norah and Mary’s form tutor in the Lower V, a fierce Scottish woman who taught French and took a party of girls to Paris every year until the war put an end to her trips. Mrs Belton remembered that she had lost her fiancé during the Great War. At every Remembrance Day service the girls would study her face intently, waiting until she cried.
‘We were cruel,’ she said with a mixture of amusement and remorse.
Then in the Upper V there was the ageing Miss Freer, who (according to the diaries) regularly ‘got ratty’ with Norah and on one occasion threatened her with an order mark for disorderly conduct. Mrs Belton remembered her mass of grey hair and the hand-knitted thick ribbed stockings she wore all year round. One particularly harsh winter, she travelled to school on skis.
‘We all used to laugh at her, poor soul. A lot of these teachers, they were ready for retirement, but they were brought back, you know, because of the war.’ (3)
I could also relay my pleasure at finding an entry by a twelve year-old Mary in Norah’s autograph book when I arrived home that evening. And I could certainly muse again on the sheer pleasure of oral history.
But, for now at least, I need to focus on the socks.
‘Oh we didn’t just do socks, we made balaclava helmets for the army and sleeveless pullovers for the airforce. I used to knit a lot of scarves in airforce blue.’ Mrs Belton sounded almost surprised and certainly impressed as she reflected on their expansive range, as young girls. ‘You had to knit certain ribs, so they held their shape.’
She remembered the thick dark navy wool for the sea boot socks. It was untreated, oily, with the lanolin still in. ‘We knitted these great long socks that would turn over their sea boots. But we had big pins, so they soon grew.’
Like Norah, Mrs Belton had been taught to knit by her mother when she was a young girl of eight or nine. She quickly became very proficient. Turning a heel was skilled work and picking up the stitches along the side of a sock took patience and practice. At school, while some of the more sporty girls went off to play tennis, she would sit on the cloister wall and knit.
‘You took your knitting with you everywhere,’ she said, matter-of-factly. ‘You would knit on the school bus. I even remember going to the cinema at Birstall and knitting in the dark! After I left school and I was on the switchboard, we would sit and knit all day, in between taking calls.’
‘Can you remember how you felt, knitting for the war effort?’
Mrs Belton paused. I wondered if it was a daft question, if I was labouring a point.
‘We were young girls, when you’re still at school you couldn’t do much to help. We felt virtuous, that we were doing something useful.’
I have in my mind a confident, purposeful WVS lady, clad in her green uniform and lace-up shoes, addressing a High School assembly in late 1940. I imagine an imperious tone of voice like the upper-crust Mrs Waite, played by Stephanie Cole in Housewife 49, Victoria Wood’s film based on the writings of famous diarist Nella Last (4).
With her colleagues, this lady from the WVS had already turned Loughborough into an evacuation centre for thousands of children from Sheffield and Birmingham. She was shortly to help to organise War Weapons Week (May 1941) and the following year would coordinate the events of Warship Week: a boxing tournament, variety concert, sea cadets exhibition and, believe it or not, the first national babies and toddlers brigades (5).
At the end of 1940, when she made her visit to the school, the WVS was organising the collection of Loughborough-made hosiery to send to Coventry after the November blitz. They had been recruited by Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, to the Saucepans for Spitfires campaign and were amassing frying pans, colanders, tea-trays, kettles, sink-tidies, meat-covers as well as saucepans donated by women across the town. ‘No uniform but an apron, but housewives can win the salvage campaign,’ declared the Loughborough Echo in 1941, under the headline of ‘Up the Housewives and At ‘Em.’ (6)
But it was the need for knitted comforts (see this post for the demand for socks in 1940) that drew the WVS to the High School assembly that day.
‘Come on girls’, the lady visitor might have urged them as she stood at the lecturn armed with patterns and bags of wool. ‘Get those pins clicking. Every little helps. It’ll be a poke in the eye for Hitler.’ (7)
It is entirely speculation of course, but I imagine Norah in the hall that morning. She’d been knitting since she was a little girl when she had sat, legs dangling and crossed at the ankles, on the kitchen table at Hill Top, concentrating through a furrowed brow on the pair of over-sized pins uncomfortably secured in each armpit, pausing after each action to repeat slowly with the ever-patient Marsie: ‘in with the needle, round with the wool, through and off.’
Now fifteen years old, Norah would have been attentive, keen. She’d knitted her bedsocks, her red and white school scarf, the beautiful bolero made all the rage by Hollywood star Deanna Durbin. She was mid-way through her lovely green cardigan. She already knew she’d be knitting for her brothers when they were called up. Socks would pose no problems for her at all.
And besides, she quite liked the idea of knitting for sailors.
There has been lots of excellent work by academic historians which explores the expectation that women would continue with domestic duties and other nurturing roles alongside their war work during WW2 and which details the very fine line that existed between remaining feminine, attractive and supportive (all morale boosting for the men) and appearing ‘morally lax’.(8) In a wartime culture in which, in Phil Goodman’s term, a ‘heightened sense of heterosexuality’ prevailed, it was easy to over-step the mark, as was discovered by many a young woman censured for flirting with soldiers (and even more so if the soldiers were American). (9)
Knitting occupies an interesting place in this analysis. It is a domestic activity, nurturing, maternal, entirely respectable, especially so when undertake by mothers whose own sons were in the Forces. For the lads receiving them, the ‘comforts’ (an interesting word in itself) are reminders of home and of feminine care. There is an intimacy in this exchange between women at home and the boys and young men in far-flung and often dangerous places.
I don’t want to overstate this, as for many schoolgirls, as Mrs Belton testified, knitting for the war effort was simply about ‘doing your bit’. But when the knitter was a girl of fifteen who was already a bit giddy about the airmen and soldiers billeted in her village (as discussed in my last post), knitting socks for a young man whom she had never met had an additional charge. And for the young sailor too: receiving some sea-boot socks from Miss N. Hodgkinson, Lower IV, likely came with different pleasures than those from women who reminded him of his mother and his aunts.
For a while I assumed the fact that Norah’s name and school address was attached to the socks was an act of daring on her part. But my day with Mrs Belton revealed that wasn’t the case. The sailor who received Mary’s socks wrote to her too, but theirs was a one-off correspondence. She remembered her feeling of anxiety when she was ‘sent for’ by the head teacher, Miss Bristol, a kindly but slightly daunting character who was known for hitching up her skirts to clamber into her open-top car, for her robust efforts as the goalie in the staff hockey team, and for supplying tea and ginger biscuits and slightly risqué novel readings in her study for the sixth formers. (10) For a fifteen year-old like Mary, it was a little scary to be called to her office and given a letter ‘with the strict instruction to make sure that my mother knew about it, there was to be no underhand messing around with these sailor boys.’
Mary did tell her mother but I wonder how many of Jim’s letters to Norah were read by Marsie. The first few perhaps, but the saucier later ones would almost certainly have been stashed in her bedroom, hidden in a shoe box in the cubbyhole over the stairs.
(1) Joan Bakewell, All the Nice Girls (2009)
(2) Letter from Mrs Mary Belton, May 2012
(3) Interview with Mary Belton, Leicester, June 2012.
(4) Victoria Wood, Housewife 49 (2006). For Nella Last, see Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming (2006). For her original diaries, see the Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex http://www.massobs.org.uk/original_collections.htm
(5) James Hinton, Women, Social Leadership and the Second World War: Continuities of Class (2002)
(6) Loughborough Echo, 1940-1941
(7) Victoria Wood, Housewife 49 (2006)
(8) Philomena Goodman, ‘“Patriotic Femininity”: Women’s Morals and Men’s Morale During the Second World War’, Gender & History 10:2 (1998), 278-293, p. 278.
(9) Philomena Goodman, Women, Sexuality and War (2001); Lucy Noakes, War and the British: Gender and National Identity, 1939-91 (London: Bloomsbury, 1998); Sonya O. Rose, Which Peoples War? National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain (2003), Chapter 3.
(10) Loughborough High School 1850-2000, p.18.
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