Socks for the Boys!

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

Norah’s 1941 photograph


20th September 1941: Photos from Winter’s arrived. Sent Danny one.

 Norah’s visit to W.W. Winter, a professional photographer on Midland Road, Derby, was her second attempt to acquire a decent photograph of herself in the late summer and autumn of 1941. She had visited a different studio in August but was unhappy with the result (‘just horrid’). So she took herself off to Winter’s, the oldest and most established studio photographer in town.

W.W.Winter in Derby Photo: ITV News Central

W.W.Winter in Derby
Photo: ITV News Central

Winter’s photograph – the one I have used for the banner for this blog, the one that will hopefully be the main image on the front cover of my book – lies in front of me on my desk. Norah half sits, half leans against a high bench. She is wearing a dark dress, belted to the waist, with a pleated skirt, short sleeves, a white collar and four white buttons from the neck. Her dark – dyed? – hair is bobbed to just below her ears and, with a deep side parting, is gripped and gently waved. Her face is open and symmetrical and her eyebrows darkened and shaped, like an actress. She has not yet affected the impassive movie-star gaze of her 1944 polyfoto, the one we all have on our mantelpieces. She smiles at the camera.


Norah, 1941

Norah, 1941

Norah, 1944.

Norah, 1944

The adventure that was Norah’s life in the autumn of 1941 allows me to see this first photograph differently. She had finished school in July after sitting her exams for the Oxford School Certificate and on 1st September, the postman had delivered her results, a respectable clutch of credits (Art, Domestic Science, English Language and French), passes (Arithmetic, Biology and Geography) and just the one fail (Shakespeare, a surprise to me). The next day, Norah received a letter from the L[ondon] M[idland] S[cotland] Railway headquarters in Derby, inviting her for a job interview. She spent Sunday 7th doing ‘a bit of swotting’ and the following morning traveled into town, accompanied by her mother, her sister Helen and baby niece Jeannie, meeting them for lunch in the Arboretum in between her morning exam (‘not very nice’) and her medical in the afternoon. There is no sense of Norah being on tenterhooks; she appears to take it all in her stride.

By the end of September, when the photograph arrived, Danny had been and gone. His thank you letter to Marsie and Pop – the one surviving letter from an otherwise silent Danny – had just arrived. Norah had been offered a job in the LMS Coal Office. She was preparing for her new life, filling in the necessary forms to receive her Trent bus pass and shopping with Marsie to buy a ‘lovely coat’. She gives no details, but with a few months before Utility clothing becomes de rigeur, I imagine shoulder tucks and knee-length pleats. Was it now that Norah boxed away her red and white school scarf and beret, the Oxford Local Examination papers, her handful of snaps of teachers and school-friends and the 1941 school photograph, carefully scrolled inside its hard cardboard ring? I know where she’ll have stored them: in the cubby hole in the corner of her bedroom above the stairs, where she is safe-keeping her growing pile of letters from Danny and Jim.

So: Winter’s photograph arrives on 20th September and Norah promptly sends a copy to Danny, but not, despite his many weeks of pleading, to Jim. Poor Jim. He and Norah had already exchanged snaps. She had sent him the 1939 photograph of herself as a bridesmaid, prompting him to address his next letter to ‘Dearest Dimples’.

Norah, 1939.

Norah, 1939

He had sent Norah various photographs of himself and his family members, which he asked her to return. I am impressed by the trust involved in these exchanges: photographs were expensive and were enclosed with a letter, not for keeps, but to create a bond.

Norah’s initial decision to have her photograph taken professionally will have been made with Jim in mind. He had asked her for a schoolgirl snap, or for any nice picture to keep, telling her that ‘my writing box looks rather bare without a girl’s photo’. (In the same letter, dated 12th April 1941, Jim also requested a lock of her hair: ‘it is a common thing in our ship and I would like to be in fashion’.) Like the many newly working girls in the interwar and early war years, Norah ‘commissioned’ this portrait. She had already exerted her ‘consumer rights’, rejecting an earlier unsatisfactory image. She will, of course, have thought carefully about how to represent herself: what to wear, how to do her hair, which parts of herself to show off (those eyebrows!), how to smile. As Penny Tinkler has written, although it is difficult to tell how much control Norah (or any sitter) had over how she was depicted, her self-presentation may well have been chosen from a catologue containing ‘a gendered choice of looks’.(1) Such photographs served ‘identity purposes’ and were crucial in the process of ‘girl-making’.(2)

But by 20th September, Norah had been in love for all of one day and it was Danny that she was keen to impress.

(1) Penny Tinkler, Using Photographs in Social and Historical Research (London: Sage, 2013), p. 38.

(2) See Penny Tinkler, ‘A fragmented picture: reflections on the photographic practices of young people’, Visual Studies, 23:3, (2008), 255-266. See also her Using Photographs in Social and Historical Research (London, 2013).

I am indebted to Penny Tinkler for her stern but concerned and correct warning against using photographs of Danny and Jim in this blog or in talks and papers! See Using Photographs in Social and Historical Research, Chapter Ten, for discussion of these issues. More on this and other ethical considerations in a future post.

I would like to dedicate this post to the memory of our friend, Richard Hanson (1968-2014), a wonderful photographer and a very lovely man. For Richard’s stunning photography, see here and here.


2 comments on “Norah’s 1941 photograph

  1. smorrison78704
    October 14, 2014

    Reblogged this on Home Front Girl and commented:
    Norah, an English girl experiencing WWII on the home front in England, gets photos taken of herself. As I’ve discovered in Joan’s diary, photos are key for sharing my mom’s story and visualizing the past.

  2. Pingback: A letter from Danny | Socks for the Boys!

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