My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
The Guardian this weekend carried a short article about a new book based on 500 letters sent between a young couple who met on a training course in London during the war. Bessie was a morse code operator and Christopher Barker was soon off to serve in the Royal Signal Corps, near Tobruk, in Libya. The two fell in love through their letter writing and within a few months were planning their wedding. My Dear Bessie: a Love Story in Letters made me ponder the intensity of wartime letter-writing and return afresh to Norah’s diaries at the start of her romance with Danny.
Letters feature prominently in Norah’s entries, but it is easy to miss them. In her rather sparse account of her first week at work in the Coal Office at the LMS Railway in Derby, for example, it was the men who jumped out at me on first reading:
[Tues] 6th October: Started work at LMS. Frank was passed grade II in medical exams and is going in Radiolocation. Posted my Danny’s letter.
8th: New soldiers arrived.
9th: Poured with rain all day. Colin Briers came on leave & said it was all around his camp that I worked at Derby.
10th: Ma came to Derby, so had lunch together at Boots. Saw Naval Officer like Danny.
11th [Sat half day]: Missed bus at dinner time by going down town, so arrived home at about 2 o’clock. Terribly disappointed because my Danny didn’t write.
[Mon] 13th October: Posted letter to Kathleen. No letter from my Danny Boy. Hundreds of WAAF on Platform 1. Made friends with boys in Night Office. Very foggy.
The new regiment that had arrived at Donington Park; the naval officer who reminds her of Danny; the suggestion by Colin Briers, a friend of her brother Frank, that her arrival in Derby had caused a stir; the attentions of the boys in the Night Office, one of whom, Norman, was soon wooing her with chocolate… It all seemed in keeping with Norah’s general giddiness that autumn, as she excitably embarked on her new life: a working girl, travelling daily to a new town, with a boyfriend in the RAF (see here).
Letters feature too. Four letters are mentioned in these six daily entries. Norah writes to Kathleen, her schoolfriend, and to Danny, of course. Twice she mentions her disappointment when his replies fail to arrive: No letter from my Danny Boy. Another week and we might see Norah corresponding with Jim, who has lost out romantically to his brother. Or we might see Marsie nipping into town to meet her daughter during her lunch hour, to share a meal at Boots or Midland Drapery and to hand over the letter from Jim or Danny that is tucked away in her handbag.
Danny’s first letter, written to thank Norah’s mother and father for their hospitality following his first visit in September 1941, is the only one from him that survives; the only one to escape the inferno when, burning his letters some ten years later in April 1952, Norah set the chimney alight. This letter must have been stored in some other place, not with the small pile that sat at the front of her dressing table drawer. It was probably discovered amongst Marsie’s possessions, when Norah cleared the house after her mother’s death in 1964.
16 September 1941
Dear Mr and Mrs Hodgkinson,
I wish to tender my sincere thanks to you all for the wonderful hospitality that you bestowed upon me. It was exceedingly fine and nice of you to welcome me to your home like you did, seeing I am quite a stranger, although you made me feel as though I was a son, and I appreciated it very much indeed.
It was a grand though short week end and the welcome I received will live in my mind forever, and I enjoyed myself exceedingly and I left Castle Donington with a hang in my heart.
The journey was a tedious and tiring one seeing it was between 9.30 to 10 pm when I arrived at camp but I never cared how long it took for I had the lovely memories of you all especially Norah.
When I left Norah at the station I sincerely hope the dear girl arrived home quite safely, it was very sweet of her to accompany me to the station, seeing it’s such a distance from home. I shall never forget our parting, it really made me sad to see Norah waving to me as the train was pulling out.
I arrived at Leeds just in time to catch the connection to Hull and this turned out to be a very slow train indeed and it arrived at Hull five minutes after the last train to Filey had left. There was such a huge crowd stranded on the station, so they decided to run a special, but it only went to Bridlington so we got transport to camp arriving at the above stated time.
Things here are still the same, no lights and no comfort but I leave on Friday morning so I haven’t got much longer to endure it.
Yesterday was spent on the Thompson Machine Gun, and we took down about ten pages of notes. Today we were on revolvers and we have been writing all day so I’ve had a terrific amount of notes to take down.
I’m sat in bed writing this by candlelight so please excuse writing as it’s very difficult to see and it’s a hard job to get in a comfortable writing position.
Norah was vastly different to what I imagined, in fact she was far above my already high estimation of her. I think she is a fine, well-mannered and sweet young lady, and a daughter to be proud of. Also she has the sense of a much older person, and I couldn’t help but take to her the first time we met.
Well dear friends there is very little to write about at the moment so I will have to draw to a close. Please convey my very best regards to Frank, Richard, your eldest daughter and little Jean, and not forgetting Norah, give her my very best, and my sincere wishes to yourselves. Hoping this finds you all enjoying the very best of health.
Hoping to see you all again very soon.
Thanking you from the bottom of my Heart.
This is a carefully crafted piece of writing. Danny’s thanks are a social courtesy, as he expresses his gratitude at being welcomed into the family home ‘as though I was a son’. He reflects on his visit, describes his long journey back to Filey, and details of his training – clearly discussed during his visit – in the two days that follow. Danny takes care to mention all members of the Hodgkinson family. I wonder how long Norah’s elder sister’s name was on the tip of his tongue, how many times he went through the alphabet, stumbling at H. maybe, before he gave up trying to bring it to mind.
The three mentions of Norah are carefully placed: it would be indecorous to gush about her too soon. He emphasises his concern for her safety, his appreciation of her manners and maturity, and focuses on a chaste wave, taking care not to hint at the passion that had passed between them moments before. I picture Danny lying on his cold bunk, tired from his lessons, pondering this paragraph by candlelight, making sure his choice of words was exactly right.
But the letter, we can assume, was addressed as much to Norah as to her parents. His comment about his long journey back to Filey – I never cared how long it took for I had the lovely memories of you all especially Norah – and his good wishes to all, not forgetting Norah – are for her eyes. She describes it as a sad and beautiful letter. The welcome he received at Moira Dale contrasted with the coldness and lack of comfort at camp, his hang heart on leaving, the memory of Norah waving him off etched on his memory. I shall never forget our parting.
Danny’s letter is about not only its contents, stylised and convention-bound as they might be. It invites Norah and her mother to compare him to his brother. Danny’s handwriting is neater than Jim’s, his phraseology more elegant. And then there is the fact of its materiality. The ink and paper themselves are a ‘bodily trace’ of the man Norah had kissed on Derby station a few short hours before.(1)
Danny’s letter crossed in the post with one to him from Norah. The polite letter to her parents will have done him no harm, but after this he is at liberty to write regularly to Norah herself. His sweet, lovely and beautiful letters arrive in quick succession. Some contain photographs and one a cutting titled ‘sweetheart’. 27th September 1941: Danny wrote me a beautiful letter. I think he loves me, anyhow I love him very much.
The waiting and receiving; the declarations of interest; the romance; the anxiety of wartime. All of this is heightened emotion is exacerbated by the telegrams Danny sends at Christmas and Norah’s birthday:
25th December 1941: Christmas Day. Received a beautiful Greetings Telegram from my love. Helen & Joe came for tea.
9th March 1942: My seventeenth birthday. Received letter from my Danny. Rich rang me up to say Danny had sent me a Greetings telegram.
Like so many couples brought together and separated by the war, it is through letters that Norah and Danny build their relationship.That they are important to Norah in clear from her 1942 Diary, where she transforms the accounts pages at the end into a grid to track Danny’s letters and her replies. This is all there is until Danny’s next visit to Moira Dale in April 1942.
Jim has faded away too, though he is waiting, quietly, in the wings.
(1) For the conventions and materiality of letters, see James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England: Manuscript Letters and the Culture and Practices of Letter-Writing, 1512-1635 (Palgrave, 2012). For the ‘bodily trace’, see William Merrill Decker, Epistolary Practices: Letter Writing in America Before Telecommunications (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), p. 38.
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