Compelling diary reveals what life – and love – was really like for the young women on the home front during Second World War
May Smith in 1940
At the outbreak of the Second World War, May Smith was a 24-year-old teacher living with her parents in a village in Derbyshire. In this extract from her diary, she provides a compelling snapshot of a time of great uncertainty and everyday struggles with rationing, travel – and love
Tuesday 28 November 1939
A new wartime diary, so goodness knows what dark and dreadful doings will fill these pages yet unwritten. Wartime – yet so far not so very different from peacetime, except for the blackout, earlier closing of school, wireless bulletins and the appearance of uniform in almost every public place.
I expect we shall begin to feel the pinch more when rationing begins on 8 January. Thank goodness our Christmas dinner won’t be stinted!
May, her neighbour Mrs Tweed and friend Delia, 1938
Teatime and in sailed Mrs Tweed [May’s neighbour] talking as she came and sustaining the flow as long as she remained. She proceeded to eat a hearty meal. She was vicariously thrilled when old friend Frederic rang up to invite me to the flicks. She giggled like a flapper and fondly imagined I felt the same. But I agreed to go merely for a free trip. How selfish! Quite the wrong spirit!
Saturday 2 December 1939
in this here war is just about the last word in Refined Torture. To get
to Burton, once so simple, is now a Herculean task and one must combine
the patience of Job with the frame of a prize fighter and the tenacity
of a bulldog.
To be timid, polite and unselfish is
fatal. One must either park oneself in front of the hardest and most
savage looking pusher, or else jostle, elbow, poke, manoeuvre and
otherwise propel oneself forcibly forward until the goal is reached, via
the first step of the bus. This done, one can reassume one’s better
nature, eye the jostling throng with surprise and proceed with dignity
down the bus.
wireless prayed solemnly and devoutly for the children, and the
blessings of innocence. Could have made acid and caustic comment, but
Saturday 27 April 1940
a jaunt to Derby and bought some cream shantung for a tennis dress. The
refrain from the assistants was – Prices Going Up, Material Scarce, Buy
Thursday 16 May 1940
Miss Harvey [a fellow teacher] asked me dramatically if I’d heard aeroplanes in the night. She related a confidential tale about bombers over Derby last Saturday, and Hitler’s new nerve gas in Holland.
The greatest battle in the history of the world is in progress, says the Minister for Information, and we must expect bad news as well as good. The wireless announcer issued a warning to motorists re parachutists, and advised them to put their car out of action at night. Oh dear! I must deflate my bicycle tyres before retiring – they would probably welcome a bicycle!
May (front right) after a tennis match with friends
Monday 20 May 1940
A glorious day – except for the news which is still serious, still violent fighting going on, the Germans pushing forward. Had another air raid practice and had to shunt all the children on to the street once more. Delia and I jaunted along to tennis. Had a set with Freddie and lost, and Freddie got me a lemonade while he drank a glass of beer to my open disgust.
Sunday 23 June 1940
Reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Haven’t done much reading at all lately – just can’t settle down with a book. Have to be doing something. And on the move – whanging balls about or racing across the tennis court. Everything is so uncertain and so unsettled – one can’t even look or plan a week ahead. It’s just a case of living hopefully from one day to the next.
Tuesday 25 June 1940
Oh what a long and weary day! Hardly had we retired to our slumbers sweet than the unnerving wail of the sirens broke the silence of the night. Fumbled in the dark for my dressing gown and little case, so thoughtfully packed, stumbled downstairs, grabbed the gas masks and trekked up to grandma’s. Halfway there my case flew open and I had to grovel on the ground redeeming the contents. Found later that I had also collected an empty cigarette packet.
We were let in by Mr Skerritt [the lodger] who in groping for his torch had put his fingers in the mousetrap. Then we proceeded as before, but with cushions this time, to the cellar and had to wait there two hours. We heard the muffled explosion of three bombs and the enemy planes overhead and shook like jellies. Then all was silent so we decided to go upstairs. After a total wait of three hours the all-clear sounded and unnerved us again. We thought it was the alarm sounding once more. Drank tea and then retired to bed about 4am.
From left: A clothing ration book, and front-page coverage of the Battle of Britain, 7 September 1940; ten days later, Hitler postponed plans to invade Britain
Wednesday 17 July 1940
Went to a meeting of billeting officers at 6.30. 1,200 more B’ham children expected any day. The usual dilly-dallying and silly questions so I left before it was all over at 7.30. Hitler is to invade us next Friday, say the papers.
Friday 17 January 1941
Our kind friends at Derby have been racking their brains for further work for us. A neatly worded circular arrives today informing us that we are to include Fire Watching in our duties. Huh! If they make me fire watch I shall encourage the bally bombs to fall and burn out their precious edifice. We hold an indignation meeting and I hold a further one when I get home.
Wednesday 26 February 1941
The faithless Fred has at last abandoned me. Huh! What a cheek! Still I can manage very well without him. Then when I return from midweek service at church with mother am staggered by a phone call from the false Fred to ask ‘how I am’. Retort curtly, ‘All right’. He declares that he has been ‘very busy’ having interviews trying to get himself into uniform. He has hopes of being taken in by the RAF as a weather forecaster. But he’ll see me before he goes. How nice!
Saturday 12 July 1941
Shattering news reaches my ears today. Freddie divides his time between me and another. He writes to her and had tea with her in Derby when he was last over! And only this morning I received a note from him saying he’ll be home on Monday night and will I go to tennis on Tuesday and be there by 6. He ends ‘I’m very much looking forward to seeing you again.’ Huh! Probably my rival is booked on Tuesday evening.
Sunday 27 July 1941
Yank myself off in muslin frock and bolero – no coat or hat – to Nuneaton to cast a ray of sunshine into the life of dear Freddie. He is waiting on the platform and tells me I look pale (with excitement I presume). We get to his digs just after four and have tea almost immediately. His landlady is awfully nice and shows me round the garden afterwards and the air-raid shelter. Freddie then exhibits his notebooks on meteorology, for he hopes to work in weather forecasting, but am not keen as it brings us into too close proximity. Happily it is almost time for the bus.
Bomb-damaged houses in Derby, 1941
Tuesday 29 July 1941
Dull and gloomy. However, a feeble glimmer of sun appears about teatime and I trustfully get ready for tennis. Then it grows duller and duller and about 5.40 it starts to rain. Mr Harris [a neighbour] appears, stating with undue optimism that it is getting brighter and he thinks we will be able to play. Disagree silently. Halfway there the rain turns into a vicious squall. Mr Harris discards his usual sarcastic vein and begins to dish out the flattery.
He says it’s a wonder a nice girl like me hasn’t been snapped up (oh, lor’). Tell him with dignity that I have no intention of being snapped up but would rather choose (this very optimistic of me!). From this he becomes quite eloquent and says I’m streets in front of anyone not only in looks but in disposition (nearly ask him if he wants to borrow something). In fact he says largely, if he were not already married, he’d have a jolly good try himself. Can find no reply to this so merely say he would be very foolish then.
Monday 29 September 1941
Grandma’s birthday but not much to buy her because a) she can’t eat anything b) I’m hard up and c) no coupons for anything wearable.
Decide to buy grapes later on when her present ones are exhausted. A mouldy sort of day. My class are an awful tempestuous crowd. Find myself snarling and snapping. Would hate to hear myself. Am sure I sound most objectionable.
Wednesday 5 November 1941
In the old days this would have been the signal for bangs and cracks, flames and stars and shooting rockets and bonfire toffee. But now even the smallest unscreened light brings a fine of 30 shillings or 2.
May (front left) with fellow members of staff at Springfield Road School, Swadlincote, 1940
Friday 19 December 1941
All women between 20 and 30 to be called up but with a few exceptions, school teaching being one. Break up, three loud and prolonged cheers!
Postscript Born in 1914 in Swadlincote, Derbyshire, May taught at the local junior school. After marrying in 1944 she took a break from teaching and had two children. She returned to the school in the mid-60s, retiring in 1975. After her death in 2004 her son Duncan Marlor inherited her diaries and decided to publish them; he felt sure that his mother wanted them to be read and her generation’s story to be told.
This is an abridged extract from These Wonderful Rumours! A Young Schoolteacher’s Wartime Diaries by May Smith, to be published by Virago on 1 November, priced 14.99. To order a copy for the special price of 12.99, with free p&p, contact the YOU Bookshop on 0843 382 1111, you-bookshop.co.uk