I’ve enjoyed family history researching for many years but like lots of people eventually came to a full stop after following up the births, deaths, marriages, occupations and addresses of even the most distant relatives. I turned my attention to the various documents, photographs and memorabilia that had accumulated in the loft as grandparents and parents had died and I spent many happy months researching the background to an old diary and photograph collection that my dad had kept during World War II.
Eventually this diary became my first ebook and was published as I Think I Prefer the Tinned Variety: The Diary of a Petty Officer in the Fleet Air Arm during World War II. I was thrilled and delighted with the reception the book received from family and friends and amazed that so many strangers wanted to read it. I think my dad, who died in 1978 aged just fifty four years, would have been even more amazed.
My mum also kept a diary during the early months of 1947 and I looked at this speculatively to see if it offered any scope for research. It was very different to the diary my dad kept: his had described his experiences when sent by the Royal Navy out to West Africa aged only nineteen years and a year later to a Pacific Island as part of the British Pacific Fleet in the war against Japan. Although in many ways his diary was an account of mundane and banal events in the everyday life on an air base it had the excitement of the unusual locations and foreign travel to give it lots of interest. The diary my mum (Doreen Buckle) had kept in 1947 was also an account of the banal and everyday but it was firmly rooted in a mining village in South Yorkshire. I wasn’t sure there was much I could do with it. However when I was writing I Think I Prefer the Tinned Variety I’d really enjoyed researching the background and had found out all sorts of interesting information about, amongst other things, the Fleet Air Arm, the development of radar, the history of Sierra Leone and the British Pacific Fleet which enhanced my own understanding and added to the interest of the book.
I looked at Doreen’s diary again to see if it could help me explore life in that immediate post-war period. As I studied Doreen’s diary I began to see how I could use some of the entries to provide a focus for an investigation into aspects of everyday life in the Britain of 1947.
Doreen died many years ago when she was in her fifties but it was fascinating to read her adolescent diary entries which recorded the usual teenage preoccupations: clothes; hair; family; friends; and boys. However what the diary also inadvertently contained were insights into the post–war era that has come to be known as Austerity Britain. I was struck by what my mum had written on 9th February 1947: “Snow! Potatoes very short.” I thought this encapsulated everything I knew about that period: terrible winter weather and food in short supply. In fact when I started looking into this, 1947 was the worst winter in Britain ever recorded up until then; and not only was food in short supply it was actually being rationed even more than it had been during World War II. Another entry that intrigued me was written on 4th January 1947: “Went to Leeds and got some smashing cool-ee joyce shoes.” I could not imagine what cool-ee joyce shoes were but eventually managed to find out that they were a range of very stylish footwear imported from the USA that were all the fashion at the time and highly prized. On 25th February Doreen wrote: “Stayed in at night and started re-knitting old jumper.” This reminded me of the famous phrase from the 1940s “Make Do and Mend” which has had quite a revival in recent years; clearly Doreen had learned the lesson well!
I decided to use some of the diary entries as my starting point for exploring the era. The diary is an account of the early months of 1947 from the personal perspective of a young woman aged just nineteen years who had grown up at a time of all out warfare and who like all her contemporaries had to start to come to terms with the peace. The diary entries are all very short, only a few words for each day and there is no description or analysis of what she was experiencing; she just states facts but occasionally she has noted something that made me think, “I wonder what that was all about?” or “Is there more to find out about that?” and that’s what I've started to do.
The diary itself is a promotional product for Clark’s Brewery in Wakefield (Yorkshire) where Doreen’s aunts had worked for many years. The Brewery has been brewing and wholesaling beer since 1905 and is still situated at 136, Westgate, Wakefield. It remains a family owned independent brewery and drinks distributor to this day. Presumably one of Doreen’s aunts had given her the diary and she’d filled many pages with her tiny, neat handwriting. The diary is very small (only 3inches x 2inches), bound in green leather and the paper is flimsy. She sometimes wrote in ink and the words remain easily decipherable but at times she used pencil and this, in places, has become smudged and difficult to read. The first pages include the usual sort of diary information pages we would find today and Doreen made her first entry on New Year’s Eve (December 31st 1946) when she records that she went to a party and had a “smashing time.” The next day she had to get up for work as usual as there were no Bank Holidays for New Year’s Day in 1947; these weren’t introduced until 1974!
So on 1st January 1947, Doreen records in her diary that she went to work and in the evening went round to see her friend, another Doreen, for a chat. “Doreen” was a popular name in that era; it means “gift of God” or “sullen” depending on which dictionary of names you consult but I think we’ll go with the former. Her friend Doreen features a lot in the diary but I doubt that the two young women had any idea when they were chatting that evening what the next few months had in store. 1947: what a year! As well as the on-going post-war trauma there would be the worst winter weather of the twentieth century to contend with; there would be rationing of petrol, potatoes, bread and just about everything else; there would be power cuts and make-do-and-mend; there would be the nationalisation of the coal mining industry, the “Cold War” would start and there would be the inauguration of the CIA; the violent birth of independent India and Pakistan would take place along with the partition of Palestine; the deaths of Al Capone and Henry Ford would be announced; the Marshall Plan would be created by the USA to try and improve the situation in post-war Europe; there would be a Royal Engagement quickly followed by a Royal Wedding; the “New Look” would be created by Christian Dior in Paris while “Utility” furniture would be the best that most people could hope to buy.