Of mice and men . . . Winifred’s war

She might sometimes have been hard to put up with but Winifred Challis – an often-lonely spinster renting a dismal flat and with mice for company – was the 1940s forerunner of a blogger. Her writings are a valuable record of local life during the war. STEVEN RUSSELL finds out about ‘Diarist 5271’

“KLEPTOMANIA. It is astounding what a terrific lot of stealing has gone on everywhere since the war started – people even steal pillow-cases from hotel beds, tables, jugs, cutlery, toilet rolls and towels. It is nearly like an epidemic, and if a sign of the times a very bad one. They steal electric light bulbs too . . .”

So wrote Winifred Challis in her diary one November Friday in 1942 – a chronicle that stretched over half a dozen years and recorded her observations about life on the home front.

There was a little comment about the progress of the conflict abroad, though not much. The middle-aged shorthand typist, working as a clerk to Suffolk’s public assistance committee, which helped poor people, was concerned mainly with matters closer to hand.

Historians say her thousands of words form a “perceptive commentary on the wartime scene – rationing, shortages, the often bleak texture of daily life, the sometimes disconcerting presence of outsiders in Bury [St Edmunds], but with various moments of satisfaction and pleasure”.

After the war, her diary lay in a university archive, but more than a dozen years ago it came to the attention of members of Suffolk Records Society. Now, a selection of her entries is being given a wider airing in the shape of a book – the latest in a series from the society that’s helping to explain how things used to be.

In her mid 40s – unmarried, childless and anxious about the future – Winifred Challis was living alone when she started her diary in 1942. Home was a Spartan two-room flat in Guildhall Street, Bury St Edmunds, with dim lighting and dirty wallpaper.

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It was rented from a local alderman who ran an ice-cream business. It had no electricity or gas – she burned paraffin in lamps and stoves – and she had to share a loo and water-tap downstairs.

Winifred’s curiosity had obviously been aroused by a project run by the research organisation Mass-Observation, which wanted to record everyday Britain. It was particularly keen to shine a light on aspects of life that had been largely ignored, such as jokes, pubs, football pools, people’s worries and even smoking habits.

In late 1942, then, Winifred became one of nearly 500 people to keep a special diary during the war.

The builder’s daughter was clever and astute, a spirited free-thinker, but also prone to introspection and gloom. While she could be forthright in her opinions about other people – some of her prejudices are a jolt to a 21st Century reader used to a more meritocratic and politically correct world – she could also condemn herself as a failure.

“There is certainly much that is personal, even idiosyncratic, in Winifred Challis’s diary. But – and this is crucial – it is not always inward-looking. For Winifred was, when she wanted to be, an excellent observer of life around her. She had a reporter’s eye for detail, a good grasp of some facts (though not of others), and a questioning mind; and she was a clear, vivid, and sometimes witty writer,” say Robert Malcolmson and Peter Searby, who edited the diaries for publication.

Our lady was born in February, 1896, in Doris Street, Newmarket – the oldest of eight children.

She was independent-minded and her leanings “were decidedly intellectual, and she would have received an academic schooling suited to her talents had she accepted her parents’ offer to pay her fees at Bury County School. However, whether from restlessness, perversity, or some other reason, she declined this opportunity, stayed in the elementary school and left it at thirteen”.

There were teenage fancies of becoming an artist or an authoress, and exploring the world, but – in her own words – she “just travelled round in a comparatively small circle as a shorthand typist, relieving the monotony by changing jobs, until it wasn’t so easy to get one [in the 1930s] and I found unemployment looming ahead . . .”

Such tribulations were “far worse than the lack of success in love affairs”.

Winifred probably had about 25 jobs between her early teens and mid-40s. Most were as a shorthand typist, but in the early 1930s she trained as a nurse. However, she worked in the profession for only a brief time and was later quite critical of nursing and its management.

In 1938 came something of a change, when Winifred opened a small office in Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, with the hope of securing typing work. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a very successful venture.

She returned to Suffolk – to Bury St Edmunds – in 1940. The town was the administrative heart of West Suffolk, during an era when the county was split in half, and some locals were having a tough time.

“There was much poverty in Bury and its neighbourhood, and some of the historic properties (such as Winifred’s house) were badly in need of repair,” points out the book.

In her diary, Winifred often weighed her life. “Until I went nursing, 1930-33, I revelled in facing life’, she wrote in May, 1945. “It was after I went to college in 1936-7 and came out to find myself too old to be accepted on the labour market as I was 40 that I became afraid.

“Tramping London looking for jobs with one’s capital evaporating takes the guts out of one, I suppose. Bexhill revived me a bit and then came the war with its badly paid jobs and its housing problems.

“I ought to have got about, given up these rooms, sold the furniture and somehow made some money, but I let the years of opportunity go lingeringly by without profit. Dreary, dark, imprisoned years.”

Winifred was also anxious about what happened after the war and her job returned to the man who had it before hostilities broke out. She felt her position in life was alarmingly insecure.

Later, at the age of 50, she wrote: “I know there is a superfluity of females, but some women could marry a dozen times a year, whereas the longest anyone ever tried to pay me attention was three weeks, and he was young and out of experience.

“As a female, nobody on earth could be a bigger failure! Fortunately I don’t want to get married now and prefer solitude. The period 19 to 30 was the worst, when I was self-conscious about being an ‘unwanted female’.”

Robert Malcolmson and Peter Searby say that while Winifred’s diary is full of such regret, there are also many times when she turns her eye on the wider world.

“These are entries where she portrays people in her workplace or in public places; where she recounts conversations both private and public; where she describes her everyday life and the everyday lives of others in Bury; and where she reports details concerning eating out in British Restaurants, diet, the behaviour of soldiers, rumours, prices and wages, health and illness, poverty and privilege, sexual mores, the lack of shelter, public meetings, and proposals for social reform.

“Sometimes, too, she offers informed opinions about a particular subject, such as housing. In these many passages she casts much light on everyday life in wartime Britain.”

Winifred’s role as clerk to the public assistance committee of West Suffolk County Council – paid, in 1942, a salary of �170 and a 6% wartime bonus – “gave her an inside view of many issues relating to wartime welfare and poor relief, and she writes a lot about them, not only as matters of administration and policy, but also in terms of the treatment and circumstances of life of specific distressed and disadvantaged individuals.

“Her job provided an excellent vantage point to record happenings that were largely unknown to outsiders – and she made good use of this unusual opportunity.”

In peacetime, she seems to have become healthier and more self-composed. “I don’t look at Bury St Edmunds with such distaste as I did,” she wrote in 1946. “I think the fact that the war is over and I am still in a job brings subconsciously a feeling of hope.”

She made a close male friend, though they were probably not lovers, suggest the editors. Winifred herself said: “I am not likely to be asked to marry, but the attraction is sufficient on both sides to make us want to be alone together as often as possible.”

In the summer of 1948 she became a secretary at Newmarket Hospital and moved to Burwell. Retirement in 1961 brought a move to a bungalow in Newmarket, designed by her architect nephew, Disliking cooking and owning a lot of books, she asked for a small kitchen and a large living room.

“In the early twenty-first century those of her kin who remembered her portrayed, in some respects, a person very different from the woman who revealed herself in her wartime diary, for she was recalled by them as a fundamentally happy elderly lady . . .

“She is remembered for her family parties, especially at Christmas when she served lavish quantities of home-made wine. Certain eccentricities stood out in their minds – she used up half-tins of paint on the walls of her bungalow which gave them a harlequin look, and she wore distinctly unfashionable clothes.”

The 94-year-old died in a nursing home in Cheveley, near Newmarket, in the autumn of 1990.

Robert Malcolmson and Peter Searby say that while the diarist’s observations “were usually coloured by her own sceptical and strongly-held opinions, many of which were not shared by a lot of her Suffolk acquaintances”, her entries are highly valuable.

“One of the merits of her writing is that she noticed and attached importance to incidents and attitudes that would probably have gone unnoticed by others. A more conventional diarist might well have been less engaging, less animated, less probing of accepted wisdom.”

Wartime in West Suffolk: The Diary of Winifred Challis, 1942-1943 is a Suffolk Records Society publication. It is published on July 19 by Boydell Press, at �35, but can be ordered now via www.boydellandbrewer.com

Dear Diary

Tuesday, November 3, 1942 (the first day of writing the diary): Since her husband joined the army my sister-in-law, a school-mistress, has decided to have a child. I suppose it is an instinct, possibly a good one, to have a child in case the father does not return. Personally I do not understand women with responsibilities and under present conditions retiring from the stress of life to have a baby – it seems rather selfish and rough luck on the baby; but then, I am a spinster.

November 5: I had lunch at Sudbury British Restaurant today. They do not serve soup as at Bury St Edmunds but they have a much more abundant supply of cabbages and the meal is more satisfying. I think this is in part due to the fact that Sudbury caters more for the poor and also each person gets about the same amount, whereas in Bury they look at you and decide how much to give according to your sex and size and whether you are still growing. I, therefore, being a woman aged 46, get less than most. It does not really matter, as I can always come home directly after and have something else if I wish.

Friday, November 6 (talking about the ruminations of the public assistance authority): The women on the committee realise what household expenses are and how much food costs, but most of the men know nothing about that and care less. We have a large number of retired army officers aged between 70 and 80 on this committee, and one of them says repeatedly that with free milk a baby costs nothing at all and the cost of living has not gone up.

Saturday, November 7: Amusing! The Archbishops have after all these centuries decreed that women need not wear hats in church.

Tuesday, November 24: I’ll really have to do something about my mice. They used to arrive after I put the light out, but now they come before. I can hear them now and last night I watched two very big fat ones wandering all about this room. I cover all food up but expect they come from house to house all along the street, and it’s not much use looking for holes when there’s about an inch of space (two inches or three inches in the case of the front street door) underneath each door to give them entrance.

Thursday, December 10: Papers continue to say that Hitler has decreed the massacre of the Jewish race. It seems unbelievable. I wonder if it is our propaganda, or if it really is happening. I quite believe many are getting massacred, but I can’t understand any government deliberately ordering it. It makes the killing of the First-Born in the hope of killing the baby Jesus appear quite a trivial pastime.

Wednesday, December 16: A plane has just gone over – very noisy and I fancy the lowest that has ever passed over this house during my occupation. Only one plane, I think. We had an air-raid warning at 2am today but I slept through it . . .

I am not often nervous and this old house gets all sorts of bumps and bangs and shakings when traffic passes or the wind blows or one walks across the floor or somebody shuts a door downstairs or in the street, but during the last few minutes (it is now 10.20 pm) two very big shocks rattled the door of this room.

Probably it is a rough night – there are lesser noises too – but that door shook much as one did at Staines when bombs were dropped ten minutes’ walk distant, and also much as it did when a land mine was dropped ten miles or so away in a field. The siren has not gone – a plane is droning overhead – I’ll find out tomorrow if anything did fall anywhere.

Monday, January 18, 1943: I believe the Russians are making good headway against the Germans. I never follow details of the war as I find details gory and unpleasant and I’ve not the least idea of the towns the Russians have recaptured, but I like to know the broad outline of what is happening.

If we had captured Rome, for instance, or started to fight Spain, I’d like to know it, but how it was done wouldn’t interest me in the slightest. I don’t know one aeroplane from another and I’ve no idea at all how to distinguish a lieutenant from any other officer.

If a uniform looks strange I conclude the wearer is an American, but he might equally well be a Czech, or an Austrian, or anybody else of the white races.

Tuesday, May 8 (Victory in Europe Day): At 9.30 tonight several of us [from the Forces Study Group] went along to the Angel Hill (in Bury St Edmunds). Such a crowd, and the Angel Hotel illuminated with red, white and blue fairy lamps. Dancing going on and all the children in the town dancing or in perambulators or on arms . . .

Nancy [Roberts, Auxiliary Territorial Service] wanted to see the Abbey Gardens illuminations under the mistaken idea that they were fireworks. The fairy lamps, however, were very pretty among the greenery. The Gardens were thronged with people . . .

Thursday, May 10: Suppose I can wash my last bit of blackout, though the attic may be glad of it occasionally. No good doing anything to the house or having wireless put on now, as of course I may be leaving at any time for my unknown destination on the dole. Brave new world!

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