Marielle Bennett and Mass-Observation
Only two decades after the end of the First World War, which had caused so much devastation and death, German aggression again drew Britain into a major military conflict. The Second World War, though, would go on to involve nations across the globe, and be considered as the deadliest conflict in human history. Despite the global nature of the war, Britain with its political centre as ever in London, was very much a dominant and central force, as well as a major military target - just as it had been in the earlier war.
It is no wonder that so many individuals uprooted from normal life and turned into active participants of war, living in adversity and close to killing and destruction, should have chosen to try and record the extraordinary things happening to and around them. There are, thus, many published diaries specifically about the Second World War, and even today, more than 65 years later, newly found or edited war diaries are popular publishing ventures. Only a relatively small number, though, were written in London - but, unlike diaries set in the city during peaceful years, all or most of the Second World War diaries do have much to say about the city itself.
Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat now largely remembered for his diaries, was in London during the war, and his diary - The Siren Years - is witty and readable. Anthony Weymouth, a physician who also worked for the BBC, gives a detailed but far dryer account in his Journal of the War Years. Frances Partridge, one of the Bloomsbury Set, published her diary under the title A Pacifist’s War. Colin Perry was just a lad, but his Boy in the Blitz, first published in 2000, is a lively, youthful take on London during 1940.
One of the most well-known of Second World Diaries, although not published until the 1980s, is that by Nella Last, a housewife in Barrow-in-Furness. Last was one of 500 or so individuals who responded to a call by the social research organisation Mass-Observation to write about their lives. It had been launched in 1937 to record life in Britain, ‘an anthropology of ourselves’, according to the founders. With little funding, it relied on volunteers to keep diaries or reply to open-ended questionnaires. Researchers also recorded, anonymously, people’s conversations and behaviour at work, in public places, and at sports and religious events.
Mass-Observation worked throughout the war producing thousands of reports and a series of published books. After the war, its emphasis shifted away from social issues towards consumer behaviour, and, in 1949, Mass Observation was registered as a limited company, and eventually incorporated into an advertising firm. The Mass Observation Archive is now held at the University of Sussex, and holds all the material generated between 1937 and 1949, with a few later additions, from the 1950s and 1960s. The project was re-launched in 1981, and today continues to collect information aimed at providing a structured programme through which ‘ordinary’ people can write directly about their lives, and at creating ‘a resource of qualitative longitudinal social data’.
Nella Last’s diary written for Mass-Observation was exceptional because of the quality of her writing, its editors said at the time of publication, but also for the length and regularity of Last’s writing. In fact, many of the diaries delivered to Mass-Observation were bitty and intermittent in character, and only very few have been published. While Last’s is not set in London, there is at least one published Mass-Observation diary that is: Love & War in London by Olivia Crockett, billed as London’s answer to Nella Last.
Another London diary in the Mass Observation Archive - but unpublished - was written by Marielle Bennett. As with Crockett’s diary, Bennett’s is also a blend of private feelings mixed with her reactions to the war and its effect on people and places. It opens in August 1939 with sporadic entries until October, and restarts in the summer of 1940 for a couple of months. The following year, she writes to Mass-Observation: ‘I have been very slack. . . however I will make a fresh attempt starting from this month.’ She restarts in May 1941 for a few weeks. There are also a few entries in 1942, 1946 and 1947.
Not much is known of Bennett, other than that revealed in her Mass-Observation diary. The start of the war finds her living with her parents at 53 Upper Park Road, NW3; but, by the middle of 1941 she is staying out of London near Barnet. She was separated from her husband in the mid-1930s, and in 1940 reverts to her maiden name (Vaughan). She calls herself an actress, though there is a little evidence in the diary of her working, at least until after the war, though she does visit, and write about, the theatre often. In the spring of 1941, Bennett’s grandmother dies, and thereafter many pages of the diary relate to her efforts to sell or trade her grandmother’s jewellery and clothes/furs.
From the start of the diary, Bennett shows an interest in psychology. She attends some ‘brilliant lectures’, but then, having decided to try and train as a psychiatric social worker becomes very depressed when trying to analysis herself. She abandons her training for a while, but returns to studying books at home, and making weekly visits to a therapist. She makes the acquaintance of various people who have known Jung or Freud, and in June 1941 becomes much more serious about her therapy, taking a more intensive series of sessions with her analyst, often thinking about her dreams, and doing ‘psychic paintings’.
There is a persistent sense in Bennett’s diary that she is writing for an audience (i.e. Mass-Observation, to whom she sends what she calls ‘reports’) not only because of the occasional comment such as ‘Sorry this report is so trivial but nothing of importance has happened to me,’ but also because of a vague sense, here and there, of her making an effort to provide information and observations. Nevertheless, on reading the diary, one feels very close to her, as though one is there with her, making curtains out of black satin, having trouble finding suitable clothes to wear in the air-raid shelter, and being frustrated that she no longer wants to go to the cinema because all the films are ‘only slightly covered propaganda’.
Mother bought many yards of black satin
1 September 1939
Walked over the heath and saw the balloon barrage etc. Help my parents to put up rolls of brown paper and tape for the black out. Does not prove to be very successful.
2 September 1939
Mother bought many yards of black satin, which we made into curtains all the after noon, which proved to be more satisfactory, but really hate all the preparation and found it very wearisome. Not that quite a number of acquaintances seem to be enjoying themselves, the sense of responsibility and having something to do seems to make them feel more important. [. . .] Went to the cinema, difficult to get home in the dark.
3 September 1939
Hear the Chamberlain speech out of my window from a neighbouring wireless. Do not listen after I hear we are at war. The air-raid warning came as rather a surprise. Did the proscribed things, closing windows etc. Mother worried because my father is driving some greyhounds to the country and she did not know where he was. However all is over.
Gas masks; the cost of stockings
30 September 1939
I met my friend, who is at present touring in a comedy, we did some shopping. I discovered that stockings are up 1/-, my usual 3/11 cost 4/11. The colours were not good either and little selection. The assistant told me that their usual 1/6½ ones will soon be sold at 2/11 and are not fashioned (fully). [. . .]
After tea I went with my family to the pictures. I carried a gas mask for the first time as I did not know whether I could get in the films and I knew my father would not want me to have a long argument, which I should have done had I been alone. The films were “Hound of the Baskervilles” and another with Jackie Cooper and Freddie Bartholomew. Very patriotic and upholding of the military tradition in American. Very obvious and silly film, I thought.
1 October 1939
At six I went over to a friend’s flat in Westminster. The bus was slow. Noticed an ARP warden on duty outside the flats. Walked over to Chelsea via the embankment to see an acquaintance. She said she was hoping to go to Rumania for the Quakers to help with the refugee problem. Had dinner. Was told of a young man who has decided to join up because he cannot bear the thought of carrying a civilian gas mask down Oxford Street! Had a bottle of claret and went to bed.
How little meat one gets at Maison Lyons
3 October 1939
Noticed what little meat one gets nowadays in the 1/6 luncheon at Maison Lyons. Was telephoned by a pacifist friend who invited me to a meeting.
4 October 1939
Went to the hair dresser. The shop was so quiet, I was there four hours and only saw two other customers. The head man has been called up for the Territorials. The second who did my hair said “I was going to join the navy, but my girl doesn’t want me to, she says let the others go first.” Then he said his parents want him to return to S. Africa where he can get a job. He said “supposing the U Boats get me?” and remarked that he would hate to leave all his friends as he has been here many year.
7 October 1939
I stayed in most of the day and refused to go to the cinema with my parents. I have decided not to go to this form of entertainment while it continues to be only slightly covered propaganda. I’d prefer to keep my money and see a theatrical show. For the most part thank God the theatre is still fairly free.
Not all shows are musicals or comedies YET
13 October 1939
Went to “Music at Night”. The Westminster was fairly full. In the programme the management appealed for support and good attendances otherwise they will be “One of the war’s first casualties.” Excellent show, do not think they will have to worry. But getting home was awful, pouring with rain and so few buses. However it was worth it to me. I noticed a good many uniforms in the audiences, women as well as men. I do not know whether this is the type of play appreciated during war time, but it was certainly gratifying to know that all shows are not musicals or comedies YET.
14 October 1939
Noticed a local shelter has been pulled down and is being rebuilt. Spoke to a tobacconist who said the heath is ruined now owing to the trenches and guns etc.
Air-raid suits going out of fashion
26 August 1940
Start out with the intention of buying an air-raid suit for me. First we went to Bournes but they had nothing I liked. Then to Dickens and Jones who had the very thing at 41/2 guineas but we could not afford more than 2. Then to Swan and Edgars where they were horrible, trying to be very feminine instead of tailored, bits of fur and coloured scalves hanging about. Then to Weiss in Shaftesbury Avenue. The sales girl said they had gone out of fashion and most women prefer trousers and a sweater now. They had nothing suitable either. Some terrible things like striped pantaloons at 16/11. Eventually, rather hot and cross, I made up my mind to give up the idea and buy something else with the money.
28 August 1940
Called for Mother and we went together to Victoria and picked up tickets for the matinee of “Cornelius” Had lunch at Zeeta’s, service very slow, think the girls are inexperienced and overworked. The theatre was a superb show. Beautifully produced and the type casting excellent. In fact I have not enjoyed anything so much for ages. The audience was pathetically small and had to applaud like mad.
Bombs in Kentish Town, Kilburn and Fitzjohns Avenue
29 August 1940
Heard from the charwoman that Kentish Town got a bomb. That accounted for the noise being so near. Also heard that Smiths factory at Cricklewood had got some. Charwoman said that everyone “turned as white as a sheet.” Her husband will watch from the doorway but when she goes near he has “a fit”.
30 August 1940
After a quiet night I went up to Hampstead in the morning to order a new book that Priestly recommended on the wireless “The End of Economic Man”. [. . .] Father rang up [. . .] he had heard that our district had been bombed. However he said Fitz Johns Avenue had shattered windows, we did not verify this.
31 August 1940
Hear that Kilburn has been bombed. Stay in for first warning. I set off to meet a friend, but first took some old silver to a place where they buy metal for Spitfires, at first the man only offered me 2/3, I protested as it was 4 pieces. [. . .] Eventually we compromised and I took 9/-. I believe he would have gone to 10/- but I did not persuade him. He said he would lose over the deal. I bet he does!! He said he was going to close the shop next week as he does not like the raids and he thinks they are going on indefinitely. He was a lively old man and I liked him. he told me to get out of Hampstead on account of the Jewish refugees as Hitler would be after them. [. . .]
‘Dirty swine, everyone ought to be killed’
Met my best friend - an actress is who now married and just about to give birth. I am to be the godmother. We intended to go to coffee and then a doctor in Queen Anne’s Street, but we had just met when the warning went, as were in Evans, we sheltered there. Very comfortable. The first shelter I’ve been in. My friend varnished her nails most of the time [. . .]
Went to the Hollyrood and had two lagers. Telephoned another friend and then the sirens sounded again. We could not get back into the pub so we chased along Oxford Street to the Horseshoe where we went down the dive and had another and waited for the all clear. I went to the lavatory then, to find the attendant, a woman about 50, in an uproar. “Dirty swine, everyone ought to be killed, they are not fit to live. We ought to have killed them after the last war. Inhuman devils.”
4 September 1940
The pub was in uproar, because a very familiar figure - a man of about 40 - who I have often seen there came in in battle uniform of a private. Everyone teased him saying “Nice bit of stuff” and things like that. He seemed to think that nothing fitted him at all, and said his boots must have been worn in the evacuation of Dunkirk.
The whole of our street cordoned off
5 September 1940
Our char woman came today. She was very amused because a whole lot of children were shut in an air-raid shelter whether yesterday or the day before. “You could ‘ear the kids screaming fit to bust theirselves.” At last they were rescued by the warden, who must have inadvertently shut them in.
9 September 1940
The whole of [our] street was cordoned off [after a bomb in the night] and people from outlying districts came and peered over the ropes at us as though we were exhibits. We ourselves had to either tell the police when we left home that we should be returning in a few minutes, or else we had to produce our identity cards. We had huge squads of demolition workers to pull down the remains of the house [no 54], and the occupants who seemed to have either been away at the time or to have escaped with slight injuries stood outside and collected all the things that were still “collectable”, clothes were tied up in bundles and taken off. Of course nothing was much good from 54, but the house next door 56 was not quite so badly damaged. A baby and its parents usually live in that house but luckily had spent the night on the opposite side of the street and had not been injured. Some children had cuts and I saw several people walking round with cuts and bandages. I went up the street to post a letter and the demolition men must have taken a dislike to me in my trousers and one called out “Pleased with yourself aren’t you?” Which rather upset me, as altho’ I am terribly pleased to have escaped so narrowly, I am awfully sorry for the other people. Still perhaps I do look pleased with self. I hope not!
Mum nearly caught in trial gas attack
8 May 1941
We are now sleeping out of London and returning every day. We started to do that from April 17th after the heavy raid on London.
21 May 1941
Went into west end. Had an appointment with a psychologist with whom I am studying analytical psychology.
24 May 1941
I came home for lunch and then Mother went to Kentish Town to buy some things. She could not get any emerald green sating ribbon for a new night gown I am making. On her way back she was nearly caught by a trial gas attack the ARP had organised at the end of this road. She had no gas mask and they were laying out the people who had gone out without gas masks on the pavement as though they were casualties.
News full of aeroplanes and guns and ships
30 May 1941
Won at darts. Have done so for several evenings. My father’s greyhound came in second in the rerun for the Wembley Gold cup. It came in first in the first run. Very disappointing. One of the last dogs turned round and ran in the wrong direction causing the judges to ask for a rerun. The race was broadcast and naturally we were very excited when it won [on the first run]. Still second wasn’t bad, but hard luck on my father.
2 July 1941
Went to the films with my people and saw “Kipps” which I thought very good, and thank god not about the war. I got so fed up with all the propaganda we had to sit thro’ first. MOI film about WAAFs and another about Merchant ships and the news just full of aeroplanes and guns and ships.
Giving the boys something to look at
5 July 1941
A WAAF friend of mine telephoned that she was in Paddington waiting to go through to another depot. [. . .] I was in my bath when I got the message, but I dressed and hurried to Paddington in very quick time and we had a drink or two at The Norfolk Hotel, and she told me what terrible head aches she has had since she went on the gas course a fortnight ago. We went up to the services cloak room in Paddington Station and I was amused to find the room literally covered in photographs cut from Magazines like “Lilliput” of nude women. The cloak room attendant said it “gave the boys something to look at.”
21 July 1941
Had several conversations with people who expressed the opinion that “life isn’t worth living now”. Complaints about money, food queues, lack of cigarettes, and rationing of clothes seemed to abound.
23 July 1941
Then we went to see ‘Blythe Spirit’ which is one of the best productions I have ever seen. Margaret Rutherford as the medium was superb. I do not know when I have seen a more amusing and yet realistic characterisation. I could go over and over again and not get bored with that show. My friend saw a man come into one of the boxes towards the end of the play and look around at the audience intently and then make a great show of lighting a cigarette. She said it must have been Noel Coward as no one else would do it quite like that but I was too interested in the play to worry about the author! After that we went to get tea at The Prompt Corner only to find it closed. I was not surprised at that as all the places I hope to find seem closed. Eventually we got some at a nasty little cafe in Charing Cross.