Excerpt: The View from the Corner Shop
A View From the Corner Shop is lively diary chronicling the ups and downs of running a grocery shop in a Yorkshire town during the rationing years of the Second World War. This extract will immerse you in a world long gone but never forgotten…
The war on the home-supplies front
A housewife considers her shopping in December 1941. Image via Find My Past
Kathleen Hey spent the war years helping her sister and brother-in-law run a grocery shop in the Yorkshire town of Dewsbury. From July 1941 to July 1946 she kept a diary for the Mass-Observation project, recording the thoughts and concerns of the people who used the shop.
Sometimes events take a comic turn. A lack of onions provokes outrage among her customers, and Kathleen writes, ‘I believe they think we have a secret onion orgies at night and use them all up.’
The Brooke Bond tea rep complains that tea need not be rationed at all if supply ships were not filled with ‘useless goods’ such as Corn Flakes, and there is a long-running saga about the non-arrival of Smedley’s peas.
Among the chorus of voices she brings us, Kathleen herself shines through as a strong and engaging woman who refuses to give in to doubts or misery and who maintains her sense of humour even under the most trying conditions.
The excerpt: Hardships, and Hopes, at Home
Monday, 13 July 1942
Bert came home this morning after we had received two postcards by the first post, one to say he had arrived and the weather was lovely, the other still praising the weather but saying he was coming back. As we surmised, the landlady, as is customary at Blackpool, had put him to sleep in the dining room, being an odd one, and he disliked the idea of going to bed last and rising first so decided to return to comfort. Margaret and I both chortled, particularly myself, who had spent a long, luxurious Sunday sitting in the garden. Margaret said she hoped to goodness that would settle him and he’d be content to stay at home. I thought of the crowds and crowds of daft folk there at Blackpool and then of the Russians, fighting, fighting, giving way step by step, inch by inch, and I wished that all those who can think of enjoyment at this hour would be at least uncomfortable enough to have it impressed on them that there is a war on.
Tuesday, 14 July 1942
Bert had a stiff tussle with Mrs C, in arrears with her weekly bill and rationing elsewhere this next period. Bert refused her rations and down she went to the Food Office but got little help there for they sent her back to try us again. So there was Mrs C alternating between the sulks and ‘acting gawmless’ [gormless, i.e., slow-witted] and Bert outraged because she has a husband working and a daughter getting a man’s wage. Her lame excuse for rationing elsewhere was that her daughter had to join up. ‘And,’ she burst out aggressively, ‘you never asked me if I weren’t rationing with you or where my books were or anything.’ ‘Don’t want to know,’ said Bert grimly. ‘I want my brass and if it’s not forthcoming I shall sue you.’ In the end he relented and allowed her rations for cash. But evidently he had put some fear into her for she turned up during the week with 10s off [her] account.
Sunday, 19 July 1942
Disheartened by the news and lack of faith in the Government, which has told us so many times that the tide would turn in 1942 and now we are told we are in peril again and the outlook is grim. We have a ‘save the bones’ campaign now. But why wasn’t it just as essential to save bones and shipping space two years ago?* Auntie says there is the feeling that something is wrong somewhere and that we are not extending to the full. But there is nothing to come to grips with. One is just baffled and unquiet.
In the early hours the three young Murray girls caroused with soldiers outside my window, all slightly tipsy. This because the previous night I asked them to go away at 1 o’clock. However their father heard them and bade them be quiet and led the youngest away, still laughing and singing. This was not the end for their mother came up and was introduced to the soldiers. Then when the mother had gone there was more unseemly laughter and noise until Margaret went down and opened the shop door and told them to go, which they did quietly. But what kind of parents are they to condone such conduct in girls under 18? By day they are all respectable, pleasant, well behaved people.
A Second World War rationing poster. Image via Liberty Fund
Monday, 20 July 1942
A long printed leaflet of 1200 words concerning rationing of sweets [to start at the end of this month] and what we have and have not to do. Bert says it will be worse than all the damned rationing together. Spent two hours with him tonight trying to trace tea mistake for Food Office.
Thursday, 23 July 1942
G. E. says she is going to look for a job after the holidays; she wants about two afternoons a week, something easy – just to get in before she has to register. She has a husband out of the house 12 hours every day and a boy of 14 also out all day and she has never done a stitch or hand’s stir of war work. But she is only one of many such that I know and aren’t they getting the wind up.
Friday, 24 July 1942
The salvage man jibbed at taking the large box of tins we had collected and said they should go in the dustbin. I said so long as we knew what we were expected to do. Previously and in the newspaper we were told putting salvage in the dustbin was a punishable offence. Mr C., a Corporation labourer, says he saves nothing – he has seen how many tins are picked out by the men specially employed at the tip for this job and how many are buried to save themselves the trouble. I sometimes think this salvage chase is as futile as the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
Saturday, 25 July 1942
Another tussle with Mrs C. who, having drawn her rations for the last time on Monday, came today to pay 2s 6d off her bill and demand rations for next week. She said her new shop was shut for two days, Monday and Tuesday, and she would be without rations. In vain we tried to convince her she had had all she could have from us. She went out vowing vengeance.
Bert had another spell at the Food Office. He and other waiting tradesmen discussed the desirability of having a special room for their interviews instead of being mixed up with
Mothers and Milk Farms, and Removers, and Lost Ration Bookers, and so forth. Bella Hill, O. S., and Auntie came to supper. We didn’t discuss the war much. Only that interviewers at Labour Exchanges should be older. Bilberry pie and cow pie [i.e. custard; see 31 July 1942] for supper!
Sunday, 26 July 1942
Finished Short Stories by [Alexander] Pushkin [1799–1837]. Very disappointed to find them so ordinary. Annoyed to be blundering on wrong track in my reading. Life is short enough without these wastes of time. Lyndoe more mysterious and sillier than ever today. Nothing daunts him. The best is always just within our grasp [‘Believe in Britain’s destiny!’ he had declared this day in the People, p. 6].
* Salvage was actively promoted in wartime, and was often carried out by members of the Women’s Voluntary Services, sometimes aided by children. Bones could be used to make explosives, soap, and fertiliser.
Feature image via Find My Past
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