What we learned from wartime diarists


1st Jan 2015 Life

What we learned from wartime diarists

Kathleen Hey, a Yorkshire corner shop assistant, kept a personal diary between 1941 and 1946, recording the everyday thoughts and concerns of customers. It was part of a much larger project on our society in wartime called Mass Observation. Now the diaries being published.

Keeping a diary has never been easy, especially on a continuous, long-term basis. Diary-keeping during the tumult of WWII was in some ways even harder, but also more appealing since many people realised that they were living through momentous times.

A diary was one way of documenting history in the making. This was a major reason why the British social research organisation Mass Observation (MO) asked people, as war broke out in late summer 1939, to keep daily records of their lives. These diarists, it was thought, would function like ‘subjective cameras’, reporting on their own experiences of wartime—how they felt, what they saw and heard and thought.

The result of this appeal was that, within weeks, scores of people were producing diaries and posting them (about fortnightly) to the MO headquarters. By mid-1945, some 480 people had kept personal journals for at least one month, though only a minority had written continuously for more than a year.

Mass Observation

At the time, these diarists were promised anonymity, but in recent years, some identities have been revealed, often with the approval of a diarist’s descendants, occasionally with the actual diarist’s agreement.

In return, these diarists gave up any right to possession of what they had written.

They could not get their writing back, or revise or cut or trash it, whatever second thoughts they may have had. The diaries could not be retouched with the benefit of hindsight. They would also be archived indefinitely, and thus not be at risk of accidental or deliberate destruction in some future generation.

The result is a collection of sources that, among other things, highlight the immediacies of wartime experience.

What diarists write is generally very close to the happenings of the moment; they may not be entirely spontaneous, but diaries are at least unaffected by knowing what will come next.

These immediate reactions reflect on the feelings of the time; fear during an air raid, joy at learning that someone had survived a U-boat attack, despair on hearing of a British battlefield defeat, anger at the rudeness of a bus conductress, amusement after observing the quirks or fussiness or hypocrisy of a neighbour. Little testimony of this sort would be recollected in a memoir, at least not with any emotional intensity.


“She was observant about everyday life,
including the conduct, comments,
and cunning of her working-class customers.”


Immediacy is central to the writing of the best wartime diarists. Kathleen Hey was an assistant in a grocery shop in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. She was observant about everyday life, including the conduct, comments, and cunning of her working-class customers.

Unmarried and in her mid-thirties, she lived above the shop with her mother, sister, and brother-in-law, and she often made witty remarks about their foibles and prejudices.

She regretted being cooped up in their company, her own tastes were different from theirs, and she hoped for more independence after the war. She also had lots to say about local society: conversations while fire-watching, feelings about striking miners, government-encouraged ‘Holidays at Home’, promenading teenagers on Sunday evenings, women in the workforce, the thrill of hearing a famous visiting orchestra—one of the benefits of wartime in provincial towns.


Wartime rations


Like other good diaries, Kathleen Hey’s is both varied in subject matter and not at all predictable. Early morning irritation at a botched or delayed delivery of supplies is soon displaced by the busyness of her day; weighing out produce, wrapping it, keeping records, and repeatedly explaining whatever new ration rules had taken effect—all this punctuated by a laugh or two.


"The escape of two German battle cruisers
through the English Channel in February 1942,
‘right on
t’door step’, elicited real rage.”


Sweets, locally known as ‘spice’, were rationed; and one unintended consequence was that kiddies watched for vans, which they guessed might carry these goodies, and then converged in unruly tangles outside the shop, hoping to be at the head of the queue. Carrots, by contrast, were a hard sell to the youth, just as grownups resisted that American mystery meat Spam, or whale steaks.

While food, as Kathleen once observed, got people ‘het up’, her customers also had strong opinions on the progress of the war, which she often quotes, sometimes in a Yorkshire dialect.

Anything seen as humiliating to Britain aroused particular passion. The escape of two German battle cruisers through the English Channel in February 1942, “right on t’door step”, elicited real rage. Resentments were quick to be voiced—over high wages paid to teenagers, for example. Some entertainers on the wireless were denounced, others applauded.

The view from the corner shop was always shifting—in ways that only a first-hand, everyday observer would be able to record. Other MO diarists did the shifting themselves, like Annie Holness, a Post Office employee evacuated from London to Morecambe, whose diary is rooted in feelings of exile and dislocation (published in late 2016 by the Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire).

It is diarists such as these who give us a keen sense of the rich diversity of wartime experiences.

The View from the Corner Shop by Kathleen Hey