Mary Turner (B. 1921): Life and Labour

‘I started in the bobbies a week before the war broke out. Ker-crash.’ (1)

Coming from a family full of policemen, Mary Turner had the connections and the ability to start her successful career as a shorthand typist in the Police Force. Removed from school by her aunt, she was instead sent to work until she could afford to attend a commercial school, preparing her for her interview at what was soon to become of the most exciting police bases in the country; the War and Traffic Department.

Mary’s aunt decided that the best place for her be in the ‘bobbies’; ‘I think she wanted security for me’, and it was here that Mary spent the rest of the war, working in the War department as; ‘[the] Traffic department… had of necessity to wind down somewhat – after all, a war was no time for elaborate one-way systems to be invented.’ (1)

women typists 1940s
women typists 1940s

After passing the stringent assessment needed to pass the interview, ‘many a shorthand typist would flinch at the test I was given’ (1) , Mary was introduced into a world where secrecy was strictly enforced;

‘we had lots of triple sealed envelopes from the War Office, Ministry of information       and so on; we ran the pigeons – strictly licensed – and war time security and things – and best of all, we were ‘occupied’ by the military police.’ (1)

However instead of being a constraint, Mary saw the rules imposed by the department as a mark of importance; ‘we were restricted in ways that didn’t apply to many people; we had to ask permission to go beyond the city boundary… we had authority cards to get into the building and felt rather privileged to be working in the police anyway’ (2)

Alongside her work as a typist, Mary was also swept up in the  ‘atmosphere of willing, unpaid, social service’ (4) that the war created, working as an Auxiliary Nurse, Air Raid Warden and volunteered in a Forces’ canteen during the wartime period.

women in the air WACs, 1940s
women in the air WACs, 1940s

It’s interesting to see how the war how women freedom to work in occupations they hadn’t previously had access to, and their ability to quickly adapt to the role they were given; ‘I didn’t much like the wardens really, but we turned out for the bombs and so on.’ (3)

I think it’s very clear from Mary’s memoir that the war allowed her to have new experiences and to try things that would never have been allowed in peace-time, and that it is fair to say that she thrived under this liberty. The war gave women the chance to break out of the gender roles in ways unseen before, and the women who rose to the challenge paved the way for the choices we have today.

Turner, Mary. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library,  2:777

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