Henrietta Burkin (born 1904): War and Memory

“We were brought up to be very patriotic… saluting a large union Jack” (1.20)

War is a predominant theme in Henrietta Burkin’s memoir and this aspect particularly encouraged me to study her life in more detail. Her patriotism shines through her narrative and produces a descriptive account of the war from the declaration of war and men being enlisted, moving around London to secure safety and the celebrations of D-Day. She covers a wide spectrum of events and acts as an eye witness to the horrific event of the First World War.

Bomb damage sites across London 1914 - 1918.
Bomb damage sites across London 1914 – 1918.

Henrietta states that as a community they prepared for the ‘enemy to come’ (1.22) and sheltered in the underground kitchen. Her first-hand account is striking when she witnessed ‘twenty planes above’ (1.23) her and describes the weakness she felt as she observed people around her running frantically. She also shares that the first bomb was dropped in a square in the West End and she ‘went by bus to see the big crater’ (1.23). I am fascinated that the impact of a bomb caused such excitement in the community, thus the crater acting as a haunting, commemorative object of war. However, this bomb displayed to Henrietta that war was close to home and precautionary measures were essential in order to secure the safety of her family.

Henrietta’s contribution to the war consisted of making ‘camouflaged nets for the army, by threading and, tying on string’ (2.2). Her contribution was small, however on a daily basis she witnessed boat trains from France carrying wounded soldiers. She states that, ‘Dad would come home with tears in his eyes’ (2.2) emphasising the trauma and life-threatening conditions the soldiers were forced to endure. Henrietta produces a running commentary of the war and keeps her readers informed of every precise detail. She states that air-raids were regular and many sheltered in Leicester Square Tube Station, but her family protected themselves in the generating station at her step-father’s work (2.2). When a bomb was dropped on “Odhams Press” in Long Acre, she draws attention to the damage it caused her family. Henrietta states that many were killed and when arriving home there was ‘a broken window on the landing and a piece of shrapnel on the stairs’ (2.3) in their own home! This accentuates that villages and individuals were being destroyed and she decides ‘to return to our old shelter in the sub-station’ (2.3) to ensure protection.

The damage to Odhams Press, Longacre in January 1918.
The damage caused to Odhams Press in Longacre, London in January 1918.

Food was becoming increasingly difficult to obtain and Henrietta and Elaine both reported to Bexhill Town Hall to be fitted with gas masks (3.4). Harry volunteered for the Local Defence Volunteers and Henrietta expresses her pride and patriotism when, ‘Harry had been kitted out with his full uniform and rifle’ (3.7). She states that her husband was ‘enjoying his army life and was capable of coping with any circumstance’ (3.11) but highlights her loneliness and isolation when Harry was at war. She confirms that, ‘Elaine and I spent Christmas on our own’ (3.11) and had to act as a single parent to Elaine. A chilling moment in her memoir was Henrietta granting permission for Harry to be buried in the same grave as his mother and aunt (3.13). Although Harry did not die in the war, I believe this telegram shocked Henrietta and confirmed that war was brutal and life threatening. I sympathise with her situation and I cannot imagine the pain she experienced of preparing for a loved one’s death.

The war created immediate and long term impacts on her family and the community. After the raids had occurred, she ‘returned home, everywhere seemed deserted’ (3.10) and the difficulty of obtaining food lasted until after the war had ended. Neighbourhoods’ had been destroyed and individuals were forced to piece their lives back together and some without their loved ones. Henrietta illustrates the horror of war when she states that, ‘the bombing of London was truly terrible, and at one time it seemed as if the whole of London was burning’ (4.4).

"Unity is Strength"
First World War Propaganda

Henrietta’s war memories are incredibly vivid and I admire her patriotic tone. Andrew August states that, ‘working-class patriotism survived the war’ (August, 228, 2007) and Henrietta repeatedly refers to being proud of Harry and standing by her country, which I believed was encouraged throughout her childhood. In the fourth chapter of her memoir, Henrietta uses a celebratory tone to display the excitement of D Day (4.4). She describes that the worst of the war was over and she woke with ‘great excitement’ to join in with the ‘tremendous celebrations in London’ (4.4). The war encouraged the working class to stand together and maintain morale even in the most difficult period and I believe the celebrations in 1918 confirmed this bond.


August, Andrew. The British Working Class 1832-1940. Pearson Education: London. 2007.

Burkin, Henrietta, ‘Memoirs of Henrietta Burkin’, TS, pp.86 (c.50,000 words). Brunel University Library. 2:118. Extract published in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.306-312. Brunel University Library and Ruskin College Library, Oxford.

Image References:

Bomb damages across London – https://greatwarlondon.wordpress.com/category/air-raid/

Odhams Printing Works destroyed by raids – http://www.ww1playingthegame.org.uk/content/ww1-history/westminster-war-1918

First World War Propaganda – http://www.worldwar1postcards.com/patriotism.php

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