Mary Howitt (1888-1983): War and Memory – Part 2

‘We divided the days and nights into 4 hourly shifts and the heaviest was 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. because it was a mining area and munitions were made on the Tyne so men and girls had to be got up, sandwiches packed and got off by early trains. All through the four years, this shift was worked by four grandmothers!’ (5)

This was the passage that stuck out to me the most from Mary’s war experiences. She said that even though the work that went into caring for the hundreds of homeless people was brutal, there was still some modicum of humour that could be found. These back-breaking shifts didn’t seem to break Mary’s spirit, and she gave credit to four women who–as far as I know–have never been mentioned in the war histories of Sunderland. It reminded me of  Michael Roper, quoted in The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration, that ‘Penny Summerfield has argued that the oral testimonies of women workers in the Second World War can be understood in terms of two constructed images of femininity, ‘Stoic’ and ‘heroic’, which had their origins in popular and official wartime discourses about women’s positions.’ (Roper, 183). Although I do not think Mary tried to intentionally invoke this image in her war experiences, she does make a point to acknowledge how hard the work was, and how hard the women in her rest centre worked, as the majority of her volunteers were women.

Women Working in Sunderland Shipyards – 1941

Unlike her account of the First World War, Mary went into a great deal more of detail about World War Two. Having joined the Sunderland Soroptimist Club the previous year, Mary was immediately put to War work. After being evacuated along with her school, Mary decided to come back after three months once she heard of how bad the raids on Sunderland were getting. ‘I volunteered to go back and open my school as a rest centre for homeless people’ (4). This time, Mary doesn’t hold back in letting us know how much damage the raids caused, and how many home were destroyed, saying that ‘The worst raid was on a Friday night, and I had to take all the 1,057 who were destitute to the next empty school.’ (5)

Although Mary does not mention the War from a broader perspective, Sunderland was a prime target for air raids during the second world war. Sunderland had long been hailed as the largest shipbuilding town in the world. According to an article written by the BBC, the destruction of the Sunderland Shipyards, ‘would have had knock-on effects across the United Kingdom.’ The reason for this is that, almost all merchant ships were repaired at the Sunderland Shipyards. If this went, then the food shortage would have be catastrophic. This inevitably led to its inhabitants, including Mary, to be under constant threat of bombing.


The bombing was so severe in this part of the north, that it was named, ‘The Wearside Blitz’. The amount of casualties Sunderland experienced bordered into the hundreds.

Mary herself recounted a near death experience while running the rest centre. After the bombing grew so severe that Mary had over a thousand homeless to look after, she was getting very little rest. She remembers how one of the homeless women was concerned for her and insisted she get rest in one of the divan beds when there was a respite. Yet, when she brought her to her bed, she said, “I’m sorry, your bed just isn’t there” so Mary said, “Be thankful I wasn’t in it.” (5). I’ve always found this particular part confusing, as it seemed quite vague in exactly what happened, so I can only assume the bed was destroyed in one of the raids. Therefore if Mary had been in it at the time, she may have died.

After this, though, her tone becomes a lot lighter, and her and Dr. Bowrel, another Soroptimist who was in charge of the Women’s Civil Defence, were invited by what Mary described as a ‘Government Secret Agent’ to a secret ceremony at Westminster Hall where they would be thanked by Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother. This ceremony has proved to be so secret, that I have been unable to find any account of it happening.

Picture of Princess Elizabeth meeting the guests at a Royal Garden Party – 1947

Mary mentions in the last sentence of this chapter, that ‘After the war was over I got an invitation to a Royal Garden and it was a very fine day and we had a very nice tea – a real treat.’ (5) You can see more of what a Royal Garden Party looks like hereAfter some searching, I found a clipping of one from 1947, most likely the one that Mary herself attended before emigrating, though it is impossible to know for sure. As you can from the video, hundreds of people attended these gatherings. Royal Garden Parties have been a long tradition hosted by the Queen and royal family and are ‘an important way for The Queen to speak to a broad range of people from all walks of life, all of whom have made a positive impact in their community.’ It is said that around 30,000 people are invited to the royal garden party every year and around 27,000 cups of tea are drunk, and 20,000 sandwiches and cakes are consumed!


Works Cited:

Ashplant, Timothy, Graham Dawson, and Michael Roper, (eds), The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration. London: Routledge, 2000.

‘Mary Howitt’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:355

Images used:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *