By the end of 1917, nineteen-year-old Harold Heslop, along with many other mining men from the North-East, became ‘caught up in the war machine.’ In Sunderland, the conscripted men ‘were examined en masse’ before being sent on to Newcastle. At Newcastle, Heslop and his comrades were forced to sleep overnight on the bare concrete floors, without ‘blanket[s] or covering,’ until the following day when the men were placed in their groups and sent on to Tidworth. Heslop describes, in his memoir From Tyne to Tone a Journey, how the army were unprepared to absorb the volume of men that arrived for military training. And how their appearance and condition caused much amusement with an RSM who, Heslop recalls, was:
[A] dapper little Irishman, [who] passed us all off as the best joke he had come across. We stood on the square in front of the Alliwal Barracks until he had laughed his head off, and then we were found places to sleep (109).
Heslop was placed in the Fifth Reserve Cavalry Regiment of the 10th Royal hussars. He remembers how it took a few weeks to settle the men into their squadrons, but many more weeks before they were ‘satisfactorily’ inoculated and vaccinated.
Heslop was trained to fight with a sword, rifle and bayonet, as cavalry men carried these weapons. Yet Heslop’s tone when he recalls his time and training at Tidworth suggests he thought the whole thing to be a waste of time and resources. He considers how ‘[f]or all the good we did ourselves and our country while we were at Tidworth we may as well have never left the mines’ (109). This may be due to Heslop not participating in any active service, or that Heslop fundamentally objected to the war. Andy Croft goes someway to answering the question of Heslop’s political stance with regards to the war, when he describes how a young Heslop, after being elected Branch Secretary of the Durham Miners Association, invited a number of guest speakers to South Shields: ‘when Bertrand Russell agreed to speak in January 1922, he was told to look out for Harry on Newcastle Station wearing a white (anti-war) rosette.’
Heslop had moved to London and was working as a civil servant for the Ministry of Labour at Kew, when WWII broke out. He recalls how ‘the wages were pitiful, but [he] had the satisfaction of knowing that had [he] remained a miner [his] take-home pay would have been considerably less’ (278). In his spare time, he continued to write. The first few months of the phoney war period, were relatively uneventful. Heslop continued in his role as a clerk and as time wore on the process for benefits claims became mixed up with military registration, creating a lot more work and overtime for the clerks. When the war finally did break out, Heslop ‘kissed a hurried goodbye’ to Phyllis and the two children who, along with many other evacuees, were boarding a train at Waterloo station bound for Dorset. Heslop recalls how he ‘went back home like so many thousands of London fathers, sad and apprehensive.’ The blitz arrived and by the third night Heslop was lying in the shelter at the bottom of his garden when a bomb struck just a short distance away:
I often relive the moments of that explosion…no explosion I had ever seen or contrived compared with that catastrophic rebuttal of time and space. I lay still, unable to move. My paralysis passed and I crawled up to the opening of the shelter. I looked up at my home and saw it strangely lit by a fire … fires seemed to be gutting all of Kennington (281).
The following day Heslop recalls how he returned to his home to survey the damage. Fortunately, the house had not caught fire, but had been illuminated by the raging fires surrounding it, still the house had suffered considerable damage. All the windows had been blown in and the front door lay halfway up the stair case, soot and dust covered everything and furniture had been tossed about, though strangely, Heslop recalls, not a single picture had fallen from the walls.
Heslop’s recollections of the war serve as a marker of change for him and his small family. Finding living conditions unbearable in London, Heslop answered his wife’s request to relocate to Taunton in Somerset. Heslop continued to work as a civil servant in Taunton until the war ended in 1947. By this time his daughter was getting ready to take her scholarship, while their adopted son was in a children’s orthopaedic hospital being treated for tuberculosis of the hip. He would remain there for three and a half years.
Phyllis’s mother had also suffered during the war. She had been in France with her daughter and granddaughter when Germany occupied Paris. Heslop describes her condition upon arrival in Taunton to live with her daughter and son in-law: ‘she was a human wreck. She had nothing to tell of her life in occupied Paris. We soon discovered that her own nightmarish experiences had deprived her of her once fine intellectual powers. Her memory was overlaid by monstrous strains and buried deep within her’ (282). Yet for other women, such as author Mary Turner, the war provided opportunities and experiences they would never have otherwise had. Mary’s autobiography can be read here at writing lives.
Although Heslop felt they ought to have returned to London he explains: ‘By the time we had brought our little family into a deep concentration of life, and we had seen the old lady into her last resting place, there was no point in our going back to London’ (283).
The war had shifted the Heslop’s geographically, but Heslop’s focus never shifted. He continued to write, and it was whilst in Somerset that he enjoyed his greatest success with his novel The Earth Beneath. He also continued his involvement within the Labour Party and became a parliamentary candidate for North Devon, the results of which I will save for another blog.
Barber, Jade. ‘Mary Turner (1921): War and Memory’ 23rd January 2015. Writing Lives. Web Accessed 10th April 2017.
‘Harold Heslop’ 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): 3:0075.
Heslop, Harold. ‘From Tyne to Tone: A Journey’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 3:005, available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/11000
Heslop, Harold. Ed Andy Croft, Graeme Rigby. Out of the Old Earth. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1994.
Hinton, James. Nine Wartime Lives. New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 2010.
 Heslop, Harold. Ed Andy Croft, Graeme Rigby. Out of the Old Earth. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1994. Introduction, p9.