This memoir goes through only the Second World War in comparison to the other memoirs from the Burnett collection which go through two. Being born in 1926, Letitia was thirteen years of age when the war broke out in 1939 which implies that she has a vivid memory of the war as she was nearing adolescence when the war started. Being born in London, a city heavily hit by the Blitz, she was one of the children or teenagers to be evacuated.
Letitia was evacuated to St Austell in Cornwall. St Austell is one of the largest towns in Cornwall, near the coast. Letitia writes of her evacuation: “We all walked in an orderly fashion on to the platform at the railway station. Most of us children believing it to be a rehearsal for the real thing, how naïve we were” (58). From what Letitia writes here, she implies that she was stopped from knowing that she was literally being evacuated and used the story of a rehearsal to support her lack of knowledge. However, one could also say that it was Letitia and the other children that were believing it to be a rehearsal as they did not want to accept the reality of war. Letitia uses the word “naïve” which implies that her and the other children were living in some sort of bubble, and the idea of war meant the bursting of that bubble and that is why the did not wish to accept war as a reality, only a dress rehearsal.
Whilst being evacuated, Letitia would grow to dislike the idea of being away from London and felt that she would be much more help in the city than in St Austell. Letitia writes about her determination to go back to London: “Normally a quiet girl, I advised the rest of them that I had no intention of staying there, somehow or other, I was going to get home”- (62).
Letitia suggests that she has had a change of character by her self-description of as a “quiet girl.” This demonstrates how being evacuated had stirred up some strong emotions inside her, causing her to ignore her usual quietness and speak out. She also shows a strong sense of determination in this quotation by the use of the words “somehow or other,” as these words imply that she will stop at nothing and take any route to return to London.
Letitia is amongst many unhappy evacuees from the cities. Betty Best writes about how evacuees from Belfast were unhappy and wanted to return from Poyntzpass in County Armagh. Best writes: “they too missed the city streets, cut up the stairs for firewood though we had given them a supply. They soon went back home.” Here, Best is talking about a family that had moved from Belfast to Poyntzpass and, from what she writes, they missed the cities that much and began to loathe the country that they began to vandalise and destroy the stairs as a way of showing their dislike. This reflects on how Letitia’s personality changes when forced to live in a place she did not like and both Letitia and Best demonstrate how a city can shape one’s personality and being away from the city can only strengthen your sense of belonging to that city.
After her mother allowed her to return to London, Letitia, as mentioned in the third “Life and Labour” blog, takes up the job of barmaid in the pub. Letitia describes how London has changed since she has been away and particularly stresses the changes brought about by the black-outs. Letitia writes: “The city seemed to have taken on a subdued look, great attention was being paid to the blacking out of windows and doors, in fact anywhere a gleam of light might gleam out” (63). Letitia personifies London by claiming it had “taken on a subdued look.” This emphasises how she views this place as being not only her home, but part of the family, part of her. She also emphasises the intensity of the black outs as she claims no light was allowed to gleam out. Geoffrey Field claims that: “While other British towns were badly bombed, London was the chief and most consistent German target and suffered the highest causalities.” Field, therefore, explains the need for such intense blacking out procedures as London was the largest victim of the Blitz. As Field stresses the fact that London has the highest casualties, there is a morbid sense to Letitia’s description of London, by the absence of light being a metaphor for the mourning of the dead and the destruction of the Blitz.
Best, B. (2017). Life at Acton House during WW2. “Before I Forget…”: Journal of the Poyntzpass and District Local History Society, 77-80.
Bourke, Joanna. Working Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity (London: Routledge, 1994).
Burnett, John. Plenty and Want: A Social History of Food in England from 1815 to the Present Day. London: Routledge, 1989.
Field, G. (2002). Nights Underground in Darkest London: The Blitz, 1940-1941. International Labor and Working-Class History, 62, 11-49
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363
Light, Alison. Common People: A History of an English Family (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2015) [19th & 20th centuries – very good model for work we are doing on author blogs]
Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. [Very influential survey of reading habits and cultural ambitions based on autobiographies collected by Burnett, Mayall and Vincent]
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47-70
Savage, Mike, Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican)
Simpson, Letitia. My Day Before Yesterday, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, Vol 4
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247