diary · family · women · World War Two

Nan’s Diary: Coming of Age

A group at ESSO House near Oxford in 1942 (Nan is second from right).

I thought the blog was long overdue another post from my nan’s memoirs, especially as we head into an uncertain winter.

One of the parts about her reflections I find most fascinating is the voice she brings to women’s experiences of the Second World War, particularly when it relates to the path into adulthood and the changing expectations of the route women should follow, brought about by the circumstances of war.

My nan’s sixth form education was marred by illness; she experienced malnutrition during evacuation, which led to the development of a tubercular gland in her neck. This meant a stay at Miller General Hospital in Greenwich. She subsequently missed half her first year and this affected her A Levels as she also had appendicitis at Christmas 1941 and spent another 3 weeks in hospital, with the stitches then turning septic. She continues,

“I left school in July 1942 and then it was time to look for a job. I would like to have gone to university to do medicine. I did not want to impose on my father to finance me as I felt that he would make me feel guilty in costing so much. In any case, my parents thought I wouldn’t stand up to the life – health wise – I couldn’t see why except that I had ‘been through it’ while I was evacuated. So all in all, I though I had better be as independent as possible. People didn’t get flats for themselves in those days, but lived at home until they got married.

I tried to find a job that was of a practical nature and wrote to firms offering jobs involving lab work or chemicals. One of these jobs was in North Woolwich – at Tate and Lyle – but that was not a ‘nice area’. Some of the more interesting jobs were in the less salubrious areas so I was persuaded not to go after them.

Anglo-American Oil wanted someone in their newly-formed Development Company so I was persuaded by my father to apply for that. The head office was in Queen Anne’s Gate and I went for an interview there.

Parents were invited to attend interviews with their offspring and this just appealed to my father’s snobby nature – address, posh office and where the ‘higher ups’ called each other by their Christian names – almost unheard of in those days.

Even in my naive state, I could see that Mr Tett, the boss, was not taken in by my father’s attitude; I did manage to ask a few questions and make some comments – anyway, I got the job and was almost immediately informed that I would be working near Oxford, which meant going away again. It was the ‘year I grew up’.

I was very green with regard to men and sex, and although I wasn’t involved greatly with the opposite sex while I was down there, I learnt a hell of a lot from the girlfriends I made with whom I shared a dormitory!

The firm had taken on a large estate near Abingdon once owned by the Singer family, they of the sewing machines – we girls occupied Lady Singer’s bedroom, there were eight of us in there and we still had plenty of room. Just off this bedroom there was an enormous bathroom, which had three basins all made of marble and with gold taps. Again, off that room was a bathroom with two marble baths large enough to get two or three people in, which we often did. So we lived rather luxuriously and had good food into the bargain.

Three of the girls in the dorm were married to servicemen and they made the most of their husbands being away and made hay with the American forces and the RAF personnel on the airfields not far away! These three all had husbands that had been overseas for some time so were always out for a bit of nookie. They were out most nights with some bloke or other. I soon learnt to clear up vomit when they had had too much to drink. Also, they periodically had scares with late periods, then taking pills to abort when they became pregnant; they seemed to get the pills with no trouble, especially from the Americans. Then there would be a couple of days off work to get over these ‘upsets’ – the worst part of the ‘condition’ being dealt with at weekends. I was down at Abingdon for nearly a year and I suppose we had three or four of these episodes.

We had some fun in the dorm on occasions and I remember one time when we all did a Russian dance stark naked, apart from wearing Wellington boots and woolly hats. You can imagine the scene with boobs flying about everywhere and eventually everyone lying on the floor gasping for breath – we had quite a few impromptu sessions, one favourite record being ‘In the Shadows’ by Bing Crosby.

My job was interesting and the part-time course to obtain a BSc degree, the first part of which was to replace the poor A Level results that I had got, also helped my job, which had a great deal to do with aircraft fuels, an important research area at the time. I was refused entry into the forces although I tried various recruiting centres to get into the WRENS, but they all knew that I was working on this particular project, which was classed as a reserved occupation, therefore they would not have me. I stayed with what became ESSO until I got married in 1947.

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