War Time Harrow – Diaries from the Collection

Amongst the many interesting items at the Museum are two sets of diaries compiled by Harrow residents during the Second World War. In fact, they cover the years immediately before and after the war as well. These diaries give us a fascinating insight into life in Harrow during wartime, and also a unique picture of everyday life during the middle of the twentieth century.  They talk of the Blitz, of Doodlebugs, British Restaurants (more of these below), and air-raid shelters, and they talk of domestic and family life, cinema going, dances, walks, evenings in with the family playing cards or listening to the wireless, and so on.

One set of diaries belonged to Dorothy, a young woman just starting out in life. The other to Sydney, an older gentleman who lived on Headstone Lane. Dorothy was born in Harrow in 1918. In fact, in amongst her diaries are some ration cards dating from the First World War. Many people today associate rationing with the Second World War and may not realise there was also rationing in the First. These cards are interesting because they contain the name of local shops and provisioners from that time.

Dorothy lived with her parents, Ernest, who in 1939 worked as a taper of insulating cable, and her mother, Alice, who along with many married women of the time did ‘unpaid domestic duties.’ Sydney on the other hand was born in 1875, and had married his wife Kate in the Fulham area in 1909. Their daughter Gladys was born in 1911, and at some point after that the family moved to Harrow, perhaps as part of the rapid growth of ‘Metroland’. Between them, Dorothy and Sydney provide very differing viewpoints on the events through which they lived.

What was it like to be a fireguard during bombing raids over Harrow? What was working life like for people in the 1940s? What did they do in their leisure time before the days of internet or television? Where did people go on holiday, if they went at all?  Were there many other differences between life in Harrow as it was then, and the way we live it now? All these questions are answered by the diaries, along with reflections not just on the war, but on other seismic events, such as the death of King George V and the abdication crisis which followed, or the landmark General Election of 1945 that saw Churchill turned out of power and Clement Attlee’s Labour Government ushered in. In this short series of blogs we will aim to look at differing aspects of life back in an era that was in some ways similar to our own, but very different in others.

But what of British Restaurants? These are mentioned in Dorothy’s diary for June 1944, which was the month that Doodlebug attacks began on London. These were of course the notorious V1 flying bombs. Dorothy talks of a “terrific noise” being caused by these attacks, as Doodlebugs fell on Merton Road (South Harrow), Northwood Hills, and then on 30th June a direct hit on the British Restaurant at North Harrow, in which the manageress (apparently the only person in the restaurant at the time) was unfortunately killed. British Restaurants were designed to provide cheap basic meals as a supplement to rations and to aid those who had been bombed out of their houses. The service was organised by the London County Council (the forerunner of today’s London Assembly) to begin with, but soon developed into a chain of restaurants across London. In one of these restaurants you could buy a main course of meat or fish and two veg for between 6d and 8d, a sweet (i.e. dessert) for 3d, a cup of tea for 1d, and a cup of coffee for 2d. There were six British Restaurants in Harrow, serving a total of 25,000 meals a week. They were apparently disbanded in 1947 though Dorothy’s diary records her going to a “B. Rest party” as late as January 1948 (at which, incidentally, she complains that there were not enough men).

Anyway enough of wartime bombs and cheap eats, in the next blog we will take a look at cinema in the 1930s and 40s. So hang on to your Top Hat (all will be explained).

The interior of a British Restaurant © IWM V 151
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