Life in tired, drab, shabby Britain

'Father Christmas' presents Winston Churchill Jr., the Prime Minister's grandson, with a gift at a Christmas party at Admiralty House in London, 17 December 1942.

‘Father Christmas’ presents Winston Churchill Jr., the Prime Minister’s grandson, with a gift at a Christmas party at Admiralty House in London, 17 December 1942.

Sailors with the miniature scene depicting the birth of Christ in the ship's chapel, 24 December 1942, on board Hms Dunluce Castle, of the Home Fleet.

Sailors with the miniature scene depicting the birth of Christ in the ship’s chapel, 24 December 1942, on board HMS Dunluce Castle, of the Home Fleet.

Although we can look back and see that the last two months of 1942 proved to be the great turning point in the war – the Red Army turning the tables at Stalingrad, the breakthrough at el Alamein and the US forces joining the war in North Africa, and the Japanese moving onto the retreat after being beaten at Guadalcanal – it was not obvious to everyone at the time.

Alan Moorehead is really noted for his comprehensive reporting of the war in North Africa. Yet his desire to understand what was going on and his eye for detail never left him when he was at home in Britain. He was back in Britain in December 1942 for a short break before leaving again to report the war in North Africa and then on to Italy. It all still seemed rather gloomy to him:

[W]hile I was waiting in London for my sailing orders to go down to North Africa, that I began to see the gaps and the wastage in this new England.

The people were tired. No victory in Stalingrad, no breakthrough by the Eighth Anny and no landing in North Africa could overnight shake them out of the strain of three years’ garrison life in England.

Casualties were very few as yet, but many thousands of families had not seen their menfolk for years.

Food was sufficient, but it was boring, and beyond everything the abiding interest in everyone’s life was food, food, food, how to cook it and how to get it and how to conserve it. Almost every conversation I had was eventually brought round to the subject of food.

Troops check up on their pigs, being fattened up for Christmas, Eastern Command, 9 December 1942.

Troops check up on their pigs, being fattened up for Christmas, Eastern Command, 9 December 1942.

(It was strange and refreshing to find that the one cabinet minister who was wholeheartedly approved of was Lord Woolton, the minister of food. Woolton had an engaging way of coming on the air from the B.B.C. as soon as some major mess-up occurred like the fish zoning. ‘I know the trouble you are having,’ he would say. ‘It’s an awful mess. But we are clearing it up and it won’t happen again.’)

More people were getting higher wages than they had ever had before, but there was little of any real value you could buy for it. Everyone had work, but it was high-pressure work that went on in endless drudgery, nine, ten or twelve hours a day, six days a week, with fire-watching and other wartime duties on top of it.

Miss Dorothy Hargreaves works a surface grinder at a factory, somewhere in Britain.

Miss Dorothy Hargreaves works a surface grinder at a factory, somewhere in Britain.

Women, after a long day in the factory, had to face up to the difficult journey home in the dark, standing in food queues, and the feeding of their children.

There was enough housing for everyone, but most people were cramped for space and decent household facilities were disappearing. If the spouting began to leak, you could get no one to repair it.

For almost all the little necessities of life there was a day-long struggle that never let up. Since little or no repairs or painting were being done, every city in England began to look shabby, so that the people were constantly surrounded by ugliness and the atmosphere of neglect and decay.

Mrs Hasler, shopping baskets in hand, checks her ration book as she leaves a shop.

Mrs Hasler, shopping baskets in hand, checks her ration book as she leaves a shop.

The people themselves were growing shabbier. They were ageing. Young girls leaving school who could normally look forward to the gayest and best time of their lives had never known what it was to put on a party frock and a pair of silk stockings. They felt their youth and attractiveness were fading away in the omnipresent greyness of England and the war.

Nor did things seem quite so bright to me in political England as I had at first thought they were. The Beveridge Report was tabled, but by no means was it adopted. Huge powerful interests like the insurance companies banded against it. [The Beveridge Report had proposed what was to become known as the ‘Welfare State’ in the UK – in which everyone contributed to a state insurance scheme to cover unemployment and ill health. It was still far from certain that the proposal would be adopted.].

Most of the report was supported by the govemment, but in such a confusing way that half the country had no idea of whether or not they were going to get jobs after the war, which was the real thing they wanted to know. And Beveridge wrote in one of the Sunday papers, ‘My principles of security and freedom from want have been abandoned’.

See Alan Moorehead: The Desert War Trilogy

Mrs Hasler (aged 42) signs the warden's log book at the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Post where she does some part-time work. The full-time warden at the Post, Mrs M G Gibbons (aged 25) can be seen on the left of the photograph. According to the original caption, Mrs Hasler was on duty when the first London siren sounded.

Mrs Hasler (aged 42) signs the warden’s log book at the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Post where she does some part-time work. The full-time warden at the Post, Mrs M G Gibbons (aged 25) can be seen on the left of the photograph. According to the original caption, Mrs Hasler was on duty when the first London siren sounded.

Mrs M Hasler cooks breakfast for her invalid husband at the stove in the kitchen of their home in Barnes.

Mrs M Hasler cooks breakfast for her invalid husband at the stove in the kitchen of their home in Barnes.

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: