The Amersham Museum document archives contain a diary written by Mabel Brailsford between the years 1941-3. Mabel Brailsford who lived at Greylands, London Road, Amersham (a bungalow, now demolished, close to Willow Lane). She lived there with her Mother, Clara. In 1941 Mabel was 65 and her Mother 98 . They lived in Amersham for over 30 years. Her diary is full of interesting stories of life in Amersham during the war, and her comments are sometimes amusing and sometimes acerbic, but always interesting. Here are some extracts chronicling the difficulties of housing displaced Londoners.
The diary was published by Amersham Museum in 2016.
July 14 1941 The billeting Officer has just been here. The Lewises had called on him – very decent of them to do it at once. But he has no hope whatever of getting them another billet and begged us to go on. He was shocked at the idea of them going nearer London, since they had been kept safefor nearly a year and there might be a new Blitz at any time. He entirely sympathises with us and was very sorry. Miss Barnes gave a vague threat that she wouldn’t stay, but I thinkshe will think better of it. She was very disappointed and very cross. I am going in September to move this causettecouch into the sitting room – and sleep on it – the wove is spoiled already so it doesn’t matter. The one thing I am determined on is that we shall both sleep peacefully – when it gets too cold for me to be on the verandah.
July 27 1941 I think the Billeting Officer made a mistake when people realize that once having received evacuees they will never be allowed to get rid of them. I went to ask Dr Morley Davies what success he had had with the committee – and he replied none. They take the view that as Miss Barnes was the last to come into the house she ought to be the first to go. After that I got a certificate from Dr. Johns: “Miss Brailsford is not strong enough in health to run her present household without residents help”. Meantime in spite of his discouraging words, Dr Morley Davies sent me the address of a Mrs Knight in Highland Road, near the Station and today Mrs Lewis has been to see her by appointment. She says she talked to Mrs Knight for an hour and a half and she thinks they will come to an agreement. Once more I have to learn that after my horrible sense of duty has made me keep on a course at very great inconvenience to myself, the sacrifice has been quite unnecessary and those for whom I made it would have been better without – what is the moral of this discovery? One is afraid to press it to a conclusion, for it leads very far – well, in this case – if all goes well, old Mr Lewis will be close to the Station and will go by train to town, saving himself about £1 a week in fares and the danger and discomfort of the blackout. They will have (she says) a large beautiful bedroom with a handsome suite of furniture and a big double bed, instead of the single one they occupy jointly. It is a large five [bed] house in a beautiful garden and oh how welcome they will be to it!
August 16 1941 Kind little Dr Morley Davies has found a very desirable home for the Lewises at Westover on Station Road. It is the home of an old lady of 78, Miss Champion, who only occupies 3 rooms of it. They will be far better off, with a large double bedroom and the dining room to themselves, and he will be able to use the train. I hope they will go next week, only Mr Lewes informed Miss Champion that there was no hurry! Meantime I am sleeping in Miss Bush’s bed at the Dawson’s. Mr Lewis met me in the hall as I was starting with a heavy suitcase into a black hurricane. He laughed and remarked “So you’re leaving home?” The gilt is off him I am afraid since he disappeared for 20 minutes in the back garden having stripped the gooseberry bushes of the great berries that I was leaving to ripen. Mother and I had had about 4 of them! But a couple of weeks ago I bottled 2 lbs off other trees, thank goodness.
August 18 1941 What a queer life! We have had to begin the black-out again, as we went back to ordinary summer time last Sunday week. Every evening darkness comes about 5 minutes earlier and I, forgetting this, had omitted to draw the curtains in the hall and the kitchen. Well, when I got up to go to Mrs Dawson’s I remembered I had forgotten to have my bath and also to fill the hot bottle I take round, for the weather is very cold and stormy. So I skipped the bath and filled the bottle on the front door step where there was still a faint glimmer of light. Mr Lewis has made me a nice little speech about my kindness to them and his regret that I have to sleep in so many different beds, “You might be a refugee ..”. He hopes we shall go on being friends for ever. I have a chat with the 2 other evacuees at Willowdene every night when I go in – Miss Holmes, who has been in bed for 3 weeks with her heart, told me she was evacuated to Amersham with her office and they are working in Copperkins Lne. She has been under Miss Bondfield in some Metropolitan Council. More are also in the house. A young man and his wife, who went away a week ago to have her first baby. He leaves the house at 7.30 to catch the London bus. The last couple of nights as I walked to the house there were 2 or 3 searchlights in the dark sky, but we have almost forgotten the sound of an alert. Yet poor little Miss Barnes insists on sleeping with her windows, night sheet, and the heavy curtains drawn across, for fear of having to rise and dress suddenly. She is sleeping badly and waking unrefreshed and I shall be thankful when she moves into the Lewis’s room, which has an open chimney. She is the funniest little body – couldn’t be called anything but a “lady” – yet her clothes must fit impeccably and must be in the latest fashion. I am rather distressed at her goings on in this respect, for when we were given coupons for clothes and such things, we were exhorted by the Government to spend as little as possible, but Miss Barnes has been 3 times to London and fitted herself out with 2 hats (the first was brown and she had forgotten that all her clothes were blue), a short plaid coat 24/6, a long summer coat, and a long winter one – 3 guineas I think – a thick skirt 21/-, a silk frock, a handbag, and she is getting a pair of slippers and an umbrella.
August 24 1941 Today marks the closing of a chapter, with the departure of the Lewises. Mr Thompson from the farm came yesterday with is milk cart, to take their luggage and today we were not to see Mrs Lewis again after she left by the 11 bus, to spend the day with Arthur and other relatives, in town. It is the last day of his 4 days leave. He is waiting now at West Kirby, for a draft to be sent overseas. Poor Mrs Lewis lost all self-control when she heard he was to leave England – jumped at once to the conclusion that he was going to the front somewhere. She said it was a terrible shock, that she was going about in a daze, and that she thought the war made everyone numb. This roused my ire and I remarked it would be a bad lookout for the nation if this were true. Miss Barnes and I both assured her that West Kirby could only be the port for Canada or some such place and certainly not for Egypt or the Far East: but she replied “I can’t be consoled.” Now however he has told her that he is going for further training either to Rhodesia or Canada.
The specialist from London came to see Miss Holmes with a great apparatus of black boxes filled with various electrical appliances. She was immensely relieved by his verdict which I think would have almost crushed any one less keen and plucky. She is to be allowed to go on with her work at the office, seeing that it is here in the quiet country, and not in town. But she is to go for no walks, and to have no excitement of any kind and go to no entertainments. Her breakdown is due first to an operation she had lately: and then to the Blitz – they lived at Hendon and she went daily to and from the office through the ruined streets and worked all day after spending the nights in a shelter with little or no sleep. Her heart has been weak since childhood.
Miss Barnes is the quaintest little lady and the most unexpected. She was going to have a bath (a great event) and put on her dusting cap, saying to me “I always cover my head, don’t you?” “No,” I said, “Why do you do it?” “Why,” she explained, “to save my hair!” “What do you want to save it from?” I asked. “The water”, she replied, “the hard water would turn it grey.”
September 7 1941 ..Miss Barnes. I think it is because she suffers so woefully from incontinence of speech that she gets so little done. She will follow me into the bathroom while I brush my teeth or into my bedroom where I am standing in my petticoat – to finish some story about a friend of a friend of hers, whom she has never seen and I have never heard of. It has come to this that I do all the cooking except preparing the veg: and also dust the sitting room. She says nobody could do the housework and the cooking! I ventured to remark that I (and how many other women) had done both for years, in addition to writing books, gardening and looking after Mother. “Yes,” she said, “its quite different in your own house!” An illuminating remark. The perpetual drip drip of conversation is most wearing, especially as she insists on getting my opinion and it always differs fundamentally from hers.
September 21 1941 I have arranged for Miss Barnes to stay on. She is doing very differently now and seems anxious to help me and to be kind. I am a little dubious of how things will go when we have the 3 fires!! But it is a relief not to have to change. We had a long visit from the Lewises after tea yesterday. Their son, Arthur, is still at West Kirby, doing nothing but wash dishes and prepare vegetables. All the men who went there with him have been sent weeks ago to Canada and S.Africa to finish their training. Noel was troubled when he was here about a Berlin woman doctor, refugee in London, who can get no work and has her husband, who was a Civil Servant, to keep. In desperation, when they were starving, she has gone out as a servant. …we hope she may get into a Children’s Hospital as dispenser, but can’t practise, and yet we are begging American doctors to come over and help in the shortage.
October 20 1941 Is snobbery become the prerogative of the lower middle classes (and of course of the Church)? I have been meditating on Miss Barnes insistence that she is a lady. She refused a good place before coming to us, because she would have had to have her meals alone – a thing I think that a real gentlewoman would insist upon. But the remark that really shocked me came after her visit to the little Wesleyan Chapel. She said the singing was good and she had enjoyed it, though it wasn’t what she had been used to in town, “Of course they are poor people’s voices”. Probably she only meant they were untrained.
We have had Army Manoeuvres here, lasting for a week and involving the whole of the Southern Command. Here on the London Road we saw and heard little, except for one night, when heavy lorries, tanks and motor cycles were passing from dusk to dawn. I think the Generals are having hard work to keep the Army happy and employed: they are itching to get across the Channel and remove some of the pressure on the Russians. I suspect this is the reason behind the present publication of Gort’s despatches, leading up to Dunkirk, which show the impossibility of facing up to the Germans without an overwhelming supply of munitions. Yesterday in London there was a meeting of half a million shop stewards and munition workers, to urge upon the Govt the formulation of a second front, and pledging themselves to keep it adequately supplied.