Secret life of wartime Yorkshire revealed

Shop worker's diaries chart riots over rationing, rows about oranges... and Christmas visits from the Luftwaffe.

Wednesday, 6th April 2016, 6:00 am
Kathleen Hey's diary charts the typical trials of a shop assistant in wartime West Yorkshire. Getty Images/Corbis.

Riots at the local market, rows over oranges and a steady stream of complaints about the shortage of everything from onions to eggs and Brooke Bond tea. Wartime life for shop assistant Kathleen Hey offered no shortage of challenges – and if all that wasn’t enough, there was always the Luftwaffe to worry about.

During the Second World War, Kathleen helped her sister Margaret and brother-in-law Bert run a grocery shop in Dewsbury. Her diaries – now reproduced in forthcoming book The View From the Corner Shop – offer a fascinating insight into life on Yorkshire’s home front.

As our extracts show, the headaches posed by rationing were put into perspective by her fears about the progress of the war, and the terror of the late-night air raid sirens...

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Rationing brought riots at Dewsbury Market and rows over oranges in the corner shop.

Friday, July 18, 1941

A hectic day. Of course everyone came for their rations at once. Margaret did her best but had to keep asking prices and then I had to see that she gave people their rations as they liked them – that is, some prefer all marge instead of fat, and some (particularly the odious Mrs J) had already had most of theirs during the week in driblets.

We keep a record of this on a piece of card and woe betide us if we lose it! What arguments whether they have had all their sugar or whether it was a quarter or half [pound] of marge yesterday, and so on. Oh, Lord Woolton [Minister of Food]! Could you be in our shoes for a single day!

Sunday, July 20, 1941

Rationing brought riots at Dewsbury Market and rows over oranges in the corner shop.

Aggie told a good story of a friend of hers who was so engrossed in deep conversation with a friend in the market she didn’t notice she was being enveloped in a queue and was suddenly bustled along in spite of her protests that she wanted to come out, until on the crest of the wave she saw it was a strawberry queue, whereupon she fell silent and obtained a basket with no bother at all. There have been riots and rows galore in Dewsbury Market. Stalls are turned over and the police have to be summoned.

Sunday, August 3, 1941

To brother Ben Rudolph’s to tea. Ma said she thought the war would soon be over. Ben Rudolph said it was only just beginning. Amy and Edna [unmarried sisters of her sister-in-law living in Hull] have salvaged most of their furniture but the day after the roof was blown off [in a bombing raid] there was torrential rain so things were in a pretty mess.

Their neighbour in Franklin Street is seriously injured and next to that all killed and across the road the mother killed, two boys blinded and father disappeared.

There have been 17 raids on Hull recently but the press and BBC have not heard of them [such news was censored].

Tuesday, October 14, 1941

Brooke Bond’s man says what the dickens are the Government thinking of? There need be no shortage of tea at all if they would only bring it into the country, instead of shiploads of other useless goods. ‘Take these,’ seizing a packet of Corn Flakes and brandishing it. ‘A ton of these things fills a ship. Now how much tea couldn’t you bring instead of those?’ ‘Ah,’ I said, ‘but now we are at the mercy of the American Business Man and if he wants us to have Corn Flakes instead, Corn Flakes we must have.’

Thursday, October 23, 1941

Oranges today. Spent my time turning a deaf ear to those women who had children ‘just over age – it doesn’t seem fair,’ and old Mrs H who said tartly ‘It didn’t matter about us old ‘uns. We shall only be fit for t’tannery soon.’ ‘And tough bit of leather you’ll make,’ I thought, but I only said, ‘Oh, you’ll see two or three more wars yet.’ And she was so surprised she forgot herself and smiled.

Tuesday, March 24, 1942

Peas from Smedley’s here at last with apologetic note. Brooke Bond’s Tea says he can only come fortnightly in future owing to lack of petrol. He says that when he went the other night to help entertain soldiers in camp at Swillington there were 200 cars parked outside the local pub. He said the landlord said he bet not one of the men was with his own wife. Brooke Bond’s said that the black-out had ‘made’ many of these country pubs. Folk could steal away and enjoy themselves ‘under cover’ as it were.

He said he knew several similar places – there was one at Tadcaster – a rendezvous for York and Leeds people. And folk whose livelihood depended on getting petrol to do their business were pushed to one side.

Saturday, March 28, 1942

Long argument with Bert and Margaret as to what luggage I must take on my fire watching expedition with M.G. tonight. M.G. said on SOS postcard, ‘Bring two sheets and pillow case, also supper and respirator’. Bert said ‘Whoever heard of fire watchers going to bed?’ Margaret said ‘And you don’t know who has been sleeping in it. I should lie on the top, dressed.’ Think I shall compromise by taking dressing gown only and hope for best regarding bed. All family greatly perturbed at my promising to go and protest at intervals, until I rise wrathfully and shout ‘Is there a war on, or isn’t there?’

Wednesday, August 12, 1942

Mr P says he offered to take any sort of a bet that the war will last seven years. Auntie say someone told her of having her fortune told at Blackpool and they said the war would be over in February. Germany would collapse and Hitler commit suicide. Some hopes! Sirens again last night for an hour. Eight times in a fortnight.

No eggs again this week. A match famine. People are having to keep their gas jets burning all day to get a light, being without fires.

Thursday, May 20, 1943

Overheard in the hairdresser’s: ‘Isn’t the Dam affair wonderful? [The dam-busting raids on Germany of May 16-17] All those floods! It must interfere with their munitions. There must have been thousands drowned. It’s a pity in a way. I mean, mothers there having feelings for their children the same as we have. One doesn’t like to think of the poor people being drowned.’ Hairdresser: ‘We mustn’t look at it that way. They don’t worry about us in the least. We’ve got to go on and win the war.’

Saturday, June 5, 1943

Olive and Auntie to supper. We discussed sleeping and dreaming. Auntie has slept on her sofa partly dressed ever since the first air raids. Olive described a frequent dream she has where she is flying high in the air and cannot get down, but is wandering all night over church steeples and mill chimneys. Margaret and I have similar experiences: when dropping off to sleep faces appear before us in rapid succession; mine are grotesque, hers are terrifying.

Thursday, August 5, 1943

Since Mussolini went a lot of people seem to think the war as good as over but if they considered Sicily [The Allies suffered heavy casualties in what was expected to be a quick victory] they would know different. If it is taking all this time, men and munitions to capture one small island, how long is it going to take to conquer Europe?

Wednesday, June 14, 1944

To Bradford for the day where we found their ‘Salute the Soldier’ week in progress. We joined a crowd round the Cartwright Hall and found the Princess Royal [Mary, daughter of King George V] was expected. We were struck by her graceful bearing and the fact that she wore no makeup. She made the wives of the officials clustered round her look insignificant and yet she was only in Khaki and they bedecked with furs and pearls. Finished up the day the the ‘Prince’s’ to see [the popular French actress] Alice Delysia in a French comedy. The first time I have had a day off since September.

Sunday, December 24, 1944

After finishing writing in bed last night, slept for a time but was overtired and kept serving people in the shop, worrying about oranges and the war – the war – which seems to grow more and more gigantic and overpowering every week.

At last sick of tossing, I determined to put on the light and read, but before I could do so I heard an unbelievable sound – the sirens! I shouted to the others and then wondered if I had dreamed it. I got up like a slow motion picture – irritated at being roused, at the things going at Christmas (something which has never happened before for us in five years) and the senselessness of things in general.

Then we heard planes – and a bang at a distance which shook the house. Bert, who had been out, came in and reported something dropped over Barnsley way. The night seemed to be filled with noise. We went out – it was very dark but fine – about 5.30. The sky-noises died away, the warden went away, others went in for tea. Margaret went out again. A plane was heard. ‘One of ours,’ we said comfortably. ‘A fighter’. On it came, straight for the house it seemed, just scraped over with a strange rattling sound, making the doors and windows rattle.

Margaret came in with a white face. ‘Wait for the bang!’ We stared aghast. One of them. But it passed and the weird noise died away. ‘I saw it coming over the church,’ said Margaret. ‘Straight for me, it seemed. I couldn’t move. First time I’ve really had the wind up in this war.’

There was a strange silence and then we gave little exclamations to relieve our feelings and began to joke. Mother, on her knees lighting the fire, said calmly ‘If there’s one for us it’s no use getting panicky. It will come just the same.’

The all clear went at 6.30 and the others went to bed. I had a wash before the fire and then composed myself for an hour or two in an armchair. So begins Christmas.

Thursday, May 3, 1945

Margaret woke us at 11pm to tell us Berlin has fallen. Customers are cynical about Hitler’s death and think he has been smuggled away. Mr B says the war is over now but they won’t tell us until the weekend. One lady in the shop was lamenting shortage of Spam when old Mr C rounded on her indignantly. ‘Spam! Don’t you know t’war’s over?’ As if to say we don’t need that wartime diet now.

We told everyone that they should have to ‘clour’ (starve) for a day or two by way of celebrating V-Day and one lady quite believed it and scuttled off home to prepare her family for short commons.

Saturday, August 11, 1945

The newspapers full of the new atomic bomb. And me congratulating myself I should be able to live out my live – even to 90 – before the nations could summon energy for another war. Now war is abolished. We shall just be destroyed without warning by some country which doesn’t like us.

But why do all writers stress as one of the benefits of the atomic age the abolition of hard work? Surely work is just what is needed to keep us from getting into further mischief?

The story behind Kathleen’s diary...

Kathleen Hey wrote her diary for Mass Observation, the social research project that had been launched in 1937 with a mission to help produce ‘a science of ourselves’.

The aim was to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires, known as directives.

Kathleen did not reveal the reasons for taking on this volunteer work. She did, however, show an interest in social history, leading to the conclusion that she felt a degree of commitment to Mass Observation’s function as an agency of social investigation, and its desire to learn as much as possible about the everyday lives of Britons during this extraordinary period of the nation’s history.

She began her diary in July 1941 when she was aged 35. She helped her sister and brother-in-law, Margaret and Bert Preston, run a grocery shop situated at 37 Heckmondwike Road in Dewsbury Moor on the edge of Dewsbury. The shop was the focal point of her wartime existence. Rationing meant shopkeepers did not lead an easy life, though she was well aware others had to struggle a great deal more.

Kathleen never married or had children. She died of cancer on June 11, 1984, aged 78, in St Gemma’s Hospice in Leeds. All of her immediate family members predeceased her.

The View From the Corner Shop: The Diary of a Yorkshire Shop Assistant in Wartime will be published by Simon & Schuster on April 21, priced £7.99.