Tag Archives: Second World War

75 years since VE Day

By Antonia Fernandes and Zoe Farace (special collections volunteers)

Victory in Europe Day, also known as VE Day was celebrated 8th May 1945 to mark the end of World War Two and the success of the Allies in Europe. The war continued in other parts of the world such as the Pacific, and so therefore the day was specifically celebrated as a European victory.

VE Day naturally prompted much excitement throughout Europe, and celebrations had begun the night before, with a wireless announcement from Churchill that victory was to be celebrated the following day and that

“Everyone, man or woman, has done their best”


Celebrations included street parties, Churchill gave a speech to the crowds from 10 Downing Street and the Royal Family waved to the British public from the balcony at Buckingham Palace, and called to

“remember the men in all the services, and the women in all the services, who have laid down their lives”.


In her memoirs, which are archived as part of the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, Ellyse Finnie remembers VE Day as a joyous occasion. She describes how the nation was on edge days before the announcement, knowing that peace was soon to be declared as

“radios were kept switched on”

BURN 4 Finnie p. 99

and that

“there had been more than usual amount of free time for the men stationed at Park Hall Military Camp”.

BURN 4 Finnie p. 99

It was a momentous day of joy and good deeds, and created an even stronger sense of unity within the country. Finnie recounts how the day

“was something so special that Susanne was allowed to stay up for it”,

BURN 4 Finnie p. 99

and the military boys helped out in the local community. There was also however a sense of an ending, in that for many stationed away from home in various parts of the country VE Day

“might be the last time we should be together but we were full of hope for the future”.   

BURN 4 Finnie p. 99

VE Day was long awaited. You can find more of our archival resources relating to the Second World War in our topic guide.

75 years since last V1 flying bomb attacks

By Antonia Fernandes and Zoe Farace (special collections volunteers)

BURN 2:118 Burkin

The V1 flying bomb attacks took place from June 1944 – 29th March 1945. The V1’s were a bomb of German design, distinctive for the sound they made hence giving them the name ‘doodlebugs’ (sometimes also known as ‘buzz bombs’). The V1’s were an unmanned gyro-guided plane which delivered high grade explosives to the intended target.

In a BBC recollections post, a writer who wished to remain anonymous spoke of his experience with the V1 attacks. He recalls how he

“cannot forgive Winston Churchill […] for saying the V1 was just a random terror weapon, an inaccurate missile tossed randomly at London without much regard for its accuracy”

as he was caught up in several near misses and knew of many who had perished in the deadly firebombs. He also referred to the noise of the V1, describing how one would hear the bomb closely approaching, a moment of silence then a deafening explosion. He describes the terror of this moment, potentially in-between life and death and how

“If one lived to hear the explosion there was such gratitude to The Almighty”.

Several of the autobiographies in our Burnett Archive recall the terror of the flying bombs. This account, by Kay Garrett, talks about the uncertainty of what was happening, and how it resulted in local children being evacuated.

BURN 2:305 Garrett

May Rainer remembers her daughter’s terror of the bombs, and having to sit important school exams at the same time.

BURN 2:644 Rainer

Charles Sanderson recalls how they had to take cover when they heard the sound of the ‘buzz bomb’ engine cutting out.

BURN 2:688 Sanderson

As they were unmanned rockets, the V1’s were often launched from the coast of France or strapped alongside German planes such as the Luftwaffe Heinkel, however only a small number of such bomb carrying planes were produced. The last V1 bomb struck on the 29th March 1945 in Swanscombe, Kent.  

Although our reading room is currently closed, much of the Burnett Archive has been digitised and is available. Please contact us if you are interested in this. An index is available on the collection’s webpage.

80 years since food rationing introduced

By Zoe Farace and Antonia Fernandes, Special Collection Volunteers 2019-2020

On 8th January 1940, food rationing was introduced, following the escalation of tensions in the Second World War. Families were given ration cards, which set out their weekly allowances for meat, milk, eggs and other products.  Eventually rationing came to include not just food, but other material products, which were in short supply due to the war. Rationing also impacted the overseas soldiers, with them receiving a small amount of chocolate, alongside their canned goods, as an incentive to fight.

In her memoirs, which are archived as part of the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, Mary Turner writes about the social spirit that rationing created within society.  She writes that the neighbours:

“let each other know when shops had quotas of things, as well as taking care of the old, the pregnant and the widows”.

Burnett Archive 2:777 Turner p. 5

This sort of social unity was vital at a time where the lives of other were in mortal peril and at any given time, a person could lose someone who was dear to them. Rationing gave them a sense of purpose as it allowed for closer bonds to be made and also made them feel as if they were doing their duty on the home front.

Even though there was a “unpaid social service”, not everyone adhered to the rules of rationing, which led to the creation of ‘The Black Market’. The Black Market dealt with an assortment of goods and allowed the consumer to buy more than their allocated ration.  This was often done at extremely high prices, meaning that many members of the working class struggled to acquire the goods. According to R. Lowe’s account, which can also be found in the Burnett Archives, he wrote about a time where

“even the common spud was a one time blk [sic] market commodity. One man carrying a violin case full of them dropped the case in Exeter high street. It burst open and in the ensuing scramble he lost the lot.” 

Burnett Archive 2:912 Lowe p. 2

This highlights the dubious methods in which people acquired the goods.

Rationing had a long-lasting impact on the people who lived through the war. Mary Turner explained that,

“this time of our lives make a lot of my generation still reluctant to be wasteful or to ditch something not wanted, and I think we tend to be careful though indulgent about food”.

Burnett Archive 2:777 Turner p. 5

This is a useful sentiment to abide by today, due to the growing concerns about climate change and the increasing food shortages in the world, especially in developing countries.

If you have any questions about the Burnett Archive or to make an appointment to use it please contact us.

75th anniversary of the first V2 bombing

Written using research undertaken by Crystal Prescod, summer project volunteer 2019.

In the dying days of the Second World War Germany sought to place the Allies on the back foot. In an attempt to reverse the course of the war by shaking Allied confidence and wreaking havoc on the British population Germany launched its Vergeltungswaffen or “revenge weapons”- the V2 rockets.

On the 8th of September 1944 the first of these rockets were fired at Paris and London. The attacks resulted in the deaths of approximately 9000 civilians and military personnel.

History often neglects to note the effects of major events on the lives of the common man. The Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies includes accounts that relate the lives of a few of the civilians who were affected by the air raids of the Second World War.

You can find out more using our World War Two topic guide, which highlights particular accounts from this collection. If you would like to see the autobiographies for yourself, please contact us to make an appointment.

It is ironic that these weapons of war which created so much devastation were later used as the foundation for the rockets which would take mankind into space.

Image from Picasa and shared using a Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-SA 3.0). No changes have been made to the image.

Introducing the Carpenter Collection

Over the summer the Carpenter collection of maritime history has been catalogued and is now fully available for the first time, with details of all items in the collection on our library catalogue. Reginald Carpenter’s daughter, Margaret Joachim, has provided us with a description of her father and how he went about collecting his books.

Reginald Carpenter, 1920-1993

Reginald Carpenter, always known as Reg (or ‘Titch’ to particular friends, as he just about reached to 5’4” in height), was born in Brighton and lived there until the mid-1980s. He went to Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School, and would have liked to have trained as a naval architect, but his maths wasn’t good enough. Instead he joined the Civil Service in a junior administrative grade in the Department of Education and, apart from the war years, commuted to London every day until his retirement, eventually rising to Principal. He learned to sail in dinghies off Brighton beach, joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a midshipman and was called up in 1939. During the war he served, inter alia, in HMS Resolution in Norway and at the battles of Mers-El-Kebir and Dakar, on arctic and transatlantic convoys, at the landings in Italy (where he won the DSC) and as the commander of an LST on D-Day. He was demobbed as a Lieutenant Commander.

Model of a Bright and Wilson phosphorus tanker at 100ft:1″ scale (in his daughter’s collection)

Reg had a lifelong interest in shipping. He was an expert ship modeller at 50ft or 100ft to the inch scale, regularly winning the Championship Cup at the Model Engineering Exhibition in the 1950s and 60s (until he withdrew from the competition to give other modellers a chance). Modelling took place every evening at a table in the living room, using various fine-grained woods (holly was a particular favourite), single threads of parachute silk, cigarette paper, ‘Plastic Wood’, thin white card, single-edged razor blades and diluted Humbrol paint applied with brushes containing only a few fine hairs, and was accompanied by clouds of pipe smoke and the occasional cry of ‘Nobody move – I’ve dropped a lifeboat!’ After his death his merchant ship models were given to the National Maritime Museum.

Cheverney – British Petroleum tanker at 50ft:1″ scale (in his daughter’s collection)

His knowledge was exhaustive – he could recognise most vessels by their profile and knew the flag and funnel of every shipping line. While most children went to the park or playground at weekends, his two daughters would regularly be taken to Newhaven to watch the channel ferry come in, or to walk round Shoreham harbour ‘to see what’s in today’. A favourite summer holiday excursion was to go by train to Victoria and then down the river to Greenwich, where he would point out and identify all the ships in London Docks and explain where they had come from and what they carried.

Reg accumulated his library slowly, but he would sometimes spend a long time in second-hand bookshops (of which there were then several in Brighton) looking for specific books on naval or maritime history, or postcards of ships painted by particular artists. The search for ‘Ships and South Africa’ took years, and the entire family was tasked to look out for it (no eBay or AbeBooks in those days).  He also had a lasting interest in reading about the First World War. The protagonists in modern naval warfare tend to fight at a considerable distance from each other, and he was always trying to understand how men (of whom his father had been one) existed in the trenches and could ‘go over the top’ and engage in direct combat.

Following retirement and the death of his wife Joyce in 1977 and mother in 1985, Reg moved to Cornwall, exchanging modelling for art classes. His tutor tried hard to get him to paint impressionistically but eventually gave up when introduced to the model collection, realising that someone with such an eye for fine detail could only paint with photographic precision. 

Painting of SS Rotterdam by R. Carpenter, in his daughter’s collection

Reg wrote numerous articles for modelling magazines, the merchant ship section of The Dumpy Pocket Book of Ships, (London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1961), Modern Ships, (Hemel Hempstead: Model and Allied Publications, 1970) and Container Ships, (Hemel Hempstead: MAP, 1971). A number of his models are superbly illustrated in Model Ships, by Toby Wrigley, (London: Orbis Books, 1973).

Access to the Carpenter Collections book is by appointment only. Please contact us to make an appointment.

NHS 70th anniversary

NHS staff and balloons

Picture from the NHS7TEA party held on campus yesterday 

Today we’re celebrating the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service by focussing on some items from our Special Collections that show how healthcare has changed over the last century. Our accounts include nursing in peacetime and at war, medical procedures and the arrival of antibiotics.

Brunel University itself has played its part in the development of healthcare, including helping design and test a hearing screening device to detect hearing impairments in babies in the 1970s, which was used at Hillingdon Hospital between 1980 and 2004 (when a national screening programme was introduced). Last year a new partnership was launched, the Brunel Partners Academic Centre for Health Sciences, a partnership between the university, Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, which aims to revolutionise the way health and social care is delivered.
Frith nursing

Susan Frith was a nurse and midwife whose career spanned thirty years, between 1912 and 1942. Her personal diary covers both of the World Wars and leads up to the foundation of the NHS. She went to people’s homes and stayed with them, assisting at the births of babies and caring for those with long term health conditions or who were terminally ill. You can read more about her diary in our previous blog post celebrating International Nurses’ Day.

Jean Court’s autobiography relates her experience of family life in the 1920s. Her sister caught diphtheria when they were children, and was lucky to survive what was then a common childhood illness with a high death rate, but is now routinely vaccinated against. She also recounts experiences of her grandfather’s ill-health, particularly after he came to live with them to avoid being put in a geriatric hospital. You can find out more about Jean’s autobiography on the Writing Lives website.

Lorna Kite’s autobiography traces her experience as a nurse during the Second World War. She qualified a year before war broke out, and initially worked as a theatre sister at Millbank Military Hospital before going to France and working in casualty clearing stations, then joining hospital ships and going to Egypt. She describes medical procedures, such as removing a live shell from a Prisoner of War’s heart muscle and, in 1944, was a member of one of the first units to use penicillin.

Hilda Salusbury trained as a district nurse and midwife in Plaistow, East London. She describes her training and then first posts, including her day to day work and the poverty she saw in East London during the 1920s and 1930s.

You can see any of these autobiographies or our other collections by contacting Special Collections to arrange an appointment.

Burnett Archive
4 Susan Frith
2:188 Jean Court Living in the lane
4 L.E. Kite Mentioned in despatches: world war II seen through the eyes of a nurse
4 Hilda Salusbury Only yesterday

50 objects 33: Norah Elliott’s autobiography

The collection of documents on Norah Elliott is number 2:242 in the Burnett collection of working-class autobiographies, held in Special Collections.

Norah was born into the Pilch family in 1903, and writes of her early life and her memories of her grandparents. Disaster struck in 1913 when her father was drowned; the family went to the workhouse, and Norah was adopted. She recalls her work as a teacher, and her life in Australia, sending food parcels home to her siblings in the UK, during the second world war.


Norah’s poem on her Aunt Susan

Her file includes several handwritten workings not only of her own story, but also of substantial research by her and other family members into her family history. The writing is interspersed with maps, copies of primary sources, family trees, and poetry by Norah, and accompanied by original documents including a birth certificate, a union card, and burial records.norah2

There is a vaccination certificate, made out in 1879 for Norah’s ancestor John Pilch, in linenorah3 with the legal requirement to demonstrate that children were vaccinated against smallpox: see http://www.genguide.co.uk/source/vaccination-registers-amp-certificates/51/  for more on these records.

Another interesting aspect of this collection is the insight given into Norah’s writing and editing process: there are several drafts, with footnotes and amendments, and a few comments on the writing process. A late diary entry states “I’ve finished last night’s crossword and got up to date with this mish-mash. I don’t think I want to read what I’ve written”. She may not have wanted to, but the file is well worth reading.