The Phoney War

With little else to do during the first weeks of the war, Jim indulged her love of reading, visiting the library regularly. She also caught up on her writing, the hobby which was taking up much of her spare time.  School  resumed on October 12 marking the end of making black-out curtains with her colleagues and a return to teaching.

However, this was the period of the ‘Phoney War’ and people tried to carry on with their lives as normally as possible. For Jim, this meant a return to the restlessness caused by living at home, a yearning to get away and experience more independence. Some of her friends were married and had started families, others were doing war work. Jim’s elder brother Rob had married in 1937 and was running the farm. Then her younger brother Guy joined the Cheshire Regiment and she was eager to contribute to the war effort as well.

Jim tolerated her teaching but longed for more adventure. She kept her eyes open for unusual opportunities and considered volunteering to escort evacuating children to America. It turned out that she would go to the States but not in this role.

1940 opened with severely cold weather, snow and frost, and she was not enjoying school. Browsing the Times Educational Supplement for job vacancies on the last Friday in January, she spotted an advertisement inviting applications for the English-Speaking Union’s Summer School at the Chautauqua Institution near Jamestown in New York State.

The Summer School

In spite of the weather, school remained open amidst very difficult travelling conditions for the staff. Nevertheless, Jim’s spirits now seemed lifted as she counted the blessings of her life. She felt grateful for her childhood – the sunny hours on her school sports grounds, swimming at the baths, playing in woods and fields. She expressed the hope that the war would not end this idyllic lifestyle. Sport had taken its toll though and she was suffering with back problems. Her application for the ESU Scholarship put a positive slant on things.

1940 January 27 Snowy and very cold. Typed and got off an application for a scholarship to the English-Speaking Union.

The ESU was founded in 1918 to foster communication skills in individuals in national and international settings. Its philosophy was, and still is, that this leads to global development especially in educational and social policy. Although she continued with job applications, Jim’s commitment to her teaching was half-hearted with the Scholarship in the back of her mind.

Under another name, the scholarship still exists today for teachers from the United Kingdom. Chautauqua Institution still runs summer schools. Back in 1940, applicants were required to state how they would benefit from the trip. They had to describe what they could offer to this cultural exchange in the light of their own experience. There would be hospitality from the ESU, a Professional Writing and Effective Speaking course and opportunities for swimming and exploration of the countryside. Jim felt it was made for her and wasted no time in typing up her application. She managed to post it before heavy snow fell on the Sunday. 

One of Jim's many souvenir postcards showing Chautauqua Lake with Jamestown at the eastern end
One of Jim's many souvenir postcards showing Chautauqua Lake with Jamestown at the eastern end

In one of the boxes in our spare room, I found a large envelope which yielded a lot of material about Chautauqua. There were postcards, typed accounts of special trips, invitations and newspaper cuttings. There were also several letters from the ESU Education Officer and some from the Cunard shipping line. All dated from spring 1940. Along with Jim’s diaries for the period, they helped to build a full picture of both the preparation for the trip and for the summer school itself. Furthermore, there was a fascinating commentary of war news and conditions on the Home Front.

The war meant that the trip was by no means certain to take place.  However, when Jim rang the American consul at the end of March, things were looking positive.  Second thoughts still filled her mind.

1940 Mar 18 Feel very sure about one thing – I want the American Scholarship. Oh boy, wouldn’t I like it! Hitler meeting Mussolini. [In the Brenner Pass railway carriage] Italy now to enter German  Russia, Italian offensive on the Balkans. Things look very sticky. 3 percent War Loan over-prescribed. Britain and France will help Turkey. Polish children are being deported from Poland with German brutality. Mar 20 We bombed Sylt the German Air Base. Mar 28 Rang the American Consul – I may get across the Atlantic. Mar 29 Having staked my all on going abroad I’m not very happy about it.

To London

Events overtook Jim when she was offered an interview in London. Inside the back cover of her diary, Jim wrote ‘Dartmouth House, 37 Charles St, Berkeley Square, London W.1.’Her excitement mounted as the date drew nearer but she also continued to record war news. Her mother accompanied her from Liverpool Lime Street to London Euston. The following day they enjoyed the sights before locating the venue.

1940 Apr 8 Bought a War Certificate at the PO. Apr 9 Have now gained my leave for London. Germany in control of Denmark and fighting with Norway. Heard 2 guns fire in the night. Apr 10 We had an Air Raid practice in school. British engaged in naval action with Germany off coast of Norway. Received by post 18 units petrol coupons. Apr 16 The great day arrives. Travelled over to Lime St – dark and busy. Many soldiers, some I’m sure on leave from B.E.F.  Arr. at Euston, made our way fairly easily to the Royal, 5/9 bed and bath, brekker 2/6d.

Apr 17 Saw the changing of the guard at St James’ Park. The French Canadians took over from the Welsh. Found Dover House. Booked for “The Corn is Green”. Went to hotel and changed for interview. Wore my pale blue coat. Interview 3:20. There were about 10 committee. Asked to remove hat. Sat opposite very charming chairwoman.

  1. Told me that it was a v public life – lots of opportunity for sport – hiking, canoeing, swimming, frowned on smoking.
  2. Asked me about my finances – said I had £200, fares £110.
  3. Asked if I had done any public speaking – said I had done a little.

The London Headquarters of the ESU is to this day Dartmouth House in Charles Street, Mayfair. When we visited, to deposit Jim’s documents for their archives, it had changed little. In 1940, the building was used as a collection and distribution centre for clothing collected from all over the world to help the war effort. This may have been why Jim had to attend at Dover House in Whitehall – or she may have mixed up the names. She may have been amused at the time to know that the Chairman was her namesake Major, later Sir, Evelyn Wrench who had been instrumental in setting up the organisation.

Following the interview, Jim met her mother for another evening of entertainment – tea at Selfridge’s and a visit to the theatre to see The Corn is Green. Next day they returned home but Evelyn didn’t have to wait long for the verdict.

1940 Apr 19 Letter to say I had won the Chautauqua Scholarship – whoopee –travelled very sedately to school – didn’t say anything because I now have to obtain leave of absence with pay. War news – we are doing quite well in Norway – no survivors of British ship Hunter, some of Hardy reached shore. Apr 25 The budget is out – stamps and phonecalls will hit everyone. The shortage of paper is very serious. Apr 30 Kids busy selling for Red Cross. The Lucky Dip simply rolled in cash. Letter from ESU. Will look out my passport.

Staircase at Dartmouth House
The Staircase at Dartmouth House

Preparations

The letter of April 30 explained procedures for travelling. Jim needed her passport endorsed for the USA and, in an additional wartime requirement, an Exit Permit. Then she had to apply for a visa from the American Consulate. She found it difficult to concentrate on her job as she made preparations to travel. There were letters to answer from Cunard, as well as the ESU, and her leave to sort out. 

1940 May 5 Wrote to Cunard, ESU. The War news is depressing. May 6 Called at the [education] office re U.S.A. leave – may hear in a week’s time – do hope it’s good news. May 9 My leave is through – the Managers will pay and their congrats. Whoopee!

May 10 Holland and Belgium invaded by Germany early this morning. Went through to Liverpool to see about passport. Looks as if my trip to USA is off with a capital O. Fortune of war but, gee, am I disappointed. May 15 Wilhelmina spoke to her people on the wireless. Fierce fighting in Belgium. First lot of refugees arriving at Hulme Hall [Port Sunlight].

The Germans had now reached Boulogne but the RAF was fighting back. Towards the end of May, Belgium capitulated. Although Jim felt that invasion was imminent, she continued with her plans.

May 18 Registered passport and sent voyage deposit. Feel more hopeful about travelling now. May 20 France changed their Commander in Chief. Holland, France and Germany suffered terribly from bombing. Our RAF doing splendidly. Received my embarkation fees [request for]– it will be a tight squeeze to find money for fare.

May 21 The news at 9pm very grave indeed. The Germans are near the French ports. We are working full pressure at armaments – petrol is up another penny halfpenny, bringing it to one and elevenpence halfpenny. Letter from the Education Authorities granted me leave of absence and congrats.

Jim’s 1940 passport photograph
Jim’s 1940 passport photograph

The permission to take time off school must have been a great relief for Jim. She asked for it to last until the end of September despite the Summer School being due to finish in August.

May 22 Germans bomb the channel ports. The children brought registration cards to school and made covers for them. News a little better – Arras taken back by the allies. At 4pm went through tunnel, had passport [photo] taken. Shawl women, soldiers, German Jews. Then went on to see the American Consul at Cunard Building. Will have to call in person for my visa.

Jim often cheered herself up by watching a film and on Monday May 26, she enjoyed Noel Coward’s Private Lives in Chester, proving T E Lawrence’s prediction quoted in The Long Weekend that the play would stand the test of time; written in 1930, it would last much longer than its first decade.

To go or not to go

On May 27, Jim wrote to the ESU expressing concern about the wisdom of pursuing the trip. She said she was keen to travel and wanted to do good but did not want to be seen as deserting England at such a critical time. Surprisingly under the circumstances, the ESU replied positively and arrangements moved on apace.

1940 May 30 News very grave. Invasion of this country quite likely. May 31 War news depressing – it sure looks as if we shall be invaded. Letter from ESU. That we visit USA is still on the cards. Jun 3 Paris bombed. Jun 4 Letter from Chautauqua welcoming us as candidates, also letter from shipping company – everything seems all serene so far.

Jim’s first wartime diary was now full and she changed to a similar one with a blue cover. This is the journal which was to last only three months.  As the Battle for France raged on, she was making preparations for her departure. She makes no specific mention of the Dunkirk evacuation which had been happening at this time. Were the next three months to bring any new information about Hugh? Perhaps Jim had met him at Chautauqua.

1940 Jun 8 Went to Liverpool. Got my visa. Jun 13 War news bad – looks as if Paris will fall. Come on America – send us those planes. Jun 14 News very grave – Paris has fallen. Our Queen spoke in French to the women of France. Feel convinced that WE WILL WIN! Am still arranging to go to USA. Jun 15 French are retreating and Germans pushing on. It needs a miracle to stop it now. Feel very worried as to whether I should go. Jun 17 FRANCE HAS FALLEN. Jun 20 Letter from Cunard.  Sail on Tuesday. Just announced as I write this – Andania has been lost between London and New York.

HMS Andania was torpedoed on June 16 off Iceland. She was one of the Cunard White Star Line with which Jim was about to travel and had been requisitioned at the beginning of the war and converted to an armed merchant cruiser. Although Andania was sunk, all crew were rescued by an Icelandic trawler and delivered safely to Scapa Flow the following day. However, this emphasises how risky a voyage across the Atlantic was at this time.

Jun 22 Am now settling down to packing. Rather a thrill fixing on the Cunard White Star labels. Jun 23 News rotten. France’s complete capitulation. Feel very shaky about going. Jun 24 Spent day phoning London, Cunard etc. Practically decided not to go. Threw in my hand at 9pm. Boat sails tomorrow at 8:30 am. We had our first real AIR RAID WARNING in the night – sat downstairs. Jun 25 Broke the ice by returning to school. Day of National Mourning in France. Their arms laid down. The flag of France trails in the dust.

Jim’s courage had almost run out. A passenger list shows that she was originally booked to travel from Liverpool to New York on the Scythia but her name was crossed out. Her fellow Scholarship holder, Audrey Stone, did however travel on this passage but Jim’s ship, HMS Samaria, eventually overtook it and the girls arrived in Chautauqua together. Changing her mind once more, Evelyn hardly had time to complete her packing.

Jun 27 Thinking of going again. Sent a wire. Jun 28 Have steeled myself to go. Packed all evening. Mother helped. Jun 29 Left about 7am with Rob and Mother. Drove in via Mersey Tunnel Dock Entrance to Liverpool. There was much formality at Cunard. We finally went off on a tender called The Skirmisher and at last arrived on the 20 [thousand] ton Samaria. It sailed out of the river about 5:30 the same day with a cosmopolitan crowd on board. Latvians, Dutch, French, Poles, Canadians, Americans, Australians, Chinese, Japs, Russians, Germans and Jews of all kinds.

The frequent mind-changing must have taken its toll on Jim’s state of mind. Nevertheless, she would have boarded the ship with a mixture of excitement and relief. Jim had left Liverpool on a ship crowded with refugees. Noticing numerous nationalities on board, she must have wondered whether she and they would ever return home to normal life. The international news of the preceding weeks had upset Jim. Now she could look forward to the trip, even if it didn’t begin too well.

Jun 30 Spent the day being very seasick. Got up for a boat drill. Each night at 11:30 for five nights our watches go back one hour.

On arrival in New York, Jim began writing home and her letter displays the excitement she felt. She began My dear Mother.

Jim’s diary, the June to September one, is full of detail about her experience at Chautauqua. During the six weeks, Jim had the time of her life, keeping up her swimming and absorbing American culture. Everywhere they went, she and Audrey received a warm welcome.

Invitation to Tea at which Jim gave a speech
Invitation to Tea at which Jim gave a speech

Speeches

The public-speaking course required the girls to give speeches. One item we donated to the ESU was a postcard-sized invitation. Headed ‘English-Speaking Union Chautauqua Chapter’, it has the Institution logo at the top. The group had organised an afternoon tea for the Chautauqua Woman’s [sic] Club. This was a substitute for the annual luncheon and in honour of the scholarship holders. They were to give the speeches. The event would cost a dollar, the usual price of the lunch. Profits from the tea would go to the ESU’s war work.

Jim had given her speech the previous day at another Women’s Meeting when she described the experience as my first experience of a microphone and I spoke on “Why Britain Will Win this War”.  It was a great success. On the day, the Chautauqua Daily publicised the event saying: The two English girls came to Chautauqua several weeks ago from England and will discuss conditions in their homeland at the time of their departure. Both have engaged in some type of war work and have relatives serving in the army. The following day, August 2, the newspaper carried a detailed report with details of Jim’s speech.

“We have every faith in our government led by Winston Churchill”, said Miss Roy. As far as economic resources are concerned, “Great Britain is stronger than at the beginning of the war. It is true that our food is rationed but that is done so that our ships will be free to carry armaments,” she continued. Expressing great confidence in the systems of English local defense [sic], Miss Roy holds the belief that the enemy would have great difficulty in landing any forces in her country. She explained that at the time of her departure about a month ago soldiers were already quartered in Northern Ireland. Miss Roy cited the great crowds of refugees who hindered military traffic on the continent as one of the prime causes figuring in the defeat of France. She reported that all English citizens have been given orders to stay at home away from the combat zone, and assured her audience that every loyal Englishman would do this. The speaker admitted the air superiority of the Germans but declared that with the importation of planes from America Britain was gaining strength daily.

On another occasion, Jim gave a speech entitled Censorship. In yet another brown envelope, I found her draft for this. It shows that she told her audience why censorship was so necessary in Great Britain. It was just one part of the defence strategies for the country. She went into detail about the war on the home front and suggested what the Americans could do to help.

Cuttings from the Chautauqua Daily which reported Jim's speech
Cuttings from the Chautauqua Daily which reported Jim's speech

On July 18 Jim’s talk was ‘Women’s Work in Britain Today’. She began by reminding her audience that women as well as men were being conscripted and that women Territorials clad in khaki uniforms and stockings do the work that frees men for front line fighting. She listed occupations such as telephonists, cooks, transport clerks and the special work of the WAAFS with Morse code. Many of the WRENs had given up well-paid jobs to endure naval discipline and conditions. ARP wardens patrolled for lights and checked gas masks. The Voluntary Aid Detachments had women working as ambulance drivers, nurses and letter-writers for wounded servicemen. Jim described the work of Land Girls. Ordinary women in the home were saving paper, tins and bottles to be recycled. They saved food scraps for poultry and pigs.

Jim then went on to say how American women could assist by giving clothing and blankets to the Red Cross and helping in the administration of such organisations. She closed with a heartfelt plea.

We cannot wait; sympathy is good but we want armaments and money. Use your own organisations and convert your gifts of time and money into lives saved. Help us to win not a great military victory but a just peace for all nations.

Time to go home

The summer school came to an end on August 16. Jim had to sit a speech examination in the morning. Then she listened to a debate in which speakers aired their varying views about America entering the war. Frantic packing preceded dinner then there was an overnight journey with Audrey to Washington. Jim’s scrawl was not easy to read and, with so many words on a page, impossible to scan quickly. I eventually read every word of her account of the Summer School. No-one was called Hugh.

There was to be a fortnight of hospitality from the ESU. At the station, news of the London Blitz shocked her. The girls dined as guests of the British Embassy and their hosts took them to a Country Club. In Washington, there was time for shopping including silk stockings for her mother. Noting the apparent divide between rich and poor, the city’s contrasts filled Jim with horror.

More sight-seeing and visits to the homes of wealthy officials followed before the train journey to New York where Jim met with more ESU contacts including a young man named Wilfred Hart. She had interesting conversations with Americans.

It was necessary to make decisions about the return to England, a journey Jim now viewed with some trepidation. She booked her passage home on August 21, visiting the shipping office with Wilfred. She made sure that she did some more shopping over the next few days before boarding the boat. By sheer coincidence, she found herself once again on the Samaria. Perhaps it was comforting to find herself in familiar surroundings. However, this voyage was very different.

There were only about eighty passengers, mostly men, and many of them returning to Britain to join up. Jim soon set about getting to know her fellow passengers, recording details in her diary. Over the next days, she wrote about how they spent their time – talking, dancing and generally enjoying each other’s company.  She named some but Hugh was not among them.