Home Fires Women Don’t Go Quietly

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It is almost three weeks since Home Fires was dropped by ITV but the noise on social media shows no signs of quietening. There is an impressive cross-section of people who comment on Facebook and Twitter. The majority of supporters are women but there is a strong male presence which, when I assessed it, almost matches the drama in terms of representation. I was once again reminded of Mark Umbers (Wing Commander Lucas) wise words when he wrote how the Home Fires story is told from the female perspective in a way that does not diminish its male characters. That’s exactly right and is one of the reasons why it has a strong male following as well as the perhaps-to-be-expected female audience.

St Boniface Church, Bunbury. Today’s view has hardly changed in 75 years.

This got me thinking about the profile of wartime villages in Britain. It was not the same as in the towns and cities, where factory workers were split almost 50/50 but the men were a great deal older, about 11 years on average, than they had been in the 1930s. The young men had in the main been conscripted. Women stepped up to the plate and took on roles that were hitherto the domain of men. They drove buses, became tram conductors, they made machines and munitions. In the countryside it was different. Women’s roles had changed in the Great War and with the birth of the WI they had a stronger sense of community than their urban counterparts. By 1916 women in the countryside made up a significant proportion of the labour force on farms. It is estimated that over 600,000 women worked in agriculture in the First World War, of which just 1/10th were members of the Women’s Land Army. The rest were wives, mothers, daughters of farmers and farm labourers who worked more often than not for no pay. It was simply expected that they would pick up where their young men had left off.

Rolling forward two decades these women, now a generation older, knew that they would have to do the same as they had done in the previous war. This time they were better organised. The Women’s Institute, formed in 1915, was a huge help in that it offered a ready-made structure to get things done: to bust the government’s bureaucratic logjams and keep the countryside ticking. They also knew that this time they would be more directly involved. The editor of Home & Country wrote in 1940:

‘Women who were grown up in the last war remember, as hardest to bear, the thought that young lives were being paid for their safety. Young men are defending us now, in a manner beyond praise. But this time we have the honour of sharing a little of the danger.’

Mrs Dunne, county chairman of Herefordshire wrote to her eighty-five presidents: ‘We must remember that “The main purpose of WIs is to improve and develop conditions in rural life.” To do this we must not neglect the education and social side of our movement. The war threatens civilisation, and we must do our best through the stress and turmoil to preserve all that is good and beautiful and true.’

There is something so stoical in these remarks. They are not headline grabbing or startling in their insight. They are not even particularly passionate but they are solid, determined and focused. Nothing, not even a war, was going to put the countrywoman off her stride. Throughout my research for Jambusters I found countless references to women who would carry on meetings or jam-making in an air-raid ‘because it had to be done’. A Kent member would shout and wave a clenched fist at the German planes flying overhead, not out of rage but out of frustration that it meant she had to abandon her fruit picking or gardening while they fought overhead. Other women sprang to help evacuees from the Blitz on Coventry and Plymouth, offering them practical help, such as a bath and a bed for the night. If there was anything they could do to help they would do it.

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Farrow Farm, Great Paxford

Simon Block has managed to capture this sense of community in his glorious fictional Great Paxford. I think one of the reasons why so many viewers react passionately towards Home Fires is that they recognise this as something they knew or or learned of through parents, grandparents or older siblings. It is living history in the most visceral way. Yet, as I have said before, Home Fires wears its history lightly. So it speaks to our sense of community, to our understanding of the role played by women in the war and, frankly, to our debt to them that they did so bravely and with humour. Looking at Frances Barden, can you not see how similar she is to Mrs Dunne of Herefordshire? Not speaking the same words but understanding the same sentiment: ‘to preserve all that is good and beautiful and true.’ In her own way, Joyce Cameron wants the same, but in the first series she is too stuck in her old ways to see that preserving something can mean allowing it to change with the times. By series two she is a changed woman and we find ourselves warming to her more and more. When Malcolm shows her the picture of her baby granddaughter I had hot tears in my eyes as I watched the brilliant, regal Francesca Annis do what every proud grandmother would do, which is to beam with joy. But Home Fires also speaks with a modern tongue to issues that cross generations: domestic abuse, loneliness, prejudice, racism and love. I think that Simon’s characters, in the hands of the outstandingly gifted cast and the superb camera crews, sound engineers, make-up artists, directors and producers, give us something that we really get. These are people who are real to us every Sunday evening, so that they have become like friends who we talk about all the next week. That is one of the reasons, I believe, that Home Fires has such a strong and passionate following.

I am going to end with a quote from the Chairman of the Women’s Institute, Lady Denman, from October 1939. If you want to change the words and see what I’m getting at slightly tongue in cheek, you are most welcome to try.

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The Hon. Lady Gertrude Denman, Chairman of the NFWI, was an inspiring woman and a wonderful example to her membership

‘Germany is said to count on breaking our nerve. Every person who spreads an atmosphere of cheerfulness and quiet resolution at this time is helping to win the war. We are proud of the cause for which Britain is fighting, and those of us who are not called upon to endure the hardship of actual fighting, will be glad to feel that we have comforts to go without, difficulties to contend with in daily life, and that by meeting such troubles cheerfully and helping our neighbours to do so, we are taking our small share in winning the victory which we believe will come, but which will come only if the whole nation is ready to make willing sacrifice.’

#savehomefires

A Blithe Spirit – Peggy Sumner

When an old person dies it is traditional to look back over their whole life, starting at the beginning and ending at the end. However, in the course of my work researching the social history of the Second World War I inevitably enter the latter part of people’s lives. The risk of talking to someone about what happened seventy years ago is that their memory becomes coloured by the tint of history or by the influence of collective memory. Peggy Sumner was different. There was a freshness about her wartime memories that was captivating and believable. When describing her first WI meeting in Dunham Massey in 1938 she brought a lost-world to life:

‘Everyone was wearing heavy coats, hats, gloves, good solid thick stockings and well-soled shoes or boots. The predominant colour was black or navy blue and these were top coats that had been bought to last a lifetime. People were still in mourning from the Great War which had ended twenty years earlier and some of the coats dated from that era. The room itself was always cold. You had to push the emergency bar on the inside of the school room door to get into our room, which brought with it an icy blast of cold air in the winter. There were heating pipes around the room but they could not compete with the draughts, so we all kept our coats, gloves and hats on throughout the meetings.’

Peggy Sumner, 1940

I remember from my own school days those huge black heating pipes that burned your legs if you got too close to them but were useless against draughty doors and windows. In fact, our classrooms were a series of micro-climates which could almost certainly have sustained a variety of different forms of life, from polar bears to scorpions.

The president, Mrs Hughes, ran a tight ship and kept her committee in order. In the end she ran Dunham Massey WI for over a quarter of a century and in all that time Peggy and her sister Marjorie were members. There was little time for chit-chat. Peggy likened the meetings to church but she had a twinkle in her eye when she remembered the cakes. Even during the war the membership eschewed biscuits in favour of cakes. Biscuits were just not acceptable, she said simply:

‘The only time we talked was when the tea came round and the cakes were handed out. If you were at the end of the row you had to hope that a nice-looking cake you had spotted would not have been taken by the time it got to you.’

Last time I saw Peggy was in her house in Hale, near Altrincham. She had lived in the house with her sister since before the Second World War and although there were some modern details, it was essentially a 1940s house with a few 21st century trimmings, such as books and cards. Yet Peggy’s presence was anything but old or dusty. She was full of ideas about what WI outings she would like to take part in, even if her horizons were somewhat narrowed by her ninety-plus years. But she was also enthusiastic about what opportunities the WI was able to offer some of the newer, younger members who were just starting out on what she clearly thought was a great adventure.

‘The great thing about the WI is that you are one of a few who are all trying things out. I have seen members scared to open their mouths when they first joined who have ended up as President or on the county committee.’

Peggy at IWM North for the launch of Jambusters in 2013. She was so proud to be involved in the book and I was honoured to have been able to tell her story.

Peggy had that rare ability to telescope the years so that she was as at home talking about the 1940s as she was the 1990s or even the 2010s, if that is what they are now called. When I was reflecting last night on her long life it came to me that what Peggy Sumner was able to express was the spirit that never aged in her. She might have become frail and elderly but inside her mind was a seventeen year old girl who turned up at her first WI meeting and joined a family that lasted for over 77 years. Peggy did not have a career as such, nor did she push herself forward to take the lead in things but she lived a full and happy life and made other people’s lives better simply for being there. What a remarkable lady. She will be much missed. I am proud that her memories are perpetuated in Jambusters.

Is Cooking an Art or a Science?

The other day my youngest son said to me: ‘cooking is easy if you can read. Just follow the recipe.’ That got me thinking. Is cooking really as easy as that? Is it something we learn, we inherit from watching our parents in the kitchen, or what? Does one not need a bit of an instinct, a feel, for when something is right? A roux or a gravy, for example.

Recently I was asked to supply a recipe for wartime jam-making for The Times. I checked the records from the WI in 1944 and sent the following message: 3/4lb sugar to 1lb jam. ‘Yes, but what is the recipe?’ came back the reply. I was briefly baffled. There was no recipe per se. In those days women who ran country households made jam as a matter of routine. They didn’t use recipe books for preserving, pickling or bottling. They just did what their mothers and grandmothers had done. It was hard-wired into their cooking repertoire. Preserving fruit and vegetables was a way of life in an era when 70% of rural properties did not have electricity. Larders with north facing windows and long stone or slate shelves were the places to store fresh and cooked food and the closest thing most women had to a fridge.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured: CLAIRE RUSHBROOK as Pat Simms, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph Farrow, RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah King and CLAIRE PIRICE as Miriam Brindsley. Photographer: STUART WOOD This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to Home Firs, any further charge could incur a fee.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS
HOME FIRES
EPISODE 1
Pictured: CLAIRE RUSHBROOK as Pat Simms, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph Farrow, RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah King and CLAIRE PIRICE as Miriam Brindsley.
Photographer: STUART WOOD
This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited.

Of course there were recipe books and during the war a number of them were published by the Ministry of Food with suggestions for cooking with rations, while other, more adventurous, authors published recipes using herbs and wild fruits from the fields and hedgerows. But cookery basics were well-understood.
Currently the WI is running a campaign to encourage the teaching of Domestic Science in schools. This was the cornerstone of the early WI when it was set up in Canada in the end of the nineteenth century. But the burden of the education was not on cooking but hygiene in the kitchen. I would say that nowadays we understand hygiene but have perhaps lost our instinct for basic cookery. So yes, being able to read a recipe book should mean you can make a dish but the great art of cooking is to know instinctively what works and what does not.

In Home Fires there is an energetic jam making episode which exactly mirrors the ad hoc jam making by the Women’s Institute in 1939 when they saved 1,740 tons of fruit from going to waste by buying sugar from the Ministry of Supply. Waste not want not.

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