Back in April I was browsing the stalls at my local flea market. A brown, tattered suitcase caught my eye. I love old suitcases, and this one was small and battered to perfection. I asked how much it was and the seller replied that it would be £25 because it had so much inside. I hadn’t realised the contents – lots of photos, cards and pieces of paper – were ‘part of the package’. I had a little look through… The contents seemed to have belonged to a gentleman called Alfred and most of the items were from WWII era. It really was fascinating, if not a little sad. How does somebody’s paper life-story end up on a market stall? I often see this type of thing… I never quite understand how there could be no relatives of these people who would want to ‘look after’ these memories.
Anyway, much as I would have liked to buy the suitcase and its fascinating contents, I concluded that £25 was too much to spend. The seller offered me the case by itself for £5 so I agreed and as I handed over my money, the seller emptied the contents on to the table. I really did feel pretty awful about that and I can’t even tell you why.
The seller started to arrange the contents of the suitcase on his stall and commented that there was a diary that had been filled in from cover to cover. He could obviously tell that I was interested in all these homeless mementos and he very kindly dropped the diary into the suitcase and said that I could have it. I wondered what Alfred had written about… so much of his collection had stemmed from the war years and it was apparent that he had been in military action.
I was very surprised when I opened the diary and saw that the writer was actually a woman – Sheila.
Sheila had written her name, address, weight, height and birthday. She was 17, and the year was 1948.
I may never know quite why the diary was in the collection of photos etc. in the gentleman’s suitcase. Perhaps Sheila had a connection to Alfred. My immediate thought was that it was his wife’s diary, however I eventually discovered that this was not the case.
I sat and read Sheila’s diary and I can’t even begin to explain how wonderful it is. There is an entry for every single day of 1948. The pure joy of the diary is that Sheila has recorded everyday events and routines, but even the mundane feel fascinating almost 70 years later. It is the most incredible insight into the life of a young woman in post-war Britain. Sheila lived at home with her parents and she had a boyfriend she adored called Eric. Most days make mention of Eric, and whether Sheila has seen him. When they do see each other they go to the pictures (Sheila actually goes to the pictures at least once every week), play cards, draughts and darts and get fish and chips. As a couple they seem like best friends, and I can only imagine how hard Sheila found it when Eric joined the air force and went away in August of that year.
On the 5th August Sheila writes,
“Eric’s gone today . Does feel lonely without him. Stayed in at night and embroidered some of my table cover. Bought some envelopes, a pad and stamps”
For the rest of the year, Sheila reports daily whether she has written to Eric or received a letter.
However, in between writing to Eric, Sheila also records so much else. It really is a joy to read. She knits, she sews, she also does quite a bit of housework for her mother. She takes a great pride in her appearance and she comments a couple of times a week that she has ‘put my curlers up’ and washed her stockings and her ribbons. There is also mention of mending clothes, altering them to fit and pressing/ironing them. She goes out with friends to the pictures and she goes for tea at family member’s houses.
Occasionally she remarks after seeing Eric that they ‘had a bit of fun’. I’m guessing that this may be a euphemism for something!
The diary finishes on the 30th December 1948. Sheila writes,
“Stayed in. Did a jigsaw puzzle. Evelyn came up, listened to a play. Washed my stockings. Went to bed at 10”
Sheila’s diary is a happy diary, in actual fact her life of simple pleasures sounds incredibly alluring in today’s high-tech, high-speed world. I’m not sure how happy or carefree the post-war 1940s were for society in general – a time of great austerity, where many families had lost loved ones, when money was tight and rationing still existed. What the diary illustrates so perfectly is the happiness that can be gained from small things. The simple things – love, family, taking care of yourself, friends – these are the things that are timeless and as relevant today as they were 67 years ago.
You may be interested to know that I was able to find out that Sheila and Eric married in 1953. I also discovered that they both sadly passed away in recent years.
While I didn’t know Sheila, I cant help but feel a real fondness for the 17-year-old who has unwittingly shared her year with me.
(NB The photographs shown accompanying Sheila’s diary are not of Sheila. They are photos from my personal collection of my grandma and her friends in the 1940s, they give a good illustration of the fashions the time.)