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London in the Blitz – with Joyce Grenfell. By Laura Grenfell

Blog | By Laura Grenfell | Nov 14, 2020

Sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz (Imperial War Museum)

Throughout the war years, my mother, Laura Grenfell, wrote regularly to her six older siblings.

In 1940, she was 20, living with parents in Chesham Place in London, the hub of an eccentric family, and working as a private secretary to Lady Reading, founder and Chairman of the Women’s Voluntary Service. Her letters report from the family base, passing on news from brothers, sisters and wider family: some in the army, one with a PoW husband in Germany, one evacuated to Canada, with five small children, one working in Shadwell with bombed-out refugees, and a sister-in-law, Joyce Grenfell, in a new stage show.

Geordie Fergusson


37 Chesham Place, S.W.1.

17 November 1940

Darlings all,

This is a disgrace; I haven’t connected with my writing paper until today Sunday. How are you all? There don’t seem to have been much in the way of letters from any of you, but of course there isn’t much time and posts are delayed. Just after I had finished the last letter, one came from Harry[1], which just saved his bacon. He has been temporarily in command of his battery, while Christopher Hanbury was away on leave, I suppose he will become C in C at any moment now. Harry, darling, I am so glad you will be getting your leave over Xmas. You do arrange these things well. Plans are still in a haze rather, as Mummy doesn’t know what she ought to do about Hermione[2]. Frances[3] suggested us taking a cottage up in Scotland near Ardchattan which would have been wonderful, but I do see that if Hermione needs any of us we ought to go to her to help it is going to be so beastly for her, without John[4] too.

Fuff, it is going to be lovely seeing you, I can hardly wait. I gather that Mummy[5] starts off from here on Tuesday, passing through Coventry[6] and Newark on the way, then arriving at Edinburgh where she meets you and then spending the weekend at Aunt Syb’s[7] and then bringing you back to do a round of the country members of the family. You’re almost a foreigner – you’ve been out of England so long now. I do hope you remember how to behave in this country “down south”. I think it all an admirable plan from every point of view. Are letters still coming from Patrick? I was rather surprised at the publicity and protests about Camp V11 c/H as I had rather gathered from what you told us that it wasn’t too bad, according to his letters. Still I’m all for them being made to make it better. What is the position about sending out parcels? Do you have to send them to London before they go? I thought you had been to see the packing up place in Perth and actually seen them packing it all up. I am glad you were able to send him another parcel, and that with the one he had before, and any comforts which get sent out for distribution should help a great deal, shouldn’t it?

Geoff[8]. I have been trying to get in touch with you on the telephone for ages, but they always say that there is a delay, or else the siren goes and then it’s never any good trying. I hope you got my letter about the bicycle for Jenny; I don’t know how we can get it out to her as things are at present. They seem to have tightened up all the regulations about sending things out even more than before. For the benefit of the rest of the family, things may be sent out to Canada, under £5 in value, marked as Christmas Gifts for evacuees, up to December 24th. According to the man in the Army and Navy Export Dept. after that all gifts or anything sent out must be paid for in Canadian currency. I can’t quite see how this can work, as however willing I personally am to fall in with that, if I want to send anything out, I don’t possess any Canadian currency, and if I did surely the Government would have it by now. I suppose the idea is that Mary would have to pay for it from her side, but the Govt. don’t seem to have thought up how she is to do that either. It must be going to be changed as its absolutely stalemate at the moment.

We suddenly had rather a social week last week. Harold Grenfell[9] turned up, he is now working in the Admiralty, and he came to dinner resplendent in gold braid. My goodness, he is good-looking. I was slightly staggered as when I opened the door to let him in, I was greeted with a smacking kiss, not that I’ve any objection, but I was a bit taken by surprise. He seemed in very good spirits, and asked about you all. We hoped to get a lot of news out of him, but my goodness the navy is the silent service and no mistake. That same night we had Mr Hodson[10] to dinner, he was the one who stayed with Hermione with his wife and two little boys all the beginning months of the war. His wife has now gone out to Australia, and he is living in 32 Chesham Place. He works at the Ministry of Information, and used to edit the Round Table whatever-it-was. He was quite nice, with quite a lot to say, but most of what he said in a conspiratorial tone was already public property. However it cheered Daddy[11] up a lot. He is alternately convinced that the war is as good as over, because we have at last “hit Musso a crack on the head”, and then rather despondent, because we haven’t already invaded any and every country under the sun. However he really was thrilled at the Italian news, and went about clearing his throat with such gusto and smacking the newspaper with such loud reports, that Mummy and I thought the blitz krieg was as nothing in comparison.

Yesterday I went out to lunch with Sandy Thorne[12], and we had oysters! We tried to get in to Joyce’s [13] revue, but the house was full up and although we tried to pull every string we could and talked about Joyce in a very loud voice, they said there simply was not a seat to be had, which was very disappointing. However we went to a film called Foreign Correspondent[14]. It was the first film I have seen since the blitz began, and I enjoyed it madly. We got in for the middle of the film which was rather hair-raising and made more so as we were never sure who was villain. It was quite a good film any way, but being the first after such a long gap, it seemed wonderful to me. There was also a very good March of Time[15] film about the R.A.F. and then a good news reel too. After that we went to Gunters[16] for tea, and had enormous cups of chocolate and cakes, and then came rolling home very replete, jumping once rather when the Hyde Park gun went off and we had forgotten it was even there. I felt like an Eton boy being taken for an outing and enjoyed it very much. I must add that after the oysters we had lobster!

I came home to find that Dumpy Masterman[17] was turning up for dinner. She had come up expecting to find Aunt Meessee, and when she had found she wasn’t here she came here for the night instead. She must have thought us a very queer family. The night before had been rather violently blitzy and Mummy hadn’t had one wink of sleep all the way through. I went out on the mobile canteen early, and I’m always so nervous of not waking up when the alarm clock goes, that I hadn’t slept much either. Then eating all that during the day, when I came in in the evening, I just couldn’t stay awake, and in the rudest way just went fast to sleep during the news. I wasn’t called this morning and so didn’t see Dumpy before she went. She is joining up the A.T.S.[18] in the photographic section. She said they asked her whether she minded being near guns when they went off, and as she had been in the country since the war began, she answered that she hadn’t any experience of it as she wasn’t in the habit of doing it. Nevertheless they took her on, and apparently she has to stand near a gun and register where the shots go. I hope she is allowed to put cotton wool in her ears.

We have been having the most extraordinary different kinds of night. Sometimes the all-clear goes at about 10 and nothing more happens all night and then, like the night before last, nothing stops all night long and things go on dropping wholesale. Poor Coventry must have had it horribly badly. It is so funny, the London reaction to something like that, everyone is very disappointed that it didn’t happen here, as Londoners feel it’s their perquisite to have the air war, and it’s almost cheating of any other town to have it.

Harold and every one seem very confident about our flights over Germany and about our progress in the air, and their tails are up very high.

We had quite an excitement the other day. In the office at 4.30. A warning was in progress, but the spotters hadn’t spotted anything. Suddenly there was a whizz and a bang, and Lady R[19] said “Quick there’s another coming get under the table”. So she got under her table from one side, and the man she was interviewing got under it from the other side, and I whistled under mine. Sure enough, there was another whizz and bang, and we all bobbed up to look out of the window. There was stuff flying in the air, and tiles and bricks hurtling up. Then another whizz, much nearer, and half the office thought they really were finished, but luckily for us it missed us. Then we crawled out from the tables and went down to the shelter, the aeroplane by that time being a good hundred miles away. I must say the little typists and people were wonderful. A good many of them have had their homes bombed, and when one thinks of the calibre of a Miss Thorne[20], it’s pretty good of them to stand up to something like that, without turning a hair. Any way the spotters spot so hard now that they are frequently making us go down to the shelter, when there isn’t a plane anywhere near London at all!

I came back that evening, feeling that I had at last seen something slightly exciting, and told my story, without raising any interest much, so rather piqued I dressed it up a lot, and made out the bombs were much nearer than they were, which of course had the adverse effect and Mummy kept treating me as if I was suffering from shell shock, and told Daddy not to clear his throat too loud, as after “my experiences” I couldn’t bear bangs. So then I had to go to great length to say it wasn’t really as bad as I had made it out! Isn’t life complicated?

As a matter of fact, nothing could be duller than the life we lead at the moment. We very seldom see anyone, but live in a complete pie, all on top of one another, morning noon and night. If I go out of the room in the evening, Mummy gets in an agitation, so it simply isn’t worth it, and it’s rather difficult to ask people in as we haven’t got any gas yet, and although we have absolutely normal meals cooked on the stokes cooker, it is difficult to do for more than three people. Also, we live in such a curious hugga mugga with my bed as the side board, and the dressing table as the other, that although we enjoy pigging it I don’t think it would impress others much. So we very seldom see or hear any one or anything, and our conversation goes the same old round again and again. We go to sleep and wake up, have breakfast and dinner in the same way day after day, with very monotonous regularity. Still I suppose we should be devoutly grateful for that! The great thing is to have a grumble, and as I can’t grumble about being bombed out, I just have to grumble about not being bombed out. What a ridiculous race we are.

We got to the office the other morning to find all the windows blown in. It was rather interesting. The day before the man had been round sticking muslin over them. A land mine dropped somewhere in Victoria Street, and so although the muslin hadn’t prevented the windows shattering, the shattered bits all stuck together, and we just peeled windows out of the frames and rolled them up on the carpet! It took an amazingly short time to clear it up, as the blinds had been very effective in preventing any of the glass, even where there was no muslin, from flying across the rooms. I thought it was going to be freezing and draughty, but it seems that a room with no glass in the windows, and the glass pane out of the door, is far less draughty than one with a small crack of one window open.

Writing letters has the most awful effect on me and I do apologise. It is looked on as rather bad form to ever mention bombs nowadays, and certainly they have become such a part of existence, that they are no more interesting than any other every day incident. So I never indulge in an orgy unless I’m writing to you, which is so unfair and probably gives you a completely false idea of how much it affects London life.

[Manuscript post-script to FC-P]

Darling, your letter came today (Mon) & finds us still undecided about Xmas. Still you’ll be seeing Mummy & can talk to her about that!

How very strange that Daddy’s letter & not yours should have reached Patrick, they must have thought you were writing in code, & have held them up. I said to Sandy how difficult it was to write to Patrick trying to give him news - & he said that a little colonel had gone round every Division & had told them that in the event of being captured if they got letters with a telephone number at the top, say Slo 8178[21], the 8th letter in the first line, first in the second, 7th in the third & 8th in the fourth, in rotation, could be made into words. Had you heard anything of that? The only weak thing is that Sandy said the prisoners could communicate themselves in that way, but I imagine the camp censor would raise an eyebrow if Patrick headed his letter Bonawe 204! Still ask about it.

Oh honey, it will be lovely seeing you. Give Mary Ann[22] a huge kiss from me - & take care of yourself. You’ll need your warm clothes here – it’s cold & damp!

All love – see you soon.

Loll

[1] Harry Grenfell (1905-85), older half-brother of Laura Grenfell (LMG). Serving in Royal Artillery in Yorkshire; had been evacuated from Dunkirk. Later badly wounded at Kohima 1944, losing both legs; subsequently Director of the British South Africa Chartered Company in Northern Rhodesia.

[2] Hermione Hichens, née Lyttelton (1894-1985), sister of LMG’s mother Hilda Grenfell. Her husband Lionel, Chairman of Cammel Laird, had been killed in Church House, Westminster in the London blitz on 14 October.

[3] Frances Campbell-Preston, née Grenfell (b 1918). Sister of LMG (who addresses her as “Fuff”). Her husband Patrick had been captured with the 51st Highland Division at St Valéry in June 1940. Ardchattan is the Campbell-Preston family home in Argyll.

[4] John Hichens (1920-44). Son of Hermione. Serving with Royal Artillery.

[5] Hilda Grenfell, née Lyttelton (1886-1972). LMG’s mother (‘HMG’). President of the YWCA 1934-42, then Vice-President World YWCA

[6] The main raid on Coventry, in which nearly 600 people were killed and around two-thirds of the city’s buildings were destroyed or damaged, had been on 14-15 November.

[7] Lady Sybil Middleton, née Grey (1882 1966). Sister of the first wife of LMG’s father Arthur Grenfell. Volunteer Auxiliary nurse in 1914-16; co-founder with Lady Muriel Paget of Anglo-Russian Hospital in Petrograd and established and served in several field hospitals on the Eastern Front, sustaining a grenade wound to her face. Married Lambert Middleton (1877-1941)

[8] Geoffrey, Earl Waldegrave (1905-95), married to LMG’s sister Mary, who had evacuated to Canada in July, with five children (and pregnant). Serving with the Royal Artillery near Bristol.

[9] (Later Commander) Harold Grenfell (1906-86), son of Lt Col John Pascoe Grenfell (a brother of AMG).

[10] H.V. "Harry" Hodson (1906-99). Editor of ‘The Round Table” 1934-39, Director of the Empire Division of the Ministry of Information 1939-41; editor Sunday Times 1950-61, Director of Ditchley Foundation 1961-71.

[11] Arthur Grenfell (1873-1958), LMG’s father (AMG). Entrepreneur: very successful business career before bankruptcy in March 1914; served First World War in France 1914-18 (army and RAF); partly based in Austria in 1920s, involved in various business ventures thereafter.

[12] Andrew “Sandy” Thorne (1912-91). Son of Gen Sir Andrew (‘Bulgy’) Thorne. Married LMG’s friend Joscelyne Verney, 1941.

[13] Joyce Grenfell, née Phipps (1910-79), married to LMG’s brother Reggie. Had just started in a Farjeon revue “Diversions” at Wyndham’s Theatre – matinées only, so was able to continue working in the evenings at a Canadian Red Cross Hospital at Cliveden.

[14] ‘Foreign Correspondent’, 1940 Hitchcock spy thriller, described as "a masterpiece of propaganda, a first-class production’ by Joseph Goebbels.

[15] ‘March of Time’, American monthly documentary newsreel series that ran from 1935-51. Its October 1940 film was “Britain’s RAF”

[16] Gunter’s Tea Shop in Curzon Street, closed 1956.

[17] Dorothy Masterman 1914-81, daughter of Charles Masterman and Lucy (“Aunt Meessee”, sister of LMG’s mother Hilda).

[18] Auxiliary Territorial Service, women’s section of the army 1938-49 (when it morphed into the Women’s Royal Army Corps).

[19] Stella, Lady Reading, née Charnaud (1894-1971). Founder and Chairman of the Women’s Voluntary Service: LMG’s boss.

[20] Miss Thorne, AMG’s secretary.

[21] Sloane 8178 – the Grenfell’s number at Chesham Place

[22] Mary Ann Campbell-Preston (b 1940), Frances C-P’s daughter.