Citation
The domestic soldier

Material Information

Title:
The domestic soldier domesticity, identity, and change in Second World War and postwat Britain, a case study of Nella Last
Creator:
Purcell, Jennifer Jill
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
vi, 124 leaves : ; 28 cm

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
1900 - 1999 ( fast )
Housewives -- Biography -- Great Britain ( lcsh )
Women -- Biography -- Great Britain ( lcsh )
World War, 1939-1945 -- Great Britain ( lcsh )
Women -- Social conditions -- Great Britain -- 20th century ( lcsh )
Housewives ( fast )
Women ( fast )
Women -- Social conditions ( fast )
Great Britain ( fast )
Genre:
Biography. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
individual biography ( marcgt )
Biography ( fast )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 119-124).
General Note:
Department of History
Statement of Responsibility:
by Jennifer Jill Purcell.

Record Information

Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
|Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
57662578 ( OCLC )
ocm57662578
Classification:
LD1190.L57 2004m P87 ( lcc )

Full Text
THE DOMESTIC SOLDIER: DOMESTICITY, IDENTITY, AND CHANGE IN
SECOND WORLD WAR AND POSTWAR BRITAIN, A CASE STUDY OF
NELLALAST
by
Jennifer Jill Purcell
B.A., University of Colorado at Boulder, 1994
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
History


This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Jennifer Jill Purcell
has been approved
by
Date


Purcell, Jennifer Jill (M.A., History)
The Domestic Soldier: Domesticity, Identity, and Change in Second World War
and Postwar Britain, A Case Study of Nella Last
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Maijorie Levine-Clark
ABSTRACT
The British government in the Second World War created an inclusive
atmosphere that expanded citizenship. While women had gained the right to vote
before the war, the franchise was not usually an expression of citizenship on a
daily basis. The nature of total war, however, created a special situation in
which women could declare their rights of citizenship more often than the
occasional trip to the ballot box. Womens experiences on the homefront allowed
them to see their day-to-day efforts in the home and in the community as
necessary to the nation. Through the case study of Nella Last, who participated on
the homefront as both housewife and volunteer, this paper considers how the
junction between governmental rhetoric and womens work in the home and in the
community pushed the boundaries of womens citizenship.
The focus of this project investigates how the traditional, expected roles of
women in the home, as housewives and mothers, gave women a place in the
British nation and in the war effort. Nella Last was profoundly changed through
this experience of domestic citizenship. However, as the war faded from memory,
the importance of womens work in the home and the community diminished,
leaving Last with little opportunity to participate in the nation. Throughout the
war years and the postwar period, Last constantly renegotiated the boundaries of
her power within her family and with others in the community. This project spans
the war years and postwar years from 1939 to 1966 to investigate the idea of
citizenship through domesticity, the creation and renegotiation of womens power,
and change in womens lives as a result of war.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Signed
m


DEDICATION
I dedicate this thesis to my husband for all his understanding, support, and
sacrifice that allowed me to follow a dream
and to my mother who has always been my number one fan.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
I wish to thank all of the people who have supported me as I pursued my work in
this program. Majjorie Levine-Clark has been a great source of support and
learning, pushing me to become a better scholar and writer. Her door has always
been open and I thank her for all her patience with me when I walked through it!
Myra Rich and Elizabeth Karlsgodt have given me wonderful support and advice
through this process. All three have helped me grow this topic and I greatly
appreciate their help, support, and patience. Mark Foster and James Whiteside
have helped me grow as a scholar throughout my time in this program and I thank
them for their dedication to learning. I wish to acknowledge Dan Caldwell who
has taught me a great deal about teaching, which will be an incredible asset in
years to come. I also wish to thank the History department for giving me the
chance to change my career and follow a dream.
I wish to thank the wonderful people at the Mass-Observation Archive, University
of Sussex for all the help and patience they gave me. Joy Eldridge, Fiona
Courage, and Dorothy Sheridan were a joy to work with and their knowledge
proved a great asset to this project. I also want to thank the Trustees of the Mass-
Observation Archive, University of Sussex for providing such an incredible
resource for historians and social scientists.
Finally, I wish to thank my family and friends who have always been there and
supported me through this endeavor. Especially my husband Rob who supported
me financially and emotionally through this time and who was always willing to
listen and discuss this project. My mother deserves much thanks as she became
my research assistant on my trip to the Mass-Observation Archive. Her work
was much appreciated especially once I realized how difficult Nella Lasts
handwriting was and what a prolific a writer she was! Terri Gamer and Susan
Gustin have been great colleagues to work with and I appreciate all of their help,
talks, and advice.


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION...........................1
2. THE DOMESTIC SOLDIER AT HOME..........17
3. THE DOMESTIC SOLDIER IN THE COMMUNITY.48
4. THE DOMESTIC SOLDIER DEMOBILIZED......72
5. CONCLUSION............................98
APPENDIX
A. NELLA LASTS DIARY...................108
ENDNOTES.....................................110
BIBLIOGRAPHY.................................119
vi


CHAPTER ONE
INTRODUCTION
My husband said, Youre a queer lot you actually seem to like
danger and upset. Ive never seen you work so hard, or seen you so
cheerful for years... It set me pondering, and while it would be
wrong to say Im enjoying it, Ive a queer feeling that at last Ive
ceased to be always on the outside looking in.1
- Nella Last May 10, 1941
I feel so useless and little, my efforts so futile and feeble.
Nothing I can do or think or say, can really help the poor ones, my
heartsease and feeling of being worthwhile in the scheme of
things, passed when our dear tatty Red Cross shop closed its doors.
When I could gloat over the weeks taking, thinking so many poor
ones made happy for a little while it was like oil in the lamp.
Maybe Im war weary and a bit debilitated, certainly things have
rather got me down lately, try as I may.
-NellaLast Sept 13,1945
In the span of four years, these sentiments from Nella Last seem to signal a
change in how she perceived herself and her ability to shape the world around her.
At the beginning of the Second World War, Last was a forty-nine year old British
housewife who lived with her husband and twenty-one year old son in the
shipbuilding town of Barrow-in-Furness. The nature of total war created
opportunities for women like Last to participate in the nation through housewifery
and volunteering. Due to the mobilization of the homefront, Last and others could
fight for their country in their homes and communities. Government rhetoric told
1


women that without their domestic work the machine would break down. Women
were also encouraged to engage in paid employment or volunteer to assist the
nation in its hour of need. Last found herself at the center of both of these fronts:
she ran her house with cunning skill, and she volunteered with the Womens
Voluntary Service (W.V.S.), at a local canteen, and at a Red Cross Shop. War
infused Last with confidence and a feeling that she participated on the inside;
rather than always being on the outside looking in, Lasts war-work in the home
and the community gave her a place as an active citizen in the British nation. The
opportunities that Last took advantage of in wartime and the validation she
gleaned from her activities transformed her identity from a quiet and timid
housewife into a capable, respected, and confident woman and British citizen.
When the war ground to a halt at the end of 1945, Last felt these changes in
herself begin to slip away.
Lasts wartime and postwar experiences offer us a chance to explore the
changes that the crucible of war wrought within womens lives. These changes
impacted not only Lasts personal identity as a wife and mother, but also her
understanding of her place in the citizenry and in the nation. Additionally, Last
negotiated and renegotiated the boundaries of this identity and of her own power
as she attempted to gain a sense of purpose and validation throughout the war and
in her postwar life. This project investigates these aspects of Lasts experience
2


through an examination of her extensive diary, which she kept from 1939 to 1966.
Nella Last volunteered to keep a wartime diary in September 1939 at the
behest of Mass-Observation (M-O), a social research group begun in 1937 by
Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge. With war imminent, these researchers asked
Britons to answer questionnaires (or directives) and to keep diaries about
wartime activities, attitudes, and feelings. Last was one of about two hundred
people who agreed to keep a wartime diary.
If Mass-Observation had never asked Britons to record their feelings in
wartime diaries, it is quite likely that Nella Last would have escaped the gaze of
historians and passed her seventy-eight years unnoticed by the world. So many
women have lived and died this way, their voices remembered only by
descendants who pass down anecdotes through family history. Indeed, while it is
possible to reconstruct a glimpse of Lasts pre-diary days from her writing, these
experiences are mostly lost to the historian. Fortunately, Lasts wartime and
postwar voice is not lost: Last wrote nearly every day for almost twenty-six years,
the entries averaging eight handwritten pages. When compared to many of the M-
O diarists who discontinued writing after 1949 or who may have written several
days of entries on only one page, Lasts diary constitutes a significant resource.
The sheer length and volume of her diary prompted the appearance of an edited
version of her wartime writings, Nella Lasts WarA Mothers Diary 1939-1945.
3


The editors of this book estimate that Last wrote some two million words during
the six years of war alone.4
Lasts voluminous diary offers much that can help us gain perspective into
her life. It includes the day-to-day tasks and observations of a housewife drawn
into the mobilization of the homefront, and her postwar diary represents the life of
an aging woman coping with illness and a sick husband, the increasing distance
between a mother and her sons, and the challenges of the postwar world. In the
diary, Last relates her skills in domestic tasks such as cooking and sewing,
detailing almost every ingredient or stitch that went into her work. She brags
about her accomplishments and complains about annoyances. She gossips about
rich women who bought goods on the black market and women who did not put
the effort into wartime activities that Last felt she did. We follow her as she
volunteered at the Womens Voluntary Service Centre, the Canteen, and the Red
Cross Shop. She criticizes and analyzes the government, Germans, Americans,
and the people who entered her life. Lasts diary also sheds light on her pain and
worries about a son (Cliff) in the army. She confides her fears during the Blitz on
Barrow, her fears for postwar reconstruction, and fears for her family. She relates
aches and pains and nervous breakdowns. Problems in her relationships with her
husband and her sons also grace the pages. She even tells the reader what
programs she listened to on the radio or watched on the telly. For as much as
4


she tells us in her diary, Nella Last never divulges the name of her husband, and
although his occupation is listed as a joiner and shopfitter by the editors of Nella
Lasts War, Last says little about the type of work in which he actually engaged.5
Indeed, the absence of Lasts husbands name is the greatest omission in the diary
and may point to a deeper understanding of how she viewed her marriage, but this
I will explore in Chapter Five.
The copious pages of information contained within the diary make it an
important document for exploring Lasts activities and thoughts as wartime faded
into the new postwar world. Due to constraints of time and distance, which
restricted access to the diary, as well as the sheer length of Lasts writings, I am
forced to use the edited version of the war years.6 For the postwar period, I often
researched anniversaries of important historical dates, such as September 3 (the
beginning of the war) or May 8 (V-E Day). I utilized 1945,1949,1955, 1959 and
the last several months of the diary, from September 1965 to February 1966, more
than other years. Therefore, the evidence on which this paper is based does not
represent the diary as a whole. Important aspects of Lasts life, which might bear
upon the conclusions of this paper may, then, be unanalyzed.
There are other factors to be considered when using Lasts diary as an
historical document. First, a large portion of the diary, from 1944 to early 1945,
was lost in the move of the Mass-Observation archives to the University of
5


Sussex. We therefore lose a valuable resource since 1944 was an important year
in the war and also because Lasts son, Cliff, was injured during this period.
Additionally, Nella Last wrote for Mass-Observation, which meant that she
understood there would be an audience. It is therefore possible that she may have
filtered any thoughts which she believed might paint her in an unflattering light.
Furthermore, it is significant to realize the limitations of a diary to represent the
full context, experience, or even sense of self that the writer wanted to convey.
Naomi Mitchison, a writer and novelist, also participated in the Mass-Observation
diary project. In the forward to her edited M-0 diary, Among You Taking Notes,
she tells us of the discrepancies between what she recorded in the diary and how
she felt about the events and herself:
I look at this account of my life so many years back. Some of this
comes new to me, though I must have written it. It is odd that
events or sights that I remember most vividly dont seem to have
made it to the diary, or were not well enough expressed to go in.
There was so much more, but the seasons repeat themselves, the
branches break... Was I as I appear in the diary? I rather hope not
as I dont like myself very much.7
Mitchison did not feel that the diary accurately reflected how she saw herself. In
using a diary to explore past lives, therefore, it is important to proceed with care.
We must understand the reasons why the diary was written, investigate the
purposes it served, and finally, realize that a diary is only one representation of a
diarists reality.
6


Even given the limitations of diaiy analysis, it is still possible to gather an
idea of how Last saw herself during the tumultuous war years and the uncertain
postwar years that followed. With appropriate caution, the diary gives us access
to information that can help us understand how the war impacted Lasts personal
and national identity, as well as her understanding of citizenship. It can offer a
glimpse into the negotiation of power within Lasts various relationships,
especially with women in her community and her husband. The question of war
and change in Lasts life can also be engaged, thus contributing to wider historical
discussions about womens wartime and postwar experiences.
Historians have long pondered the effect that the Second World War had
on women in Britain. Conventional wisdom after the war argued that a major
shift in womens roles had occurred because of the war. In the 1950s, Vera
Brittain, among others, was one of the first to question this wisdom. Indeed,
Brittain wrote, The current conviction that British women owe their advance to
war still appears... to be... an illusion.8 Recent historiography has argued along
the same lines. Penny Summerfield and Harold Smith both assert that the war had
little long-term effect upon womens place in British society. Instead, they
contend, the wars capacity to change womens lives lasted only for the duration
of the war. Some historians have also noted that society either reverted back to
prewar conditions or that war simply hastened prewar trends. Indeed, David
7


Morgan and Mary Evans argue that the war acted as an accelerator [of pre-war
trends] rather than an innovator.9 Therefore, women may have perceived change
in themselves during the special conditions of wartime, but society actively
resisted change both during and after the war. On the other hand, Arthur Marwick
argues that the war was a stepping stone on the road towards womens
emancipation: in general the war meant a new economic and social freedom for
women, the experience of which could never be entirely lost.10
These and other historians have consistently used paid employment as a
barometer to measure the impact of war on womens lives. If women returned
home, the war failed to emancipate women. If women stayed in the workforce,
the war succeeded. The difference between the optimists and the pessimists is in
the span of time allowed for change to occur. The pessimists look to the years
directly following the war and point to womens desire to return home as evidence
that the wars changes were only temporary, while the optimists prefer to take a
longer view and highlight womens gradual emancipation over the decades since
the war. This focus on women and paid employment in the historiography of
womens wartime experiences seems to be linked to an assumption of the
emancipatory power of paid-work for women. However, this assumption has
recently been challenged by some who question this power when work is confined
within the context of patriarchal industrial capitalism.11
8


A return to the home and to domesticity often symbolizes as a failure in
the historiography of women and the Second World War. This representation has
led to an unbalanced history of womens experiences during the war and after.
Since historians have seen the engagement in paid employment as the apex of
womens emancipation and power, domestic work is often overlooked. The
imbalance created by such a view is further exacerbated by the fact that most
women in Britain were engaged not in paid war-work, but rather in domestic work
at home. While women in the paid workforce numbered approximately 7.2
million, there were over 8.7 million full-time housewives in Britain during the
war. Harold Smith uses these numbers to lament the oversight in the
historiography of womens wartime lives, stating that the historical emphasis on
womens paid war-work creates a distorted image of the wars effect by
neglecting the largest category of females: housewives.13 Yet, in the same
article, Smith ignores these numbers which demonstrate the centrality of domestic
experience in womens wartime lives; he allots only a few paragraphs about
housewives experiences before devoting the rest of his article to paid women
war-workers. Obviously, womens experiences in the workforce are still very
important to research. However, because the majority of womens lives during the
war revolved around the home and domesticity, research into this area obviously
deserves attention.
9


While historiographical interest in domesticity during the twentieth
century has begun to pique some historians interests, the domestic experience of
over 8.7 million women during the Second World War remains largely untouched.
In Out of the Cage, historians Penny Summerfield and Gail Braybon highlight the
double burden of women war-workers who also had to manage the home, but
their emphasis rests on womens paid work. Joanna Bourke, in Working-Class
Cultures in Britain 1890-1960, argues for the central importance work in the
home held for working-class women, but says surprisingly little about wartime
domesticity. Judy Giles considers the working-class meanings of home and
domesticity in Women, Identity and Private Life in Britain: 1900-1950. She
asserts that the home may be understood as both constricting and fulfilling,
allowing domesticity to be both empowering and restrictive.14 However, much
like Bourke, Giles fails to investigate womens domestic lives during World War
Two.15
Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska is one of the first historians to have broken
the domestic silence of womens wartime experience. She has written a major
work on rationing during the Second World War and the postwar years, which
provides insight into gendered attitudes towards and problems with austerity
measures in Britain. In Austerity in Britain, Zweiniger-Bargielowska underscores
the role women had as housewives during and after the war. She argues that
10


rationing placed constraints upon womens management of the home, and the
implementation of such austerity policies in the Second World War made
womens domestic skills a matter of national importance. Additionally,
Zweiniger-Bargielowska contends that austerity provided housewives with
political power: their disillusionment with continued rationing after the war
proved Labours downfall in the election of 1951 when the Conservatives
regained power. Bourke, Giles, and Zweiniger-Bargielowska provide important
reassessments of housewifery which move away from previous feminist
assumptions that domestic work can only be a confining drudgery for women.
Instead, these historians have pointed out the potential empowerment of
housework. By refuting the mainstream feminist assumptions about the inferior
status of domesticity, these historians have opened up an essential aspect of
womens lives for further investigation.16
This recent work on domesticity affords us the opportunity to explore the
experiences of women during wartime without falling into the trap of emphasizing
womens paid employment to the exclusion of womens work in the home. Now
it is possible to see both experiences as potentially empowering as well as
constricting. Most importantly, the voices of a large number of women who toiled
on the kitchen front can begin to be heard. This wartime rhetoric that valued
womens domestic experiences thrust the home into the public sphere, tearing
11


down the walls of the British home to expose the core of British existence. Just as
wartime propaganda told men at the front lines they were fighting for the sanctity
of the British home, the women inside the home were told they were as important
as the soldiers on the battleffont. Indeed, this rhetoric aimed at women created a
soldier in the home a domestic soldier. These soldiers were barraged with
messages that directly connected their domestic efforts with ultimate victory in
war. Women strode onto the public stage and into homefiont trenches simply
through their traditional work in the home. Their private efforts became public
triumphs, and as such, Britain opened its arms to include housewives as integral
citizens of the Empire. Women, as domestic soldiers, could fight for their country
on the homefiont and in the home, and in so doing, feel a sense of purpose and
appreciation. Nella Last was one such domestic soldier.
Last provides us with an excellent source from which to illuminate
womens domestic experience on the homefiont, for she was one of the 8.7
million women whose main work revolved around the home during wartime. Due
to her work as a volunteer, she also allows us to look into another
historiographically neglected topic: wartime volunteerism.17 The work Last did in
the home and in the community was valued and validated by the government, by
men and women in the community, as well as by Last herself. This validation
shaped Lasts construction of her own personal and national identity. The war
12


gave women like Last the opportunity to see their day-to-day work as useful
within the nation. It also allowed women who were not conscripted to volunteer
and to experience a wider sense of public participation in the nation and the war
effort.
The key to homeffont citizenship was participation. As more and more
people directed their efforts towards the wartime needs of the country, citizenship
and national identity became more inclusive. As Sian Nicholas has pointed out,
Calls for renewed national pride, for active participation in the war effort,
inevitably led to a blurring and broadening of conventional conceptions of
national identity.18 The inclusive atmosphere of war, Nicholas argues, created
John Citizen. This new citizen was an active citizen, a fully fledged shaper of
and participant in the future of his nation. He was also quite possibly a she.19
This new sense of citizenship allowed women to be included in the British nation
simply through their work in the home and in the community. However, this
inclusion was not unproblematic.
Women gained access to a citizenship that was not on equal par with men.
Penny Summerfield argues that while women may have overstepped gender
boundaries in their paid war work, men still occupied more highly valued
positions than did women. Thus, gender hierarchy was maintained even under the
exceptional circumstances of total war. Furthermore, Sonya Rose has pointed
13


out that while the wartime expansion of the nation included women, it also
saddled women with more obligations than rights, since, in addition to paid work,
women were still responsible for their traditional duties as wives and mothers.21
However, Rose and Summerfield emphasize womens paid employment in their
arguments, and in so doing, they overlook the value that was placed on womens
traditional gender roles.
Government rhetoric concerning womens value on the kitchen front
was, from a gendered perspective, quite unproblematic. Within traditional
separate spheres gender roles, womens work was in the home. However, the
assumption of womens place in the home coupled with the importance of the
homefront in total war, carved out a special niche in the nation whereby
womens domestic mastery was fundamental to the war-effort. While it is
important to recognize the maintenance of a gender hierarchy during the war, it
must also be acknowledged that women like Last could feel they were part of the
nation by utilizing the very same gender roles that historians like Summerfield
and Rose dismiss. These women could participate as citizens through their
domestic abilities both in their homes and their communities.
Traditionally, active citizenship has been associated with the military.
Within the rhetoric that created the domestic soldier, womens traditional work
was elevated to the level of the soldiery. Several times in the diary, Last calls
14


herself a soldier, which might signal a possible connection between her
domestic work and her citizenship and identity. It is interesting that Last uses
soldier to describe herself, since it had been used in many womens suffrage
debates to exclude women from citizenship. For those who had been against
womens enfranchisement, women were not, nor ever would be, soldiers. As
such, women could not participate in shaping the nation. Indeed, women were
thought incapable of making a difference in war. As Lord Curzon argued in 1912,
war has to be decided, always has been decided, and always will be decided by
one sex alone.22 Curzon used this argument to exclude women from the right to
vote, because persons who could not defend their country could not become
citizens. Indeed, as Susan Grayzel has pointed out, the appearance of women in
khaki during the First World War offended many since the color was associated
with the soldiery and citizenship. In World War One, women were neither
soldiers nor citizens. By World War Two, women had gained the right to vote
and could be seen as citizens. However, the franchise is not a task in which
citizens can participate in the nation on a daily basis. War, on the other hand,
gave women the opportunity to actively exercise their citizenship every day. For
Last and others, it seems, women could also experience the full citizenship of
fighting for their country for they were soldiers on the homefront.
This project will ask if and how the war worked to create change in one
15


domestic soldier, Nella Last. It will also analyze how the participation in the
home and the community created a space for Last within the British nation. I will
also explore Lasts relationships with other women and men in her family and in
Barrow, and how these shaped the boundaries of her personal identity as woman
and citizen. Finally, I investigate the significance of diary writing. I have divided
this paper into three major sections: one, Lasts home life during war; her
involvement in the wartime community; and her postwar life. Organizing the
investigation in this way will help us understand how Lasts identity as wife,
mother, housewife, and citizen changed over time. I will argue that Lasts self-
perception was drastically changed during the war because her involvement in
volunteering and her skill in domesticity were highly valued and consistently
validated. This change, however, seemed rather short-lived once the war was over
and Last settled back into a peacetime routine. Yet the diary suggests that some of
the confidence gained in war stayed with Last for the remainder of her life.
16


CHAPTER TWO
THE DOMESTIC SOLDIER AT HOME
The line of Food Defence runs through all our homes....It may
seem so simple, this urgent duty, that we may tend to overlook its
full meaning. A little saving here and there how can that really
help us to win the war? A little here and there, with our 45 million
people all contributing, becomes an intense amount.... The woman
with the basket has a vital part to play in home defence. By saving
food you may be saving lives.24
- Ministry of Food Leaflet, circa 1940
Women in Britain during World War Two were barraged with messages
like these that made a womans skill in the home central to the war effort.
Women had always been the lynchpins of the home the people who had to
manage money properly to run the household, to care for children, and to feed the
family. In wartime, the government stressed that these tasks were no longer
private responsibilities, but rather public and national duties. It was now a
national obligation for women to manage their homes skillfully and to abide by all
the rationing directives, to mend and make do with old clothes, to prepare
nutritious meals, and to make life as normal as possible for their families.
Women became soldiers tasked with defending the homefront, and their efforts
could save lives and keep morale high at home.
17


The once ignored and undervalued domestic abilities of women moved
onto center stage when blockades made importing foods dangerous and when
bombs threatened to rip apart the fabric of British family life. Indeed, womens
efforts could save not only soldiers and sailors lives, but also ultimately save the
Empire. An advertisement from the Ministry of Food forcefully underscores this
point:
Because of the pail, the scraps were saved,
Because of the scraps, the pigs were saved,
Because of the pigs, the rations were saved,
Because of the rations, the ships were saved,
Because of the ships, the island was saved,
Because of the island, the Empire was saved,
And all because of a housewifes pail.
As skillful housewives, women were the protectors of the Empire. This is not to
say that the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who fought the good fight against the
Germans took a back seat to British housewives. However, such rhetoric created
a space for housewives to be active citizens of the nation and the Empire.
While domestic soldiers gained a more valued place in the nation, the
publicized nature of womens domestic work and the home in wartime also
allowed government access into the shrouded private comers of the British home.
The government understood that under the exceptional circumstances of total
war, everyone had to be mobilized against the enemy. Morgan and Evans
argue that it became necessary for the state to demonstrate a close interest in the
18


ordinary domestic lives of its citizens, both male and female. Thus women
became the target of an extraordinary barrage of government advice.27 The
government needed women to cooperate with domestic policy so that more
domestic goods and services could be shifted towards the war effort. Therefore,
the British government targeted many of the domestic issues that women faced
and offered guidance on the homeffont. Additionally, the government conducted
weekly surveys aimed at keeping a close eye on the morale of mothers and
housewives, as well as on the issues that were key to them.28 In so doing, the
government drew housewives into the war effort and gave them a place alongside
other essential war workers and soldiers. Housewives and mothers could feel that
their efforts had a higher purpose than during peacetime a previously silent
group of women was now being heard.
While this may have been the first time the government sought to monitor
the morale of housewives, it certainly was not the first time that government and
popular rhetoric bolstered the significance of womens traditional roles. Anna
Davin has highlighted the national importance given to womens maternal duties
in keeping the Empire strong and supplying the nineteenth and early twentieth-
century imperial Army and Navy with strong British stock.29 Government
rhetoric in World War I also placed high value on womens matemalism.30
Furthermore, the early twentieth-century witnessed the rise of professional
19


housewifery in which womens traditional work in the home became the
foundation of British home life. Mary Patisson, in her 1915 domestic handbook,
The Principles of Domestic Management, underscored this point: Through
efficient care of the home the wife would develop her own sense of purpose, and
y 1
at the same time the nation would rest on a firm foundation.
Still, while the messages of British matemalism may have helped to create
new welfare programs aimed at womens, and more specifically, childrens lives,
these exhortations and the professionalization of housewifery did not seem to
have the same power as the rhetoric of the Second World War. The mothers
whom Imperial motherhood and the programs tasked with the improvement of
British childrens health largely saw these movements, especially those which sent
middle-class visitors into working-class homes, as intrusions in the lives of
working-class families. Indeed, the coercive nature of some of these programs
placed many working-class mothers under more stress than before. Ellen Ross, in
Love and Toil, has shown how poor women who could not live up to the new
maternal ideal of these programs suffered countless humiliations and
occasional fines, jail sentences, or the loss of child custody.33 The rhetoric and
the executions of such programs often sent mixed messages of mother blaming,
ignorance, or fecklessness, while simultaneously elevating the importance
womens work in the home.34
20


In wartime, each Briton was urged to participate in the nation, and their
normal, everyday tasks became patriotic. The Second World War was the
Peoples War; a war in which each of Britains 45 million people...
contributed] to the war effort.35 While the reality of the unifying power of the
Peoples War has been challenged, the rhetoric was nonetheless powerful: each
person had the power to repel Hitlers forces from invading British shores.36 The
skillful execution of mundane duties became an expression of citizenship, infused
with a higher and more tangible purpose than the coercive elements of Imperial
motherhood or the abstract notions of professional housewifery, since every task
had the potential to keep Britons free from invasion and the suffering of Poland,
France, and the Low Countries. Even once invasion fears were quelled after the
Battle of Britain, Britons everyday contributions could be focused towards the
unconditional defeat of the Axis powers and the promise of a new postwar
world.37
Along with the various homefront jobs in which each Briton engaged, the
domestic duties women accomplished every day in the home were said to save
Britain from invasion and defeat. Women on the homefront, therefore, could feel
that their every day work directly contributed to the war-effort and feel pride in
doing a job well done. When times were difficult and they had questions, the
government lent a hand with advice. Admittedly, not all advice was welcome, but
21


advice on food shopping and preparation seems to have been well-received by
2 0
British women. One such source of food advice came from the BBC. The BBC
kitchen programs, Kitchen Front and Feed the Brute, were immensely popular,
with a high proportion of housewives of all ages and classes tuning in regularly to
on
learn new kitchen tips from Ambrose Heath. Through close collaboration with
the BBC, the Ministry of Food was able to get to the heart of housewives kitchen
needs, transmitting useful advice that the housewives both enjoyed and
appreciated. In addition to helping women with issues pertaining to rationing, the
Ministry of Food also hoped its message would elevate Britons intake of
nutritious foods while simultaneously relaying housewives duties to the
country.40 In a Kitchen Front broadcast which aired October 9,1940, Ambrose
Heath emphasized one of womens responsibilities:
what I want to insist on now is that the cooks job, the mothers
and the wifes job is to make the best of what she has: to carry on,
as her husband, perhaps and her kin are carrying on, is no mean
contribution towards those days when our homes and kitchens will
be normal once again.41
As the assumed cooks of the house, women wives and mothers (and perhaps
sisters or daughters) had to make the most of the constraints of war and carry
on, as all the men in their families were doing. This meant using Kitchen Front
recipes and advice to make a simple dish seem more interesting, to add an
extra touch of flavour here, a little more care in serving the food so as to make it
22


appetising. In this way, cooks contributefd] [their] share towards the general
effort.42
Nella Last does not mention listening to Ambrose Heaths sage advice on
the Kitchen Front, but she certainly understood and took to heart its message.
Almost every day of the war and throughout most of her postwar days, Last
informed the reader of the food she made for her family and, more importantly,
she did so with the confident air of an expert. In a demonstration of her cooking
ability, she wrote:
Id a really awful bit of lean mutton a fillet from an old ewe by
the look of it. I simmered it with onions and split peas and a little
minced carrot, so it had a little flavour and it ate tender and the
soup was very good.43
Faced with poor quality foods, Last was still able to heed Heaths advice and,
perhaps, go above and beyond it. She knew how to make do with an old ewe
and turn it into a tasty and tender meal. Last obviously took great pride in her
cooking skills, and with the governments emphasis on rationing and food
preparation, she must have felt an elevated sense of purpose in her cooking.
Lasts knowledge in the kitchen fused with her patriotic duty to create a
feeling of normality within the home. The job of housewives was to make the
home as stable as it was in peacetime; to shield the family from all of the trials
and tribulations of war; to keep family morale high; and to ensure the health of
children and husbands, in order to keep Britain fighting fit.44 Indeed,
23


Zweiniger-Bargielowska has argued that housewives efforts and sacrifice
frequently shielded men and children from the full impact of the reduction in
consumption.45 Shielding the family from the problems of rationing was a job of
great import, as women could not let the austerity of rationing break the morale of
the homefront. In her home, Last took great pains to keep her menu as normal as
possible. Last was validated in this work when her husband told her, Ive never
known there was a war on, we always have such tempting food.46 On another
occasion in 1942, Lasts son, Arthur, suggested that his mother make vegetable
pie instead of meat pie, but Last would not hear of such defeat: she wanted to keep
her meals as close to the peacetime variations as possible, and her skills allowed
her to do so. In response to Arthurs suggestion, she wrote about her feelings:
suddenly I realised something a bit funny. It is my refusal to think
there is anything that will make a difference to meals. I will not
make vegetable pie and things soups, yes, but I plan and dodge
with meat to make the usual lunches. Perhaps it is my hatred of
scrimped looking meals but whatever it is I like to go on as
much as I can as Ive always done however small the bit of meat,
however small the sweet. I cook more vegetables to make up and
my husband thinks there is no difference at all in our meals!,47
Even in wartime, Last worked hard to make the usual prewar meals. She
refused to give in by making the infamous substitute for meat pie: vegetable,
oatmeal, and potato Woolton Pie.48 Rationing would not beat her: neither her
meals nor her family would be compromised. Austerity would not undermine her
familys morale. On the food front, Last was a capable soldier she not only fed
24


her family well, she kept the winds of war off her doorstep and away from her
household.
The intersection of government rhetoric and Lasts kitchen front cunning
may have instilled in her a greater sense of meaning, but validation from external
sources allowed Last to test her feelings of competence against others in the
community. Her writings are dotted with anecdotes about how others perceived
her culinary mastery. Margaret Atkinson, the next door neighbors daughter, loved
to visit Last and often complemented her on her cooking, especially her soup. On
May 16,1945, Last found out why. Mrs. Atkinson was making soup and came
in at 11-40 to see if Id a carrot and lunch was for 12-15. I wondered what her
soup would be like, no wonder Margaret says my soup tastes different to theirs!49
Last knew good cooking took time; no carrot could incorporate into a soup in
thirty-five minutes. Mrs. Atkinsons poor cooking skills served to validate Lasts
feeling of competence in the kitchen. Furthermore, this entry shows the readers at
Mass-Observation how she compared with other women in her neighborhood.
Within the confines of wartime restrictions and the governments
exhortations to housewives skill and flexibility in the kitchen, a smart cook was a
patriot. Linda Colley has argued that being a patriot was a way of claiming the
right to participate in British political life, and ultimately demanding a much
broader access to citizenship.50 While Colleys comment pertains to eighteenth-
25


and nineteenth-century Britain, when most Britons did not enjoy the right to vote,
it can still be useful in conceptualizing peoples sense of national identity in the
twentieth century. Outward patriotism can be used as a way to position oneself
within the nation. Therefore, Lasts many comments about her skill may have
acted as a reminder to both herself and the rest of the world (Mass-Observation)
that she was patriotic and worthy of a place in the nation. Indeed, her
comparisons with others could also serve to distinguish her as more deserving of
that inclusion.
Throughout the diary, Last showed herself and the Mass-Observation
readers her ability, and hence, her patriotism, by carefully detailing how she
navigated the difficulties of wartime rationing. For Arthurs twenty-seventh
birthday, he told his mother he wanted Orange whip and Viennese bread, a tall
order when costs were high and rationing limited the availability of certain foods.
In a characteristically detailed entry, Last shows off her rationing savvy:
As oranges with full flavour are difficult to get, and 4d each, I
decided to use Rowntrees orange jelly. I used to use the juice of
four Jaffas in the old Id orange days, and Id worth of gelatine now
costs about 4d, for the same quantity. I made the jelly with slightly
less water than usual, whipped it when cold but not set, and added
three stiffly beaten whites of eggs that I had saved from baking.51
Each detail is a way to distinguish herself from other housewives. Her creativity
allowed her to use economical substitutes, thereby making a contribution both to
the nation by abiding with rationing rules and to her family by saving money.
26


Finally, she contributed to the war-effort by hiding this hard work from her
family. Last confided, They did not know it was not made from fresh oranges,
and I did not say anything when they said it was the best ever!52 To keep the
home feeling as normal as possible, she kept the problems of rationing to herself.
We, as readers of her diary, however, are let in on her secret. Even though she
could not let her family know the extent of her effort, Last was able to have her
hard work, knowledge, and skill validated and acknowledged through Mass-
Observation. Thus, the diary could act as an outlet for public recognition of her
skills and her patriotism. Indeed, I believe most of her entries about food
compliments were ways to remind the reader and herself of her knowledge and
patriotism.
To aid in her cooking skills, Last also fell in line with government advice
to Let Dig for Victory be the motto of everyone with a garden.53 Indeed, Last
was proactive in this regard. The government first asked the populace to dig for
victory on September 5, 1939,54 but on September 4, the day after war was
declared, Last had already started plans for a garden and a hen house. She knew
from the last crisis, the First World War, that such plans might make her and
her familys life easier to bear in the unknown fixture. On September 4,1939, she
told her husband that she would keep hens on one half of the lawn and vegetables
on the other, among the apple trees and currant bushes.55 Several times, she
27


admitted a feeling of happiness that her backyard efforts paid off so handsomely.
In March 1942, she wrote, Three lovely eggs! gives me a feeling of riches
that three half crowns in my purse would not do!56 Having three eggs was
certainly a boon during wartime, since many Britons egg consumption had been
reduced to about one every two weeks.57 Indeed, Last did not feel the pinch of
rationed or powdered eggs in her familys diet, for she relied on her garden and
hens to keep her supply of food close to pre-war standards. These efforts made
her feel less dependent. Later in 1942, she wrote about what her garden and hens
meant to her:
My husband had a lovely big brown egg -1 do feel so lucky when I
have such dainties without difficulty and bless my hens and
garden many times a day when Ive eggs in water glass to cook
with, one hen laying for the table, cockerels to think of for
wonderful pre war lunches and my eleven strong vigorous little
pullets growing up rapidly and all being well to start laying by the
end of Oct. Id be more self supporting if Id more room its
grand to feel independent of shops and rationing.58
Again, Lasts work made it possible to create pre-war meals that would shield her
husband from the problems of rationing. Not only did her work in the garden
provide her husband with a sense of normality, but also Lasts efforts with her
hens and her garden made her feel independent. Her domestic skill in home and
garden freed her from the constraints of war. However, this grand feeling of
independence could strike at something deeper. In a telling sentiment, Last
confided, Ive so deep an aversion to interference having suffered from it all
28


my life till recent years.59 It would seem as though Lasts competence and hard
work in the home allowed her to overcome a feeling of interference in her life.
As I will explore later, this is most likely a reference to her relationship with her
husband and the constraining effects of what she called a Victorian marriage.
For the duration of the war, Lasts domestic ability released her from the bounds
of male interference that had previously stifled her sense of purpose and
underplayed her skills.
As indicated above, food preparation and shopping are central themes in
Lasts diary. Indeed, she often seems preoccupied with food. This could be
connected to the hard times of the inter-war period or it could be a reflection of
how consuming rationing was in womens lives. Liz Stanley has noted a similar
attention to food in womens Mass-Observation 1937 day-diaries. In comparison
to mens day diaries, women made much more mention of food.60 This difference
could be due to womens efforts to keep their homes running during the difficult
prewar depression years. It could also be a reflection of womens task of social
reproduction.61 Gendered attitudes assumed women were responsible for the
duty of managing the home and keeping the family fed. This assumption, coupled
with the problems of rationing, could be one way to explain Lasts preoccupation.
Under continued austerity at the end of the war, Last reflected, What a lot of
womens time and thought goes on food nowadays. Because of shortages, food
29


was even more important in womens lives during this time and in the prewar
years than in other periods. Indeed, outside the realm of family, women in the
inter-war period were told that one of the most important relationships they could
cultivate was with a butcher. The 1937 domestic handbook, The Housewifes
Book, told housewives that the best advice to be given is to deal with a butcher
who gives you confidence, and then make a friend of him. Last most certainly
made friends with her butcher and spoke of this connection in her diary to
underscore her patriotism and exalt herself in the community and the nation.
In the diary, Last used conversations with her butcher to reinforce the
readers perception of her as not only a wise chef and shopper, but also as a
patriot. For example, Last related how the butcher felt about her shopping savvy:
My butcher laughs at me says I shop like a French woman who
demands the best even if it costs less. I understand what he means,
for Ill order brisket in preference to sirloin, pot-roast it till its like
chicken, or steam and press it and have good, soft, butter-like fat
for cooking at half the price of sirloin which, after eating once
hot, is apt to be rather dreary.64
Underlying the butchers laugh was admiration, because she was a crafty shopper
who was knowledgeable of various cuts of meat. Last deserved the butchers
respect because, within wartime rationing, such wisdom saved lives and protected
British families from demoralization. Furthermore, the act of pot-roasting itself
was a patriotic duty. Ambrose Heath sung the praises of this method of cooking
in wartime:
30


One of the beauties of pot-roasting is that you can roast in this way
the cheaper, more solid cuts of beef.... Its very easy, and its
economical too, because you can buy a cheaper cut of meat than
the ordinary roasting cuts, and you can cook the whole thing on a
single ring instead of in the oven and what with one thing and
another nowadays, theres a good deal to be said for all of that!65
If Heath knew Last, he would have certainly commended her on her ability to buy
an inexpensive cut of meat and to pot-roast it. Pot-roasting was an important
wartime cooking method, for it saved fuel, allowed multiple solutions to wartime
rationing problems, and kept families from dreary re-heated, expensive sirloin.
Knowledge of cuts of meat and how best to cook them were important tasks of the
domestic soldier; however, a strong relationship with a butcher might also provide
added benefits to her family.
During wartime, having a butcher on ones side was even more important
than in peacetime. Last told the diary that, the butcher brought me sausage,
dripping, 1/4 lb mince, and 6 oz scag of mutton yet Id had my ration. He said
meat was pretty plentiful now and any extra he let the hardest workers have.66
Lasts butcher obviously thought enough of her to allow her items above and
beyond her ration. She had spent the time and effort to cultivate their relationship
and benefited from it. Additionally, by relating the fact that the butcher thought
she was a hard worker, Last reminds the reader that she is a hard worker and that
she deserves the butchers praise.
Furthermore, Last used her relationship with the butcher as another way to
31


set herself apart from other housewives. Other women thought that the extras
Last received were due to her butchers generosity and wanted to benefit also by
becoming customers of his shop. However, Last did not think it was the butcher
who made the difference, it was her: her hard work and knowledge paid off under
wartime restrictions. On one occasion, Mrs. Atkinson expressed a desire to
switch to Lasts butcher in order to ease her own rationing difficulties. But Last
was sure that the butcher was not the problem: I dont think she would be better
herself. Where I gain is by dodging rather than in any extra and she cannot be
bothered. This is an interesting comment in light of the fact that the butcher
did give Last extras, as related above. The difference may have been that Last
believed she deserved the butchers goodwill because, over years of showing the
butcher her skill in dodging and selecting economical meat, she had proven her
ability perhaps even been promoted on the Kitchen Front to an officer, while
Mrs. Atkinson remained a private.
In addition to her cooking skills, Last excelled at saving and avoiding
waste. The government barraged women with messages that waste could mean
the loss of lives or ships. Women were told, Food is a munition of war, dont
/TO
waste it. This theme was also picked up in consumer advertising. One
advertisement for OXO, a bouillon base, showed a woman who looked as if she
might throw out a pot of water used to cook vegetables. The tagline exclaimed,
32


Down the sink? -1 dont think. Its soup today the OXO way!69 Everything,
including vegetable water could be reused on the homefront. Just as the
housewife who saved the Empire because of her pail, Last believed it her duty, as
well all womens duty, to keep a sharp eye out for any examples of waste. She
criticized women in her neighborhood as well as the government when she
thought their actions wasteful. In July 1940, she lamented that it was a pity there
are no women in the War Cabinet, because:
Its taken the powers that be all this time to see the shocking waste
of sugar in confectioners shops, and to realise it would be better to
let people have sugar for jam. Id like to have some of them to
come and stay for a weekend. Id show them a few things, and tell
them what women thought real everyday commonplace women
like myself, who had to budget on a fixed income, and saw
ordinary things wasted and no shortage of unnecessary things.
Last saw it as womens job to police wastage: women were the ones who had to
make the most of a fixed budget, to queue in lines for food, and who could
personally cut waste and help the war effort by creating smart meals. The
government might learn a thing or two from domestic soldiers like Last. Indeed,
the war-effort would benefit from having input from everyday women like herself
who understood the day-to-day skirmishes on the homefront.
Last also became irritated when she saw others become casual in their
efforts to keep a tight ship. Again, Mrs. Atkinson became an example:
Mrs. Atkinson came in to borrow some milk as hers had gone sour.
I was shocked when she spoke of often having to throw milk
33


away and suggested she should scald it as soon as the milkman
brought it if the day promised to be hot and to save any sour milk
in a bowl for a week and make cream cheese. She said we dont
like anything like that, or boiled milk in tea.71
Mrs. Atkinsons behavior shocked Last wastage was irresponsible on the
homefront so Last stepped in to teach Atkinson how she could avoid waste in
the future. However, the teaching was waved off because Atkinson did not like
anything like that anything that required effort could be read here. Perhaps
Mrs. Atkinsons avoidance of such dodging methods could also be read as a
reflection of class. Saving sour milk or boiling milk for tea was beneath her.
Lasts tendencies to scrimp and save might indicate that she hailed from
the working class. However, based on the diary alone, it is difficult to place her in
a class hierarchy. From the editors of Nella Lasts Diary, and from other hints in
the entries, we know her husband was a carpenter or shopfitter, which would
suggest a working-class connection. However, Last kept domestic servants at
various times both during the war and in pre-war years. Additionally, in a
discussion about postwar housing for working-class families, she thought council
housing would solve the problems of terraced housing, where the working-class
families lived close together. She wrote, Sentimentalists call it
neighbourliness and I suppose up to a point its good, but beyond that point its a
breeding ground for much of the misery of the very poor. Lack of privacy, wasted
time and gossip leading to quarrels.72 This comment would suggest that she was,
34


or thought she was, at least upper working-class if not lower middle-class.
Indeed, Last situated herself above working-class council housing, but she also
proudly set herself below women of more means. We see this in an interaction
with a woman at the Red Cross shop. As Last was cutting out patterns in fabric
for a young mother whose husband was in the service, another woman came in
and told Last to make her some patterns as well. Last wrote in her diary, I said I
was sorry, but I could not undertake to do it for every one, only for a few friends
and I thought and you are not one or will be, for I knew she was very well off,
her husband has a good job m the Yard and she has two girls working. Last
could associate with the hard-working soldiers wife, but a woman who was well-
off would never be one of her friends. This would signal that she took pride in
being working-class, perhaps seeing her position as morally above the upper
classes. Yet, she also placed herself above council-housing working class. Still,
others like Mrs. Atkinson might see Lasts dodging and scrimping as lower class.
However, Last seemed to believe saving milk and avoiding waste in wartime was
both a moral and patriotic duty.
Whether working class or not, Last believed saving was part of her
domestic soldier marching orders. She had learned from the First World War that
saving was prudent for her family, and in the context of the war against fascism, it
was a patriotic duty. Domestically, she knew what was best for her family and for
35


her country, and when this knowledge was challenged, she became defensive. In
May 1941, she told the diary that she always saved a tin or two each week of the
war to ensure her family would always have enough if shortages became bad, as
they had in the last war. In the past, her husband had complemented her for her
forethought on this saving, but in the midst of the Blitz on Barrow, he insulted her
and tarnished her domestic soldier title by whining,
If you only had sense, and saved the money instead of getting a
dozen tins of meat forgetting that he has never given me a
sliding-scale of housekeeping, and Ive had to stretch and stretch it
always. I find Im short-sighted and a silly hoarder, and that I
may never use what Ive saved, and so on. On reflection, I think I
was more than a bit bitchy, to say the least of it.... I can remember
clearly saying that I was tired of always having to do all the
thinking and planning for the house, and that it was time he grew
up. So undignified and tiresome to be so tired and edgy as to lose
control of a temper schooled for thirty years.74
Last is indignant at her husbands failure to recognize her work in the house. She
scrimped and saved, cooked delicious meals, and tried to keep the house running
normally with what little housekeeping money he allowed her. In the face of
possible bombing, her husband lost nerve and pinned his problems on his wifes
management of the house. Taking care of household resources was a key
responsibility for any housewife. It was of paramount importance that the
housewife understand best how to manage the housekeeping allowance.75 While
housewives did not bring money into the home, it was their main task to take
whatever allowance, sliding-scale or no, and run the household efficiently and
36


wisely. Indeed, smart housewives were profit maximizers, who through their
efforts and knowledge could raise family living standards,76 and in some cases
ensure their familys survival. Indeed, through competent household
management, women gained power and status within the home.78 Last managed
her home exceedingly well, especially in wartime. She understood the dangers of
rationing shortages and saved up a few tins whenever she could. Through her
foresight and management skills, this saving could indeed raise her familys living
standards. By questioning her management ability, her husband not only
criticized one of her core domestic responsibilities, but he also attacked her
identity. However, she would not have it, and reminded him of all the work she
had done, all of the thinking and planning she had to take on for the both of
them all on a limited household allowance. No one would sap Lasts pride in
her work, because she knew she was doing a great job. This entry not only tells us
how hard she thought she worked and planned, but also something about her place
within the family.
Last ran the house and knew her job she did not need her husbands
interference in her household management. Certainly her outburst would suggest
that he was overstepping his bounds. Her reaction may have been a way of
asserting her power in the home. As Bourke points out, housewives created clear
boundaries between their duties and the duties of all other family members. This
37


division of labor would secure the rest of the familys dependence on the
housewife, and thus give her power. This power was precarious and had to be
tenaciously defended. Women had a vague dread of being superceded and
dethroned, and reacted passionately against any threat to their power.79 In
wartime, housewives had more power because their jobs were directly associated
with the defense of the Island and the Empire. Still, Lasts husband could
undermine that power when he questioned her ability and knowledge.
Last often related events that demonstrated her skill and highlighted her
husbands incompetence in the home. On one occasion, her husband had left the
pantry door open and my bad little cat had eaten the meat I had planned to make a
cottage pie of for tomorrow, a piece of cheese and a little bit of butter.80 Last
illustrates her husbands ignorance of household matters (because he should have
known the cat would eat food in the pantry) and shows how he is just another
obstacle she has to overcome in her domestic duties. This type of attitude towards
mens domestic incompetence resonated within womens popular magazines.
Indeed, Good Housekeeping comically asserted that men were quite unsuited for
domestic work, stating, Housework and men are like petrol and flame put them
together and anything may happen at any time.81 Work in the home was
naturally a womans domain, and men were useless in womanly activities.
Again, this is the sexual division of labor that Bourke alluded to constructing
38


roles based on this division was a way women created power for themselves in the
home by making family members dependent upon housewives work. By
showing her husbands ignorance of domestic matters, Last employed this
strategy. She put herself at the head of the household, the master in command of
domestic duties, while undermining any power her husband might have at home
by making him look the fool. Last saw herself as the capable manager of the
house, without whom the home, and those in it, would collapse; certainly if her
husband was in control, there would be no food left in the open pantry.82
The diary reveals that Last gained confidence throughout the war years in
her marriage. Perhaps, her new found identity as the domestic soldier gave her the
strength to reshape the boundaries of the relationship with her husband. In the
above-mentioned entry about the saved tins, Last wrote that she felt she used to
keep her temper schooled with her husband.83 In wartime, however, Last
noticed a change in her demeanor towards her husband. Instead of holding her
tongue and deferring to him, she gained the confidence to speak out against him.
Her husbands moods, in which he was depressed and ornery, no longer sent her
tiptoeing through the house. In one telling entry, at the end of the war, Last
related how she had learned to deal with his constant moods:
I marvelled (sic) at the way he had managed to so dominate me for
all our married life, when to avoid hurting him I tried to keep him
in a good mood when a smacked head would have been the best
treatment. His petulant moods only receive indifference now. I
39


know I speak sharply at times I know Im not the sweet woman I
used to be but I never was! Rather I was a frayed battered thing,
nerves kept in control by efforts that at times became too much and
nervous breakdown were the result. No one would ever give me
one again, no one.84
Before the war, Last had tried to cater to her husbands moods, perhaps getting out
of the way or saying encouraging words when he was moody. During the war, she
learned to ignore his moods and smacked his head more to jolt him out of them.
No longer was she a frayed battered thing to be dominated. Instead, as a
domestic soldier she acquired a new appreciation for her work, and with this new
understanding of herself, she gained power and confidence enough to speak
sharply. Indeed, in 1940, she wrote of a confrontation which demonstrates this
new strength and poise:
I reflected tonight on the changes the war had brought. I always
used to worry and flutter round when I saw my husband working
up for a mood; but now I just say calmly, Really dear, you should
try and act as if you were a grown man and not a child of ten, and if
you want to be awkward, I shall go out ALONE!,85
In Lasts new identity as a domestic soldier, there was no place for worrying and
fluttering round. She had work to do on the kitchen front, and her husbands
moods could not consume her if she were to carry out her soldiering duties. In
this interaction, we not only see the confidence to stand up to her husband, but we
also feel an emerging independence. We learn later in her diary that going out
alone was always a point of contention in Lasts marriage. Her husband
40


constantly wanted Last to be with him in public in their prewar relationship, she
felt that she had little freedom to leave without her husband. Now, however, the
new domestic soldier could gain leave of the house without escort.
While Lasts independence and confidence grew in relation to her
husband, she nonetheless worried about him and took care of him, even if she did
complain about doing so. Tending to the emotional as well as physical needs of
the family was a key duty of women at least as far back as Victorian times.
Housewives were expected to pay attention to the emotional support of
O/T
husbands and shield their families from the heartless world outside the
home. During wartime, the way Last and other women had previously protected
their husbands and families from problems became the job of a patriot, for women
now had the duty to keep up appearances and make the home as normal as
possible, even as bombs dropped in their midst. Last might dress down her
husband from time to time, but, like a good patriot, she aimed to guard him from
the winds of war (just as she had done by preparing dishes similar to those
enjoyed in pre-war days).
Domestic soldiers on the kitchen front were to keep a stiff upper lip; no
matter how frightening war was, they were never supposed to show any crack in
their veneer for fear of lowering morale. Women were told by the Ministry of
Information to fight against gloom, and a Mass-Observation report summed up
41


the importance of keeping a womans morale high, since on it, depends to no
small extent that of their husbands and children. Bad morale among women
would seriously impede the war effort and make life for millions more difficult to
QQ
bear. The countrys morale hinged upon womens ability to short-circuit
emotion. Many women felt immense pressure to repress and hide feelings of
fear from their families. Naomi Mitchison, a writer who kept several evacuees in
her large Scottish estate during the war, did not want to burden her family with
her fears, so she hid her emotions from them by going out during tea-time to cry
on the stairs.90 War weighed heavily upon many women, but this emotion had to
be kept dammed up in front of family or friends. Indeed, Jenny Hartley, in Hearts
Undefeated, has pointed out that in wartime, emotional release had to be
temporary and private.91 Often, women took to crying in the darkness of the
cinema to avoid showing their emotion in public. Even in the face of terror,
women could not upset their husbands with their fears and worries. The
traditional assumption that women would be frightened and act irrationally in a
time of fear was turned around as women took on the role of protector of their
families emotional well-being.
Last was not immune to this pressure to protect, for she also guarded
against the intrusion of fear in her family. When she heard the news that the
Nazis had entered Paris, she was very distraught: My faith, my philosophy, my
42


courage left me.... I cried like a child.93 When her husband came home, he was
very upset at the news as well. Last confided:
He leaned up against me and looked up at me, and I saw the terror
bogey looking out of his eyes. Mine had gone... and I felt strong
and sure... He said, You never lose courage or strength my
darling... To confess my terrors would have been to rob him of
his faith so I smiled and said nothing.94
Last herself had been terrified at the news but could not show it in front of her
husband. By the time her husband came home, she had swept up her own fear and
could comfort him in his worries. During a bombing raid on Barrow, Last wrote
how scared and tense she felt, listening to shrapnel pour on the roof, but when
she noticed how nervy her husband was, she refrained from telling him of her
own terror.95 In keeping a stiff upper lip, Last played the part of the courageous
soldier. In an interesting gender reversal, Last was the stoic, faithful, and fearless
rock of the family traits usually associated with men. At the same time, her
husband clung to her like a child or the archetypal woman: fearful as he looked up
to Last for strength.
As much as she hid her fears from her husband, she also played up her
courage when she felt he was being cowardly. After another bombing raid, her
husband told her he would flee Barrow if the Germans invaded Britain. Last
recalled the interaction:
My husband said, I think we would take a chance and try to get to
Spark Bridge, but I said, Please yourself -1 stay. This is my
43


home and these are my animals and Ill stand by it and them. You
must do as you think fit. He said, What good is your home and
your animals if you lose your life? and I replied, What good is my
life if I lose all I hold dear, even the feeling of respect for
myself.96
Running from the enemy was traitorous for a soldier, and Last would not turn her
back on the fight. Her efforts as a domestic soldier and her bravery were patriotic
duties owed to her country. As a soldier, she was independent; she would hold
the fort down with her animals, with or without her husband. The country needed
soldiers like her. At the same time, it seems Last did not see her husband as
soldier material. Indeed, he was not as brave and patriotic as Last felt herself to
be. In this show of bravery, she reminded herself, her husband, and Mass-
Observation just how deserving she was of being a British citizen. This is a
powerful argument against the traditional male privilege; Last, a woman, was
more patriotic and courageous than a man and she deserved a place in the nation
on these merits, while her husbands merits were questionable. Indeed, as
Nicoletta Gulace points out with regard to World War One gender relations,
womens attacks upon manhood can perhaps be read as a display of their own
uncharacteristic upper hand in a world where patriotic women trumped cowardly
men. Last most certainly felt she trumped her husband.
The extent of Lasts patriotism was further reflected in her relationship
with her sons, especially Cliff, who was in the army. Last had a motherly duty to
44


protect her son and yet also had the patriotic duty to offer him to the nation, to
face enemy fire and the possibility of being maimed or killed for the Empire. Last
not only worried over Cliffs safety, but also over his mental well being. As Last
sat in Cliffs room, reminiscing about the childhood of her son who had gone off
to war, she considered his gentle spirit: Its dreadful to think of him having to kill
boys like himself to hurt and be hurt... hes never hurt a thing m his life. Last
knew her son and feared for what the horrors of war might do to his mind, but she
also was concerned that he follow through on his obligations. On one occasion,
she lectured Cliff about taking leave too often:
It seems to be the army fashion to wrangle, but I dont want my
Cliff to get into ways like that. He said Oh, you are old-
fashioned. .. But if we all get into that way of thinking, and only
care for self-interest, we will sink and not swim. I pointed out how
selfish it was to put his name down for leave, when he had just
gone off sick leave, and to deprive another boy of leave who had
had none for sometime."
Instead of being happy to see her son at home and safe, Last worried about her
sons integrity and his duty. She was troubled that other sons were denied leave to
see their mothers, feeling it her duty to give up time with her own beloved son for
the sake of other mothers. Perhaps she was concerned about the country, too,
worried about the attitude of self-interest and how the nation would endure the
war with selfish soldiers shirking their duties. In teaching her son proper values,
Last contributed to the nations war-effort, instilling in her son a sense of duty in
45


his position as a soldier. Although Last was acting the part of the domestic
soldier, when it came down to it, she was still afraid for her son. When Cliff told
her he had volunteered to go abroad to fight and would be leaving soon, she felt a
chill. She wrote in her diary, In spite of the brave words that mothers speak,
down in their hearts there is a protest against fate, that their boys, their babies,
should go. It was not the half-dressed figure in khaki that I saw... it was my little
boy.100 This was the most difficult part of the domestic soldiers duty; it
conflicted with a mothers duty to protect. Still, Last looked to fate and hoped her
boy would be safe when he faced the enemy, but face them he must.
Once Last came to terms with this aspect of her duty, she unflinchingly
defended Cliffs decision to go abroad. As the time grew near for Cliff to leave
for military action, Lasts husband became agitated and questioned their sons
judgment. The entry for January 24, 1942 describes the interaction between Last
and her husband:
He went on and on about Cliff being a fool; and if he had stuck
to being a P.T. Instructor he might never have had to go. Perhaps
I was a bit over-excited, but I said more than I should -1 know I
did. I said, Tell me, would you cling so tightly to Cliff that you
killed all that was fine and grand in him as long as he stayed in
England? What about honour and duty? He said, You always did
talk damned daft -1 want MY boy to be safe. Oh dear me! That
did it. I remember things like only your own selfishness, and
never thinking of anyones point of view but your own, and that I
thanked God I was a fool... and had tried to teach my lads to be
fools, and if he had been a bit more of a fool he would have been
more of a man. His boy indeed! He has never taught, cared for,
46


spanked or tried to understand either of them or ever thinks of
writing to them and is not always interested enough in their letters
to listen if I read them.101
This entry is a wonderful example of how Last saw her duties as a patriotic
domestic soldier and mother intertwined and how she juxtaposed these duties
against what she saw as her husbands own cowardice and weak patriotism. For
Last, duty as a mother and a patriot fused in her defense of Cliffs decision. She
wanted him to experience life, but also stressed the importance of honour and
duty to his country. As patriot and mother, she alone had the right to offer Cliff
to the nation; her husband, as coward and disinterested father, did not.
It seems as though the work of the domestic soldier in the home was an
important source of validation and pride for Last. It allowed her to recognize and
expand her own strengths as she drew out the boundaries of her new identity as a
woman and citizen. Through her work, she was able to compare herself against
her husband and other women to make the case that her patriotic efforts were
signs of a deserved inclusion in the nation. Working within the traditional
feminine domestic role, Last asserted her rightful place in the nation. As a mother
and housewife, Last overturned gender hierarchy and placed women ahead of men
on the homefront.
47


CHAPTER THREE
THE DOMESTIC SOLDIER IN THE COMMUNITY
Im shameless in bringing raffle books out to sell 3d. tickets, and I
dont wonder at my husband being surprised when I contrast the
rather retiring woman who had such headaches and used to lie
down so many afternoons, with the woman of today who can keep
on and will not think, who coaxes pennies where once she would
have died rather than ask favours* who uses too bright lipstick and
on dim days makes the comers turn up when lips will not keep
smiling.102
- Nella Last May 19,1940
If work in the home gave Last a greater sense of self and citizenship,
volunteering at the Womens Voluntary Service (W.V.S.), the canteen, and the
Red Cross Shop cemented it. The work she did in the community further
validated her abilities and opened up a brand new world. Volunteering gave Last
the opportunity to experience herself outside the home and away from the
constraints of her relationship with her husband. As a volunteer, she used her
superior domestic skills, detailed in Chapter Two, to create a niche in the
community from which she could learn more about herself and gain tangible
validation from others outside her family. Last valued the work she did as a
volunteer and was moved by these experiences. Reflections about her work at the
Red Cross shop, Canteen, and W.V.S. often elicited powerful emotion in Last and
48


show the extent to which she believed she was changed through her volunteer
work. She spoke about her efforts in the community with an elevated sense of
pride and joy; however when the war came to an end, the prospect of losing the
purpose, validation, and confidence associated with volunteering plumbed the
depths of her emotions.
Much has been written about womens paid war work, but little has
focused on the volunteer efforts upon which middle-aged women like Last
embarked. Much like paid work, volunteer work allowed many women to engage
in tasks outside the home. It afforded them the opportunity to expand their social
networks, to experience work in the public sphere, and, as in Lasts case, to
showcase their talents in the public realm. On the other hand, volunteering
differed significantly from paid employment. Women who volunteered could set
their own hours and could take on as much or as little as they wanted. As such,
women who volunteered avoided many of the problems and annoyances of paid
work, while simultaneously enjoying the positive aspects of work. When women
were compelled to work through conscription, many worried or complained that
paid work would interfere with their work at home. Indeed, absenteeism in full-
time positions became a problem for women whose jobs did not afford them the
time to fulfill their domestic obligations. Others felt the work was boring and
unchallenging. Additionally, many had to negotiate the prejudice of male workers
49


1
and managers. While it would be wrong to say all women complained about
paid war work, felt compelled to work against their will, or felt alienated by the
work, still, as some historians have illuminated, many women experienced
overwhelming burdens and problems with their paid employment.104
Women like Last were not conscripted into the workforce they had the
power to decide what they would do and when they would do it. Women who
volunteered could allocate their time and ensure that work at home was not
neglected.105 Additionally, the decision to volunteer was a womans choice.
Therefore, volunteering had the potential to be a more positive experience than
paid work because volunteers controlled their time and activities. Certainly,
women who volunteered could feel their work was both difficult and rewarding,
just as some did who were paid for their work. Furthermore, womens voluntary
groups like the Womens Voluntary Service (W.V.S.) consisted of only women.
There were no male prejudices to counter within the group itself. Although there
were definitely fights and conflicts of personality and class within these groups,
women could still believe they worked with each other toward a common goal.
Finally, the fact that those who volunteered were not forced to work could give
them an elevated sense of pride and sacrifice in their work. Indeed, F.K.
Prochaska, in his work on womens philanthropy in nineteenth-century England,
argues that unpaid work in the community was relatively free from the restraints
50


and prejudices associated with women in paid employments.106 Volunteering
could be seen as morally superior to paid work. Criticism that was leveled at
well-paid women war-workers, which charged women spent their money on
frivolities, did not apply to women who gave of their time and effort freely. More
work on womens wartime volunteering experiences must be done in order to
fully understand the impact that volunteer work had upon womens lives during
this period. Lasts diary certainly reflects the importance of such work in her life.
From the beginning of the war, Last made plans to help out at the W.V.S.,
an organization which had been set up in May, 1938 as a way to instruct women
in Civil Defense.107 Last quickly jumped at the chance to participate in this
organization. As early as September 4,1939, Last talked about making time to
work at the W.V.S. Centre, and seven days later she wrote, I will dedicate every
part of my time when Im not looking after my husband to the W.V.S. Ill work
and beg things and stay cheerful outwardly at least. Last seems to have been
compelled both by patriotism and a desire to keep busy in order to forget about
Cliff going into the service. However, the speed with which Last took on
volunteer work might also signal a desire for adventure and release from her
prewar domestic routine. Perhaps, too, Last saw the opportunity to expand her
independence by having the excuse to leave the home and her husband. This,
however, may have been an unexpected but welcome by-product of volunteerism.
51


Still, it is quite obvious in the diary that, at least on the surface, Last saw
volunteering as a way to focus her efforts in order to stave off worry over Cliff.
Early in the war, she mentioned feeling cold at the thought of Cliff going into
military service.109 Indeed, several times Last mentioned how her work at the
Centre kept her mind off fears for Cliff and other worries that wartime brought.
In 1940 she wrote of other women worrying over the fate of their families and
thanked God afresh that I could work at the Centre and keep back the bogeys that
wait to pounce on mothers and wives.110 Having experienced the tremendous
death toll of the First World War and fearing the possibility that Germans might
bomb Manchester, where Arthur lived, fears over the safety of her sons could
easily pounce on Last and sap her of her will to fight as a domestic soldier. Not
only did the domestic soldiers work in the home and in the community act to
steel Last against the fears and worries of war, it was purposeful and rewarding
for her. Some historians have discounted womens voluntary work that involved
domestic tasks, assuming that only factory work or military auxiliary work was
important or worthy of note. Of Lasts volunteering, for instance, Braybon and
Summerfield wrote that she thr[ew] herself into WVS work, even if it was only
sewing, knitting and rolling bandages.111 While sewing, cooking, or knitting
may seem trifling to some, mastery of such tasks was an important aspect of
citizenship on the homefront for women like Last.
52


When the war started, Last worked at the W.V.S. sewing chintz bags for
wounded soldiers effects; creating dollies for the local hospital children; and
collecting wool to be made into clothes or blankets for sailors. After a long night
making mattresses for the Sailors Home, she wrote, I think Im the tiredest and
happiest woman in Barrow tonight! Ive unpicked the mattress I was given,
washed the cover and half a dozen sugar sacks, and made four 6ft. by 2 Vzft.
mattresses out of them.112 The work was exhausting and difficult, but Last could
be happy knowing she was contributing to the war effort and the comfort of the
sailors. Within a few months of hard work, her duties at the W.V.S. expanded and
she was helping organize events and raffling items she made or found.
Lasts expanding responsibilities at the W.V.S. earned her recognition
throughout Barrow. Her entries suggest that her reputation for fundraising soon
became well known in the community. Once, when she took some dollies, toys,
and clothes to the local hospital, the head sister told her, Oh Ive heard of you,
Mrs. Last you are the Salvage Queen, I believe! On another occasion, some
Navy men had caught some plaice and lobster and brought it to the W.V.S.
because they knew Mrs. Last could raffle or sell anything. She tells us that
she did not disappoint. She quickly cleaned the fish and boiled the lobsters and
sold them to the women at the W.V.S. The women fought over the fish, and a
riot nearly ensued when the lobsters came out. For her work, she got twelve
53


shillings, which she proudly handed over to the head of the Centre, who kissed
her and said lovingly, Little fool.114 In the telling of this interaction, we see
Last bask in her new found abilities. This story places her at the center of a busy
W.V.S. Centre and serves to remind herself and the reader how hard she worked
in the community. Additionally, it allows Last to flaunt her new found business
acumen. Through her new talents in selling and raffling, she could also compare
herself with the other women in the W.V.S. As in the home, her work as the
domestic soldier in the community allowed her a sense of patriotism and
competence superior to others in her social network. No other woman could sell
like Mrs. Last.
Through contacts at the W.V.S., Last confidently took on more duties to
support the war effort. In May 1941, she agreed to help at the W.V.S. Canteen
and in July 1942, she helped start a Red Cross shop.115 As with the work at the
Centre, Last discovered hidden abilities never before exposed. Even so, her
domestic mastery was the foundation from which she branched out to these
activities in the community. Many of the volunteering tasks she took pride in and
was rewarded for by other citizens in Barrow were exactly the same tasks she did
at home. Last brought her cooking, saving, and mending skills, as well as her
ability to hide fear in front of others to her volunteering work. Just as she was
validated in the home for these duties, so she was in the community.
54


Lasts consummate skills in the kitchen transferred easily to her work at the
canteen. Here, she cooked good meals for soldiers and working men, and she did
so with an eye to avoiding waste, just as she did at home. Last felt this skill was
an asset at the canteen, and the women there praised her often on her mastery of
food. Everyone seemed to want Lasts recipes that kept waste to a minimum and
maximized taste. She wrote:
I get many a chuckle at myself nowadays no hiding away my
dodges and strict economies as I used to. Instead, I broadcast how
little fat, or how economical my bits and bobs of recipes are.. .and
when I went into the [W.V.S.] office, a chorus of Would you mind
me taking a recipe for... greeted me. Its childish of me, I know,
but it gives me such a warm feeling to find Ive anything people
want. Ive not a lot to give and I do so like giving.116
In pre-war years, methods of stretching the value of a pound were to be kept
hidden from other women in the community. The mark of a husbands and a
familys respectability was the ability to keep the wife and mother in the home
full-time. Yet, this was often a difficult ideal for both working-class and lower
middle-class families to fulfill in actuality. Sometimes women took in washing or
worked surreptitiously behind the closed doors of their homes to keep up the
illusion of full-time housewifery. Even in those cases where the woman did not
secretly work in the home, womens wise household management could make the
pay packets of their husbands go further and help keep the wife free of paid work
in or out of the home. These money-saving efforts were not methods to be shared
55


before the war.117 It is quite possible that Lasts pre-war strict economies were
ways to keep up the guise of respectability in front of her neighbors. However, in
wartime, those economical... bits and bobs were something over which to be
proud they were a mark of respectability and patriotism. Furthermore, women
recognized and benefited from Lasts dodges and she beamed with pride and
flushed with happiness to know she has something to give to others. She was
always happy at home when her sons complimented her cooking or when her
husband took pleasure in his meals; but finding out that people outside her family
appreciated her as well validated her work in the public sphere and expanded her
sense of purpose.
Not only did Last share her recipes with W.V.S. women, she also taught
the ladies at the canteen how to cook. Last was asked to be advisory cook at the
canteen, which meant she would overlook and give advice on economical and
tasty oddments. This was a job Last felt suited her ability and identity well.
She wrote, Its always what Ive wanted to do -1 am realising more each day
what a knack of dodging and cooking and managing I possess and my careful
economies are things to pass on, not hide as I used to.119 Her skills in the kitchen
gave Last the authority to teach other women at the canteen how to make
economical and tasty meals. Last was the Ambrose Heath of the Barrow
W.V.S. Canteen, and women listened to her lessons and ideas. Mrs. Atkinson
56


may have thought Lasts solutions low-class and beneath her, but other women
were happy to learn a thing or two from Last. She wrote, Ive shown one woman
how to make potato cakes, and another says she is going to practise making
waffles at home.120 Educating the women in the canteen could be seen as a way
to spread Lasts patriotic knowledge to other domestic soldiers, and in doing this
work, Last contributed to the war-effort by ensuring each woman knew and
understood their duties on the homefront.121 Furthermore, Lasts teaching also
demonstrates not only how knowledgeable she felt, but that others believed her to
be as well. Passing on her skills acted as another way to situate herself against
other women in the community. As a skillful teacher, she had a higher rank than
did other domestic soldiers.
Although the women at the Centre and the canteen certainly gave Lasts
self-perception a boost, it was the validation from the soldiers, sailors, and
working men which seemed to make her feel her efforts worthwhile. She related
many little incidents at the canteen where her boys complimented her on her
cooking, and one can almost see Last smile as she scratched out the words on the
paper. In January 1942, Last wrote of one such occasion:
Today, one of the lads got a plate and said, Give us a pennyworth
of those beans. They were only plain boiled, and Id not added
the tomato soup square that colours and flavours them, but I said,
All right, they wont take a minute to heat. He said, Dont
bother, Ill have them cold. As I very doubtfully spooned them on
to a plate, I said, Im sure these wont be good for you. A laugh
57


went up, and one said, What about kidnapping such a jewel, and
taking her off to our camp? It would be a change to get a hot hot
dinner.... Such a dear crowd of gay boys. I felt a God bless in
my heart as they stamped out, so laughing and gay.
Last seems to use this story to support her concern that things be just right for
her boys. Earlier, she had related how the women at the canteen laughed at her
because she fusses over details at the canteen, such as making sure that plates
were hot for the soldiers. In this interaction, Last doubtfully gave the soldier the
cold and unflavored beans, much against her will, for she wanted to ensure her
boys are well fed with a hot meal. Furthermore, the soldiers showed her how
much they appreciated her worry for them. She seemed to gain much in service to
the fighting men who sauntered up to the canteen counter.
Lasts many interactions with her boys point to an identity and sense of
purpose that may revolve around food in the stories, but that might also reach
deeper into Lasts identification with motherhood. As was mentioned above, Last
used her volunteering at least in part to keep her from dwelling on Cliffs army
duty. With Cliff away, Last adopted the boys in the canteen to fill his absence.
Indeed, Last once told W.V.S. women that every soldier I serve [in the canteen]
has my Cliffs face.123 On another occasion, a conversation with her boys at the
canteen reminded her of when her sons were young and would get together at
home with friends. She had made scones, and the soldiers were so famished they
ate them hot out of the oven. Last wrote, Bless them, sometimes I feel I want to
58


cook and cook all the bits and bobs of tasty, inexpensive things which my Cliff
and his happy laughing friends loved.124 The boys at the canteen filled a void in
Last that was left when Cliff and his friends were called off to military service. If
she could not help her son when he was away, she could certainly serve the boys
in the canteen just as she had served her sons when they were home.
Ellen Ross has argued, a mothers love... was expressed in work for her
children.125 Ross further connects this motherly work ethic as an essential part of
womens maternal identity. Domestic duties, such as cooking, sewing, and
cleaning were ways for women to demonstrate love and caring to their husbands
and children. This is true for Last both with her sons and her boys at the canteen,
for Last extended this love outside the private realm of the home as a volunteer.
However, this service was not altogether altruistic, since Last also seemed to gain
from these situations. Through extraordinary efforts, she created opportunities for
her boys to recognize her efforts. For Ross, this recognition is an important
foundation of maternal service. Ross argues that while service was at the core
of maternal identity, appreciation of that service was a normal requirement of
childhood.127 As a mother Last gave freely of herself and her work, but as
children, the men in the canteen were expected to acknowledge her work, and they
did. Thus, there were two sides to Lasts service in the home and in the
community. On the one hand, she served her family, her community, and her
59


nation. On the other hand, people reciprocated that service by appreciating her
efforts. According to Ross, this reciprocity would be essential to a womans
maternal identity, and may have been central to Lasts own identity. The special
conditions of wartime further enhanced the magnitude of this interchange between
mother and child as Last extended her service outward into the community and
was validated by men and women outside her home.
Perhaps in expectation of that recognition, Last often went beyond the call
of duty in her maternal service to the men who came into the canteen. Near the
end of the war, she wrote of one event that shows her unfailing commitment and
service to these men.
Eight Merchant Navy men eyed me in what I took to be a hopeful
way and moved up to the counter. We are not supposed to have to
cook lunches... it seems because Mrs Goode had taken two pounds
extra sugar and wasted it she was punished by being left no
stores to make a meal for them. Mrs. Thompson had said it will
have to be made up they will have to have cheese sandwiches I
said not Pygmalian likely, get the chip pan on, beat up some
pancake mixture and Ill find that key where ever it is.... I got a
large tin of carrots and one of the casserole steak and eked it out
with thickening it, making good gravy. The carrots heated while
the chips were cooked and it made a very savoury meal and we
198
made pancakes and jam sauces and a cup of tea.
As a surrogate mother for the men at the canteen, Last could not send them along
without a hot meal. Instead, Last, the mother and the patriot, took command and
mobilized her team for action: she ignored orders not to cook lunches, overcame
the obstacle Mrs. Goode created by wasting the sugar, and against all odds served
60


a hot meal with all the trimmings. All of this work was a labour of love for her
boys both for the men at the canteen and in honor of her sons. It was also the
work of a patriot who had to keep Britains fighting men fighting fit.
Last not only cared for her boys at the canteen, she also had lessons to
teach. Within separate spheres ideology, part of womens prescribed work in the
home was to morally guide their children.129 In wartime, domestic soldiers
continued this obligation to keep the countrys moral compass in working
condition. On one occasion, Last treated some flight sergeants to a meal and a
moral lesson. She wrote:
I said, Ill treat you to beans on toast and a packet of sandwiches
for luck but they all insisted on joining in... They said but we
must send it to you by return. I smiled and said no my dears -
pass it along the line. You will be sure to meet someone who
could do with it and they shook hands so friendly when they went,
such nice boys.130
In a wonderfully maternal gesture, Last fed and cared for her boys. She also
imparted moral wisdom by telling them not to pay her back, but rather, to do a
good deed for someone else who will need it in the future.
Even conscientious objectors who came into the canteen did not escape
Lasts maternal care-giving. She had very little respect for conchies, but she
still served them as if they were wayward children. In 1942, she wrote about a
group of men that had become her own to look after:
I dispise (sic) Conchies and wont cook for them... but somehow
61


this lot have grown to be my Conchies and as such I have a
grudging feeling that they will have to be looked after... (Last made
sandwiches for them) I said you must hold it by the paper and not
touch it with your oily hands it would not be good to get that oil
in your mouth. Men are children.131
Last may have disliked these men, but they needed to be cared for as well. Over
time, a fondness had developed towards these particular conchies, and she
grudgingly served them. However, her comments about them being children
should be noted. There are several potential reasons for this statement. One could
be that she believed conscientious objectors to be misguided and had to be treated
as children for their immature decisions. Another could be that she thought all
men to be children, who had to be mothered by women who knew how to take
care of their men, their homes, and their world.
According to Last, men certainly had gotten the world into a mess at least
three times during her lifetime. As V-E Day approached, she stated that she could
clearly remember three wars, and she feared for another as she wrote, Pray
God some men can be found to let this lovely world find peace.132 Last
questioned the ability of male authority to run the world. Instead, she stressed a
vision of the special qualities of womanhood, which echoed a common argument
set forth by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century feminists and non-feminists
alike. This discourse stressed womens moral superiority and caring
qualities. In some cases, especially with her husband and in the usage of
62


soldier to describe herself, Last seemingly reversed the accepted boundaries of
gender and took on masculine qualities. However, she strongly identified with,
and felt pride in, womanhood. Indeed, Last thought women could do a better job
of running the world. She figured if mothers came together and taught their
children the simple rules of life, mentally and spiritually, love them a lot and
then stand aside, they could wipe out all of the destruction and hate men had
created. Women could make a new world in two short generations and wipe out
bitter memories, make racial hatreds perish and better than a man or men ever
could.134 Perhaps all men were children to Last. She certainly felt it necessary to
protect, teach, and serve them at home and in the community. Indeed, she seems
to have felt an enhanced sense of purpose in the years of man-made war and death
to make a contribution to hope and life. For Last, this endeavor was categorically
realized through her efforts at the Red Cross Shop.
Lasts work at the Red Cross Shop began in 1942 when she helped the
local branch of the Red Cross choose a storefront and gather saleable goods. All
of the proceeds from the shop went towards parcels that were sent to British
POWs in Axis-held territories. Through her contributions at the store, Last
learned more about her potential and felt very strongly connected to the war effort
- and the effort to bring hope to men in enemy hands. In diary passages related to
the shop Last expressed some of the most intense feelings about her work and
63


how her life was changed because of the war. On opening day, Last delighted in
her efforts to bring the shop to fruition, calling it a happy worthwhile day. She
felt rewarded for all her work over the past two months since there will be a lot
of thankful hearts as a result of today: the poor prisoners of war will get a lot of
parcels out of even todays efforts.135 In its first week of operation, the shop
made £100. Last was inspired to make the shop even more of a success and
rallied the other women to work harder because a hundred pounds is a marvelous
thing, since it provided two hundred parcels of hope and comfort to heartsick
men. This, however, was only the beginning; over the next four years, Last
would continue to feel her work was worthwhile and purposeful as her efforts at
the shop brought hope to many POWs.
Each item sold in the shop represented a parcel of hope and Last relished
the shops thriving prosperity. On one occasion, she showed her pleasure when
Mrs Ledgerwood came in with the shop takings for the day over £14. After
Ledgerwood left, Last reflected on the shops good fortune:
Its a constant wonder and joy to us the way that goods roll in and
sell and get sold. No one jeers now when I say that £1,000 is my
aim and I mean to have it before we close they are all beginning
to believe in my madness as they called it at first. Ive had really
marvellous response to my begging letters, for stuff is left next
door to our shop every day when we are not open.. ..we seem to be
getting noticed for good things.137
As this comment seems to suggest, Last felt she had almost single-handed
64


responsibility for the money the shop raised. People in the community were
noticing their effort and pitching in with what they could, and Last was an
integral part in its success. It was her madness that drove the women in the
shop to push themselves further in order to raise more for the lonely POWs behind
enemy lines. This madness was also a way to set herself apart from the other
women in the shop a way to show the measure of her patriotism. Last had the
vision to make the shop successful, and she had the power to move women to
fight more tenaciously for a good cause. Like a good military commander, she
mobilized her Red Cross soldiers and seized victory. The shop was indeed an
overwhelming success, for by the end of the war, it was taking in over £2000 a
year.
As POWs began coming home in 1945, Last began to realize just how
successful her work had been, and it made her proud to know she had made a
difference. On May 11,1945, Last wrote of a conversation with recently returned
POWs in the canteen:
They could not know of our efforts in the little shop but to hear
them talk of the Red Cross parcels brought tears to our eyes. They
said it was not just the food, but the looking forward to something
that kept them going. Ive always felt a blessing rested on that
little junk shop, I felt very happy.138
The POWs confirmed Lasts belief that her work brought hope to those heartsick
men as they faced the loneliness and horrors of prison camp. She personally had
65


brought them comfort and helped them live another day as they looked forward to
a parcel from home.
Through her efforts, Last supported the troops and kept Britain in the fight.
As both mother and domestic soldier, she fought in the trenches of Barrow
begging, borrowing, and pleading for goods to sell so that POWs could receive
their parcels. Furthermore, Lasts battle was not one of destruction, but rather one
that fit in with her vision of womens work: her fight was a crusade for hope and
healing. Lasts idea of womens role seems to echo a dichotomized version of
gender that was popular amongst nineteenth- and early twentieth century women
engaged on both sides of the suffrage debate, as well as women who advocated for
peace in the First World War. These movements argued for fundamental
differences between men and women. Women were equat[ed]... with maternity,
the giving of life, and peace, and men with aggression, the destruction of life, and
war.139 Women, as eternal mothers, brought hope, life, and comfort to the
human race, whereas men brought death and destruction. Lasts understanding of
the special qualities of womanhood situated her within a long-standing discourse
about gender differences that saw women as the morally superior caregivers of
humanity and men as the powerful and destructive forces of the world. This
vision of difference was important in Lasts identification as a woman. She
seemed to take great pride in the fact that her work denied the annihilation of a
66


war created by men. Rather than destroy men, Lasts efforts as a domestic soldier
nourished, clothed, and comforted those in her family, her community, and her
nation.
As the war ground to a halt, the work through which Last spread the
healing power of womanhood neared its end. On May 10, there had been talk of
closing the shop down since the theatre of war focused solely in the Pacific after
V-E Day. There was hope that the Red Cross might want them to make jungle
jerseys140 for the soldiers camouflage, but the writing was on the wall, and on
June 19,1945, the doors closed. Last mourned the loss of the shop for the rest of
1945. Through her grief, we begin to see exactly the impact that the shop and the
war had on her. For Last, the closing of the Red Cross Shop signified the
beginning of the end of her war work in the community. Several days after the
shop closed, she related all the things she would miss:
Im beginning to realise the little shop has gone forever. No more
ceaseless begging and coaxing from everyone I know, no more
polishing up and mending, no longer will I meet the flow of people
who came in with little problems and worries. As if we were
nurses in our white overalls, we were consulted on health problems
of all kinds, on babies, on make and mend, on P.O.W. husbands
and sons, wayward daughters, roughened hands, war-time layettes,
childrens dirty heads... It was such a living thing; I always felt so
worthwhile, as if I was really helping.141
Lasts work at the shop proved to her that she was worthwhile, that she had
much to give to others. She and the other nurses not only served POWs, but
67


they also helped keep the community going through the tough times of war. Last
met and helped many women as they crossed the threshold of the shop over its
three years in operation. Just as she taught the women in the canteen to cook, she
also helped Barrows young mothers with their problems. She gave freely of her
knowledge of children, herself having once raised two boys during wartime (in the
First World War). Indeed, she thought of the shop in some ways as a minor
clinic, where women could bring in health issues and worries and be listened to,
validated, and given advice from seasoned and knowledgeable experts.142 Most
importantly, however, Last wrote that she felt worthwhile, which seems to show
that Last believed that her worth was in the past, when war was in full-swing.
The shop was an important source of validation and identity for Last, and
it deeply grieved her to see it go. Last recounted her feelings about what it meant
to her over the years:
I feel so keyed up and restless... Its like having a tooth drawn out
in pieces, instead of with one good tug. I had a pang of self-pity,
which could have developed into a real good howl. Ive never held
anything I loved for long. It or they so soon passed on, leaving
me waving goodbye.... No one could have realised what that
little junk-shop has been to me. I loved it, and felt a blessing from
every 10s. we raised... It grew and grew. We never knew the
happiness we brought to poor P.O.W.s, but could feel our work
was worthwhile. I felt I was a soldier like my Cliff.143
The loss of the shop was agonizing to Last. The depth of the pain related
here would signal that her work at the shop had connected with something
68


deep within her. In that little junk-shop, the domestic soldier battled
against the destructive winds of war, bringing hope and comfort to the
men and women of Britain. Losing the shop meant that Last would also
lose a part of her identity the confidence, the independence, and the
purpose of the domestic soldier would slowly ebb as the war ground into
its last days. She was indeed losing something she loved dearly: her new
self.
Days before V-J Day, she admitted that war has changed me,
more than I realised.144 The years of work at home and in the community
for the war-effort had taught Last a few things about herself. She had
learned that she had a flair for business, that she could overcome the
illnesses that had debilitated her before the war, and that she had
something to give that others wanted. Reflecting at the end of the war on
her experience, she wrote:
Ive learned my little gifts of cooking and managing, my love of
peace and fun and seeing folks happy are real gifts, more useful at
times than clever things like knowing figures and book keeping.
Ive learnt to keep people together by a laugh, when to take notice
of tempers could have meant a split. Ive learnt the beauty and
worth of sustained service with and for others. Ill never go back
into the cage of household duties alone, much as my home means
and will always mean to me.145
The war infused meaning into the skills and the characteristics of Lasts
personality that previously had gone unnoticed. Her cooking ability and
69


organizational skills, useful but unrecognized in the home before the war, trumped
traditionally male endeavors like bookkeeping in wartime. Lasts personality also
became an important wartime morale-boosting tactic, bringing much-needed
smiles on the homeffont. Wartime experiences in the home and as a volunteer
showed Last the value of her work and of herself. Her service to others spread
outwards from her home into the community and the community reciprocated by
validating and applauding her abilities. The cage of the pre-war home kept her
from knowing her worth and value.
Although she mentions the cage of household duties, Lasts domesticity
was more complicated than this statement seems to convey. Through numerous
diary entries, we see that many of those household duties were empowering and
not stifling, especially in wartime. Last clearly gained great joy from cooking,
knitting, and mothering. With government kitchen front propaganda aimed so
specifically at housewives and their jobs in the kitchen and with make, mend,
and do, Last felt patriotic as she did her part in the home, but volunteering and
diary keeping allowed her to broaden her perspectives. Both empowered her
outside her home she had a voice at the W.V.S., the canteen, the Red Cross
shop, and at Mass-Observation. At the end of the war, she felt this slipping away,
her voice diminishing each day the war edged towards conclusion. After V-J Day,
she vowed to be a soldier as long as my Cliff, soon we will both be demobbed,
70


he will have to begin his life more or less afresh. I wonder what work there will
be for me.146 What, indeed, would she do with her new found voice and
confidence?
71


CHAPTER FOUR
THE DOMESTIC SOLDIER DEMOBILIZED
We talked of six years ago today as if of a previous incarnation.
Its not that it seems as far away as remote as if a bridge across
a deep river dividing us. We both felt a bit weepy, dear knows
why, she said I feel so very much older do you? I said Yes -
and no. I feel no different inside me but lately Ive felt my age
in my body. Im tired, I feel Ive no energy to whip myself and I
feel sometimes as if Ive such a weight of unhappiness pressing on
147
me.
-Nella Last September 3,1945
In this conversation with another W.V.S. volunteer, a little less than a
month after V-J Day, Lasts willpower to keep things moving in the right
direction seems to ebb from her body. During wartime, Last was able to whip
herself to conquer the aches and pains that had confined her to bed before the war.
The malaise that Last bravely worked through during the war flooded back into
her much older body, and there seemed little of purpose to make her ignore the
pain she felt. With war over, Last began to slip back into her old life the life
that she was so afraid would overcome her when war ended. Certainly Last had
worked hard in the home and in the community and deserved to feel tired, to take
a breath and look back over the years of backbreaking work and effort for her
country. But the question loomed: did she gain anything from her wartime
72


experiences that she would take into the rest of her life?
The debate over reconstruction issues for postwar Britain, which began
during the war, was concerned mainly with providing sufficient housing, creating
full employment, and offering welfare to the populace, or homes for all, work
for all, and health for all.148 In 1945, Last was fifty-five, an aging housewife,
with a husband on the edge of retirement and no children at home. She was not
the typical woman of the postwar reconstruction, her family not the type that
worried the press and the government as soldiers demobilized. During war, Last
was the target of domestic soldier rhetoric that elevated her position in the nation;
however, in postwar reconstruction, Last and her family were increasingly ignored
by the nation as it struggled with the formation of the welfare state. Many
postwar issues did not affect the Last family. Last had a home. While she and her
husband relied on old age pensions in their later years, Last did not need welfare
to help her raise children. Her husband did not need employment when the war
ended. The question of postwar work did not hang over her as it did for other,
younger women. Volunteering was still an option for Last, but she wondered how
long she would be able to convince her husband to let her continue to serve the
community: even as early as July 1945, he had begun to constrict her freedom to
volunteer, saying he wanted her home always.149 In the postwar world, women
like Last were not on the radar of the government, nor have they been on the
73


agenda for historians since: these women had done their service for the country
and were free to pass quietly into the night. Last did not fade away from the
record, however. Her voice continued into the 1960s as Mass-Observation
continued to listen.
As the end of the war became increasingly inevitable, there seemed to be a
strange feeling of letdown amongst Last and her friends. In the midst of V-J Day
celebrations, Last wrote, I feel disappointed... I feel no wild whoopee, just a
thankfulness and a feeling of flatness.150 Perhaps she worried over whether she
would go back to her prewar life and be trapped by her Victorian marriage. On
July 25,1945, the day Lasts husband told her he wanted her home always, Last
talked about how she saw her marriage:
No thought as to either my feelings or to any service I could be
doing. I thought of the false sentiment my generation had been
reared with, the possessiveness which stood as the hallmark of
love, with no regard to differences in temperament, inclination or
ideals when the head of the house was a head, a little dictator in
his own right; when a person of limited vision, or just plain fear of
life, could crib and confine more restless spirits.... A little chill fell
on me not from the dusk which was creeping on the garden,
either. Rather did it blow from the past, when to go anywhere
without my husband was a heinous crime and he went practically
nowhere! I had a pang as I wondered what I would do when all my
little war activities stopped, when he could say plaintively, 'Must
you go? or I dont feel like... and I wondered if my weak
streak would crop up as strong as ever, and Id give in for peace
and that unspoken, but very plain, Victorian-Edwardian accusation,
I feed and clothe you, dont I? Ive a right to say what you do.
Its not love, as the sloppy Vic-Eds. sang, its sheer poverty of
mind and fear of life. If you love a person in the real sense, you
74


want them to be happy, not take them like butter and spread them
thinly over your own bread, to make it more palatable for
yourself.151
Last seemed to resent the power that her husband held over her because of the
Victorian mindset under which they both lived. One wonders if there was
anything else to their relationship. In previous situations, Last chose her animals
over her husband152 and conveniently left him out as she lamented that she had
never held on to anything she loved when the Red Cross shop closed.153 As war
ended, Last was disappointed, and perhaps a bit anxious, as she felt the
reconstructive power of war drain from her life and looked towards the future,
which she feared would be more like the postwar Victorian past.
Last might have been fearful not only of her past life being resurrected, but
also about the recurrence of another war. People who remembered the November
11,1918 celebrations may have tempered their excitement on V-E and V-J Days,
knowing there was no such thing as a war to end all wars. According to Last,
there was no wild whoopee like the last armistice in Barrow when the war in
Europe ended.154 Postwar fears weighed heavily upon Lasts mind since she, and
others like her, clearly remembered the last time they were overjoyed to celebrate
the end of a war. To her generation, a World War Three twenty years after V-E
Day seemed a distinct possibility.
Lasts past home life and knowledge of war intermingled to create an
75


overall concern for the future her own as well as the nations. Days after V-J
Day, Last had a telling conversation with her husband about the end of the war:
My husband said a bit wistfully I suppose we were young then and
felt gayer. I said yes, perhaps but we never knew war could
come home to us, that we would have to make such sustained
effort, till we felt drained of energy and only feel a quiet
thankfulness and dont forget ignorance and bliss now we
know what wars back wash is like and I think we all fear the
repetition of last wars slump and chaos.155
The Lasts had lived through the First World War and saw the interwar problems
of unemployment and unrest march into the Second World War. Last was
worried over the problems of postwar reconstruction as well as the possibility of
another conflict. But, while we see the seasoned worry of a woman who had lived
through two world wars, we also see the concern of a housewife who looked back
on her distant past and feared for the future of her new found self. She continued
the rest of the conversation with her husband:
We talked of things when we were small and our early married
days, he only sees the good bits, he has a calm mind which accepts,
he has never known rebellion of heart or mind or any struggle to
keep his head above water. Ive never let him know the rough side
of managing for he had poor health and it made him worse to be
worried. He talks of the good days only makes me feel a bit
sick. I see the struggles, the worries about the two boys, the
frustration of spirit when I could not do all I would have liked for
them. I thought how seldom I had a garment that was not turned or
made over a few times, making the lads clothes till they get too big,
driving myself always, in spite of one major and two minor
operations and in laws who had descended from old Scratch. I
thought come what may, in this new world Ill take it and find
me a place in its schema. I felt my prayer at Big Ben loomed, a
76


prayer of thankfulness and a signing on again. I vowed to be a
soldier as long as my Cliff.156
This diary entry portrays the complexity of feeling Last had for the future. Her
husband looked fondly on the prewar past, but Last did not. Just as she did in
wartime, she had hidden the trials and tribulations of managing the house in the
interwar period from him. She felt she had carried the burden and could not feel
excited about the past. Because of her wartime experiences, however, Last could
feel an excitement for the future and a resolve to find a place in the new world.
She wanted to sign on for more work in the community; she did not want to go
back to the bright, cheerful days of the past when she bore the weight of the
family and kept her work hidden from her husband and others. She wanted to be
noticed, as she had been in wartime.
Lasts fears for the country were not borne out in the future there would
be full employment, state welfare, and prosperity. For housewives, however,
prosperity was slow in coming as rationing persisted into the 1950s. Fighting on
the kitchen front had been a patriotic duty during the war, but once the war was
over and Britain was victorious, disillusionment at austerity measures began to
settle in housewives minds. Womens concerns turned inward towards their
homes; they became more preoccupied with clothes, food, and shelter not for the
sake of their country, but for the sake of their families. As domestic soldiers
demobilized, the patriotic impulses to see austere measures through because of the
77


war-effort began to fade. Ultimately, Zweiniger-Bargielowska argues, this
discontent of housewives proved the downfall of the postwar Labour government,
since women voted overwhelmingly Conservative in the early 1950s.157 For Last,
the continuance of rationing proved both a welcome challenge as well as an
annoyance. It remained a way for her to elevate herself amongst her peers.
As in war, Last continued to measure her knowledge, her hard work, and
her commitment against others in the community. Last often told her friends at
the W.V.S. and her neighbors not to expect much once the war was over. She
intuitively seemed to know that rationing would continue, and she kept up her
scrimping and saving ways. Clearly a discontented housewife, Mrs. Atkinson
once more became the object of Lasts measurement and advice. Last wrote that
Mrs Atkinson came in very miserable, she said she is damn well sick of
controversy and struggling and she thought the food situation would have been
more normal by now. She said I was a Job comforter when I told her it would be
worse yet. Last not only failed to comfort Atkinson for her lack of nerve in the
face of the rationing challenge, but she was also annoyed at her. Last wrote, I
felt so irritated by her attitude and whining, she should keep sugar she has been
buying instead of jam and she has been using her eggs out of water glass from
when Id hens and let her have them to save for this coming winter.159 As
always, Mrs. Atkinson acted as Lasts antithesis she whines about shortages
78


but had no wherewithal to face the challenges and overcome, like Last.
The domestic soldier had to keep fighting until she was demobilized, and
in the face of continued rationing, this meant continued vigilance against waste.
Smart shopping and thrifty saving could keep soldiers families going through the
upcoming hard winter. In late August 1945, Last looked over her cupboard and
was comforted by her continued savings:
I felt tired but when I look at my shelves of things for winter, I feel
any efforts worthwhile, the white of pears and bottled apple
chips, the glowing jewel red of plums and tomatoes, purple
damson and soft green of peas and beans, as a delight to see. All
the same, my thoughts often stray to tinned fruits and vegetables! I
often think how much time Ive to spend nowadays, thinking about
preparing food and it only simple at that.160
While this entry shows Lasts wise home management, a tinge of grumbling and
disillusionment seems to intrude her can do attitude as she thought about the
extra time needed to fight her kitchen skirmishes, even though war was over.
Indeed, several months before this comment, about a week after V-E Day, a crack
formed in Lasts brave veneer. On May 14,1945, she wrote, At times Ive a
really peevish urge to bum all odd looking items, patched and mended woolen and
darned stockings and socks. I get so tired of our simple meals.161 For all the
resolve that she showed Mrs. Atkinson and others, underneath she was secretly
becoming disgruntled with the situation. Four years later, with rationing still on,
Last truly had become one of Zweiniger-Bargielowskas disillusioned
79


housewives: I feel less and less illusions about the furtive food prospects. Every
1 ft)
day things look gloomier more austere. Nazism was defeated, the world
was saved, and Britain had won, yet the strictures of rationing wore on. The
bright postwar prospects of 1945 had faded into gloomy austerity.
As the postwar years passed, Lasts fighting spirit for making do in the
face of austerity slipped away, and concerns over the costs of foods both during
and after rationing became paramount in Lasts mind. In the 1950s and 1960s,
Last often complained of the high cost of foods and services. In 1952, Last
grumbled, 3 lb. bags of natural flour have gone up 3 Vi and I saw a woman get a
loaf same size as pre war ... was 3d is now 8 /id! .. .1 was surprised when my
grocers wife asked if Id like a dozen fresh eggs for 6/6 sounds like black
market!163 In 1965, her butcher bill for the week came to 30/- and she could
hardly believe it, and her coal for the week of very indifferent quality cost 9/11
cwt.164 On yet another occasion in 1965, she complained of the cost of sending
laundry out, but wrote, Yet Im thankful I can get them washed at present its
beyond me.165 Indeed, over the twenty years since the end of the war, the
challenges first of rationing and then of high costs, problems with her family, and
aging slowly caught up with Last until even washing was too much for her. Even
her work with the W.V.S. lost the excitement of the war years.
The W.V.S. had been the door through which Last stepped to enter her
80


volunteering career in 1939. Through her work there, she was given opportunities
to branch out to the canteen and the Red Cross shop. As shown in chapters two
and three, Last felt her work in the home and in the community as a volunteer
made a difference to Barrow and to the war effort. She also felt great pride for the
institutions she worked for and felt their work important. In addition to the grief
Last experienced with the closing of the Red Cross shop, she also feared the loss
of work at the canteen and the W.V.S. On August 29,1945, she wrote:
I feel like a grain of sand on a seashore, feeling and knowing my
utter utter limitations, that however I try, I can do so little, feeling a
strange Toss when I cannot work directly as we did in the Red
Cross shop, wondering what I will do when Centre closes with its
purpose and Canteen with its service, making me feel Im
keeping things moving in the right direction however small.166
Two weeks after this diary entry, word came out that the W.V.S. would go on for
another two years. Lasts comment on this announcement seems rather puzzling
in relation to the above passage:
When there is Canteen and when Hospital Supply closes I will do
more there if necessary, but none of us will agree to be exploited
in any way, we have worked constantly and uncomplainingly all
the war years, but we will not blackleg or do work someone else
1
would be paid for doing.
On August 29, Last worried about what she would do after the war and showed
concern that she would not be directly serving her community and her country.
On September 14, she told her diary that she would not be used to cut comers.
War was over and free service, given of ones heart and sense of obligation as a
81


citizen and mother, seemed rather unnecessary. Last did not want to give of her
time and herself merely to help someone save money. With war over, saving
pounds through volunteer labor felt exploitative, not patriotic.
As the postwar years passed, Last felt more taken for granted, as her
volunteer work became less and less important to the nation. In 1949, Last helped
serve tea at a local hospital, but was annoyed at the nonessential nature of the
work:
I felt as I looked round that said staff had increased out of all
resemblance to the small number before nationalization, that
waiting on them didnt come under W.V.S. and when after a fairly
busy morning I found less than 4/- for patients tea and cake and it
1 ro
had cost me 7d bus fare, plus the morning.
Here is an example of Last feeling exploited. She had gone out of her way to
travel to the hospital and to set up the tea, yet the unnecessarily large nationalized
staff took advantage of her goodwill. Not only did Last think many of the said
staff were redundant, but they also failed to pay for the tea, and consequently, to
acknowledge her and the W.V.S. for their effort. Annoyed and outraged at her
treatment at the tea, she decided to give her opinion at the W.V.S. and was
jumped on by Mrs. Dim, but others winked at Last in agreement. Lasts
disillusionment shines through her recollection of the conversation:
Mrs. Dim flung back her head in that manner she acquired so
suddenly and made a few of us think she had had lessons in
speech making and which [?] makes said few giggle! And began
to talk ofservice. This time she picked the wrong listener. I was
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livid and nervy over the thought of so much service being for
staff... As I pointed out the same old soldiers had to carry on,
they had to fill in emergency.... I told her I was still not sure Id
take on an afternoon every week and wouldnt think of it when
there was [no] transport for us. Id not take the walk from the bus
stop to the hospital in winter rain and storms for a fad of a
service. I got all the sweetness and light you will being to old
people in the eventide of their lives, the joy it brought to every
heart to see heads turned to the W.V.S. ladies! The absolute
IMPeritive NEED for more and more voluntary work to counteract
the soul deadening irrationalisation of our dear country! The
GREAT and GROWING need to fight for the English way of life!
I wonder who wrote her scripts. I felt unrepentant as I slid off the
table and said you missed out that bit about living solidly in
peace as we did in war but I still say that waiting on bloated and
enlarged Hospital staff is not my idea of service and Id not do it
regularly. I feel lately Ive got all the service at home I need or
want.169
Lasts wartime can do attitude seemed all but vanished as she mocked Mrs.
Dims misplaced patriotism. Last saw through Dims rhetoric; she did not see her
work at the hospital as necessary to counteract the backsliding of English society,
to protect the English way of life, or for that matter, to soothe the elderly people
in the twilight of their years. She felt she was a servant to the hospital staff, and
she was angry at the exploitation she endured. It is most interesting that, in the
entries that I reviewed for this project, Last used veiy few emphases aside from
underlining. This entry, however, drips with sarcasm, as Last employed
capitalization and exclamation marks with wild abandon, signaling her sheer
anger at the situation. Postwar volunteering seemed to waste her time and make
her feel her efforts unrecognized and pointless. There was no impending danger
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that kept her from working through her pain or that whipped her into a patriotic
willingness to do all that was asked of her. Indeed, she had other matters to
attend.
By this time in her life, Last felt she had enough work to do at home
without wasting her time and money on what she considered ridiculous W.V.S.
schemes. Last, however, continued to work in various capacities at least until
1959, but as the 1950s passed, her volunteering was increasingly carried out at
home. For instance, New Years Day 1959 found Last washing bottle caps and
toothpaste tubes at home for the W.V.S.170 As this illustrates, the postwar years of
Lasts life saw a constriction of her social world. She mentioned fewer friends
and acquaintances in the diary, and placed more emphasis on her relationship with
her husband and her sons.
During wartime, Last had found the confidence to stand up to her
husbands moods and the Victorian mindset that assumed she should always be
with him. As mentioned earlier, Last wondered whether this courage would stay
with her once there was no longer the excuse of theres a war on. Lasts
boldness did seem to continue into her postwar relationship; the strategies of a
smacked head or simple inattentiveness were employed several times in the
postwar entries I reviewed for this project. In January 1946, Last came home after
visiting a friend to find her husband looking petulant and irritable because tea
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was not brewed and bread cut although everything else was ready including the
curtains drawn and his slippers by the fire, before I went out. Last did not fret
over his mood on this occasion. His petulance elicited no response. She wrote,
He sulked over his tea and I just left him alone. Moods dont effect me
179
nowadays beyond a point and perhaps that makes him indulge in them less.
Ten years later, in 1956, she found her patience run thin with one of his moods
and felt her voice so icy, so ugly, tell him for goodness sake stop twittering and
dont begin swearing that I take a delight in fretting you or you might find your
words prophetic.173 Wartime experiences had emboldened Last. Her domestic
work and volunteering may have lost their national importance in later years, but
the kernel of self-confidence gained as a domestic soldier remained within her
spirit. However, these confrontations with Lasts husband could also be read as
resentment towards her postwar situation. She had lashed out at Mrs. Dim
because of the exploitation she felt and, at home, she attacked her husband for the
cage their relationship created. This restrictive existence was not new to Last,
but war had shown her a new world and a new sense of self that seemed all but
lost in the afterglow of war, and she became icy as she blamed her husband for
her losses.
While it could be argued that wartime bolstered Lasts confidence in her
marriage, an interview in the 1980s with her son, Cliff, offers interesting
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counterpoint. Looking back on his mothers life after reading Nella Lasts War,
he reflected about his parents relationship:
She made my father out to be quite a tyrant... Father was the
scapegoat and she hung all her frustrations on him. She brought up
my brother and myself to see father as very inadequate... When I
was 161 went to work for him and we got on very badly. I hated
him. But after the war I saw him differently, and I loved him for a
gentle, kind man. Mother frequently spoke harshly to him, yet she
was the sunshine of his life until the day he died.174
From Cliffs perspective, his mothers high-handed attitude towards his father was
an enduring feature of their marriage something that was in place before the
war. Perhaps Last created power in her prewar home by denigrating her husband
in front of her children, in such a way that her sons respected and recognized then-
mother over their father. This would have certainly given Last power in the home
by elevating her work and sacrifice over her husbands in the minds of her sons.
Cliffs statement questions the beginnings of Lasts exertions of power in her
marriage; yet, it is still possible that her postwar confidence could have been
strengthened by her wartime experience.
While Last continued throughout the postwar years to create power and
exhibit strength in her marriage, this power was not absolute. In September 1949,
the W.V.S. celebrated its eleventh year anniversary and Last went to the party.
She wrote that she left my husband lying down on his bed with a book... I
impressed firmly on him that Id be home by 5 oclock but if I was a few minutes
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late he had not to begin worrying Id been run over or something like he has done
lately if Ive been out of his sight for long. Last stressed her freedom to go to
the party, but at the same time she acknowledged his power over her time, for she
tells us that lately he fretted over her absence from the home. Here she lashed out
at his worry, showing her power over the situation, but how many times had she
given in? Lasts husbands constant worrying and complaining about her
independence wore down her will to assert that freedom. Indeed, at the party, she
told W.V.S. organizers that she could not volunteer as much, because it
depended] on my husbands health how much time she was able to give.176
While she stood up to her husband, she also felt she needed to restrict her
activities because of him. Several years later, her doctor told her that a vacation
would do her good, but Last felt she could not go. She told her doctor that a
holiday
was out of the question as I explained it was almost impossible
when my husband was well but now at 70 knowing his
reactions.. .working himself up into the stage of wild terrifying
dreams and nightmares if I left him for a few hours or just give up -
go to bed would worry me more than ever.177
Last felt it impossible to leave her husband since she would worry too much
about him if she went away. While she seemed to counter his overt protestations
about her freedom, inwardly, she felt constricted to the home and to her husband.
Still, it is possible that looking after her husband, while restricting her freedom,
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was a way to strengthen her power in their relationship. Vacationing on her own
or working at the W.V.S. might allow her husband to learn to do things for
himself, and if he learned to take care of the home and himself without her, she
would be dethroned.178 While it meant less freedom to leave home, it seemed
important for Last to maintain the dependence she had instilled in her husband.
This struggle for power in Lasts marriage was highlighted when her
husband unexpectedly retired. Lasts feelings about his retirement were conflicted
as she worried over his degrading health and his increasing encroachment upon
her routine and power at home. Last wrote in her diary about the changes she had
noticed since he was at home more than usual:
I reflected how completely my routine has altered. Nothing he
doesnt like has to be done or any little noise that irritates him.
Sometimes I cannot help wondering if so much of his own ways
can be good. I often think if he had had a stronger minded wife he
would have been lifted out of himself more. I find everything
170
revolves round his likes and dislikes, whines and wants.
Since her husband had been more frequently at home, Lasts domestic routine
changed. She no longer could do the things she wanted or even needed to do
around the house. For instance, she could not get her sewing done because the
noise of the sewing machine bothered him. Her power decreased with every
moment he stayed home from work. Yet, while her power to run the house seems
degraded, her duties increased.
While Lasts worry about her husbands health and complacency mounted
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with each day that she felt he refused to go to work, the real concern seems to be
how she would manage without his pay package:
When my husband came down stairs I felt worried. Times I look at
him hopefully, think he looks on the mend. Tonight I noticed his
hair has turned from gray-white to snowy white and he seemed to
look thinner than ever....I think the thing that really strikes a chill
to my heart is his growing acceptance of giving up work. The
assurance that Ill find a way to manage, we wont starve I know
attitude. I feel any kind of rebellion would be preferable. I felt so
nervy and sick.180
His withdrawal from everything seems to grow.. .But when he
has ceased to worry at all about his business fast diminishing, when
he sends to the Bank for money for the last three wage packets and
theres so few small cheques to pay in. I feel a little worry growing
I £1
bigger every day.
Lasts husbands retirement meant more work for her. He was not the one who
had to manage the home on a reduced pension. Instead, his withdrawal
constituted a new domestic challenge a challenge Last seemed reluctant to
accept. Furthermore, retirement destabilized the power structure of their
relationship. Lasts husband was supposed to be the breadwinner, and she was
supposed to keep the house in working order. Last had based her power upon the
work she did in the home and upon the dependence she instilled in her husband,
while his power was based on the Victorian mindset that he provided for her.
However, retirement meant that his power no longer hinged upon work in the
public sphere, but rather upon his constant presence in the home.
With the recognition that her husbands retirement was final, Last now had
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to renegotiate her power at home. The belief seen in wartime that men are
children helped her to do this. Last often made her husband out to be childlike
and unable to handle anything without her. On one occasion, Last scolded her
husband because he was not resting according to doctors orders. She told him,
you havent had your rest, you know the doctor said you had to lie quietly on
your bed after meals and here you are not taking his advice! Lasts husband
then quickly retreated to his room to rest. Last rebuilt her power upon her
husbands illness. If he retired because he did not feel well, then she would take
advantage of that fact.
With her husband constantly at home, Last could not allow her domestic
duties to fall behind. Because she structured her power around her husbands
illness and his child-like incompetence, Last had to coax herself out of bed to take
care of her work, even on the days she felt tired or sick. Feeling sick one day, she
wrote, It was an effort indeed to rise from my bed but the butcher boy was due
any time and my husband cannot cope with much. On another day, she stated,
It was more of an effort than usual to rise and to make the fibre and
breakfast even more so... phoned my grocery order in the meantime
and washed up and went back to bed for an hour glad lunch needed
1 84
little preparation, for it would have been beyond my husband.
Last treated her husband like a child and denied him the ability to do the work she
usually did at home, thereby elevating her importance in the home and increasing
her husbands dependence upon her. She also made a fool of him, much as she
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did in wartime. One day in 1966, she wrote of the following interaction:
It made me snap at my husband when he brought a pile of dirty
handkerchiefs down and expected me to wash them! I said flatly if
he wanted them hed have to do them himself... if you had brought
them down this morning they would have gone in the washer so
he did them with an aggrieved air that made me chuckle quietly.185
This situation not only amuses Last, but it is also a show of power. At times, Last
had to whip herself into action because she made her husband out to be
incompetent; but on other occasions, like this one, she withheld her service.
Lasts power rested upon a balance of dependence and obedience.
For Last, the postwar years seemed to march further and further away from
the significant feelings of change she felt during wartime, until war felt as if in a
previous incarnation. As war faded, Lasts concern over her health increased.
Last confided in the diary that in prewar years, she often battled illness and
debilities, but in wartime, while she complained much about feeling sick or tired,
she always overcame it and worked through illness. One January night in 1942,
discomfort in Lasts arm kept her from sleeping most of the night, but she carried
on: I got up tired for my arm kept me awake quite awhile and it was such a poor
wet morning. I felt I would so much like to sit by the fire. I could never do it
though... habits are strong and I have trained myself to be a soldier.186 The
prewar Last would have slumped into a chair by the fire on such a morning, but in
wartime, the domestic soldier had many things that had to be done. She trained
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herself to overcome any feelings of sickness or fatigue. On this particular day, she
forgot her sleepless night and went on to work at the canteen, packed Red Cross
parcels, sold raffle tickets, and made tea. During the war, Last worked though
aches and pains because she felt her work was necessary. Indeed, she wrote, If I
know I am helping in anyway, I can forget my back aches that my bones feel as if
moving by a cruel hand.187 The postwar diary, however, shows a resumption of
prewar ruminations over illness where she increasingly opted to rest in the warmth
of the fire.
Lasts entire diary shows a preoccupation with illness, but the postwar
years see a rise in such worries. In September 1945, Last worried over both her
and her husbands health, stating, Im not well, my husband is far from well and
it worries me greatly.188 Not only did Last have to deal with her husbands
health concerns, but also with the accompanying moods that came with them.
After a particularly painful night for her husband, she wrote, These general
symptoms and bad nights make for such cranky moods when nothing is right for
him when he seemed viled by vague fears fears Ill die first and leave him
alone that our money wont last, etc.189 Last was genuinely worried about her
husband, but we sense an annoyance at his cranky moods and fears, which
only added more stress for her. Indeed, several days later, her husband accused
her of making his symptoms worse by suggesting he take medicine, which made
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her retaliate:
I said now look here if you are as bad as you say why wont you
go to the doctor again... I said quietly, I can not stand much more
-1 just can not. You always say your mother was the cause of your
final breakdown with her ceaseless mindless worrying but if you
are not careful, you will drive me over the edge it wont be a
breakdown perhaps as much as a breakup. I feel sometimes my
vitality is draining away altogether.190
Considering how Last had worked to make her husband dependent upon her,
threatening a breakup was a way to exert her power over him. The hard work
that she created for herself in an effort to keep her husband dependent also made
her a martyr. Ellen Ross, in her work on motherhood, suggests that one way
mothers construct[ed] their lives was through martyrdom.191 At the core of
martyrdom was self-sacrifice and self-denial on the part of the mother. Last, in
her work as a housewife, could certainly fit the profile of Rosss mothers: she
worked through sickness to serve her husband, worried endlessly about his health,
and tried to ease his suffering at the expense of her own well-being. Additionally,
in complaining about her vitality slipping away, she could have been attempting
to gain recognition of her service and to elicit sympathy from her husband, but
this was not forthcoming. When Last was ill or tired, she rarely received help or
compassion from her husband. On one occasion, Last vented her frustration to the
diary, I feel so weak I can hardly stand and my husband seemed to do and say
everything he could to irritate me to a frenzy.192 Several days previous to this,
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she complained that any little helpful ways my husband ever had had been
forgotten.193 Last was indeed the martyr of the relationship. She believed that
she did all the work in the relationship and in the home (of which some was self-
enforced), and yet her husband failed to help her when she was really ill.
As Last got older, illness pervaded almost every page of the diary that I
reviewed for this project. Almost everyday begins with a sentence about the
weather and her health. For instance, on January 23,1966, she started her entry
with, Such a nasty foggy day. I felt ill enough to go back to bed for an hour after
breakfast.194 She also mentioned illnesses of neighbors and family members.
She was astute with medical terms mentioning doctors diagnoses for her family
and the proper names for doctors (for instance, chiropodist195), and spelling
each correctly. All of this might indicate an acute awareness of and preoccupation
with sickness.
Lasts illnesses and her husbands ill health, coupled with Lasts
husbands unexpected retirement, could also serve to remind her of the
constriction of her public world and the increase of work at home. Jennifer
Mason argues that retirement and illness act to increase the centrality of the home
for both husband and wife. As the home becomes more pivotal, it seems that
men enjoy settling into their world while womens work in the home rarely
diminishes. In other words, retirement of husbands does not mean retirement of
94