War generates unique and unexpected experiences in civilians’ ordinary lives. But war can also exist as a surprisingly uneventful setting for everyday working lives. At the European Social Sciences and History Conference three talks encouraged me to consider ways in which war work impacted civilians’ ordinary lives through memories that reclaim, forget and negotiate popular experiences of the Second World War.

The Home Front in popular memory

Today we have become accustomed to a national memory of ‘the People’s War’: a collective effort on the Home Front during the Second World War to bring about victory, encapsulated by the phrase ‘in it together’. While there is no doubt that civilians reacted positively to the war effort, many individuals found that gender could place a limit on cultural and economic freedoms and a sense of community effort.

Daniel Swan explored the differences between personal and collective wartime activities using his research on women working in de-skilled jobs in Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. In oral history interviews with these women he found that, although they all testified to experiences associated with the ‘People’s War’, like unity and inclusivity, they also sometimes remembered personal experiences which jarred with that popular memory. For example, some remembered frustration at the infiltration of the British government into private life because their freedom of choice on where to work was overruled by the demands of war conscription.

Part-time women war workers inspect cables in the Inspection Department of the ‘factory’ at Perrings furniture showrooms
Part-time women war workers inspect cables in the Inspection Department of the ‘factory’ at Perrings furniture showrooms. They are producing electrical equipment for the Royal Air Force. © IWM (D 12593)

Forgetting the Home Front

The Second World War now has a well-defined, indeed profitable place in popular culture and nostalgia, resulting in the prioritisation of some stories, while others are suppressed. In her oral history interviews with two female former volunteers in the London Fire Brigade, Jessica Hammett explored whether and why their claims to have forgotten the war were ‘true’ or not.

The friends gave vivid accounts of some aspects of their experiences in the wartime fire service. However, some questions seemed to flaw them. Rather than endeavouring to recall forgotten experiences, they did not seem concerned about distant memories. Through her exploration of memory, Jessica suggested that given their long working lives in the fire service after the war, by ‘forgetting’ the two women might simply be highlighting that as young teenagers their lives really only started when the war ended. Jessica noticed that instances of ‘forgettery’ often occurred when somewhat nostalgic stories or popular perceptions of the Home Front were challenged - for example by questions on gender issues. In these instances perhaps by not trying to remember alternative experiences, the two friends sought to focus more on their postwar lives.

Reclaiming a role on the Home Front

Some men working in Britain’s wartime industries came to feel at fault in the eyes of the nation because they were not serving in the armed forces. In fact, as Ariane Mak demonstrated in her paper on the Bevin Boys, their contribution to mining was crucial to Britain’s victory. Many people, however, erroneously associated the Bevin Boys with Conscientious Objectors, despite most miners being conscripted and having no option to join the armed forces.

In oral history interviews, Ariane discovered that miners had withheld memories of mining during the war from family and friends, rather than highlighting their positive place in Britain’s history. Although miners sometimes revealed this contradiction of memory in the interview, it was often only revealed aside from the recorded interview, when family members highlighted the previously hidden nature of a personal story. Ultimately work in the mines had been obscured by misinformation that sidelined even the miners’ memories, until a change in attitudes provided the opportunity to reinsert them into the national memory. Discussing those memories outside of the interview setting provided an alternative space in which to differ from popular perceptions.

These examples of research show us that beneath the popular memory that has endured and become a central dimension to this history, personal life stories offer alternative impressions of the Home Front in the Second World War. Both the popular and personal memories collected here describe massive change in working opportunities, practices and structures. Crucially they also reveal how individuals encountered and negotiated that change in the context of attitudes and expectations, at the time and ever since.