If you’re getting fed up with the Coronavirus lockdown, spare a thought for those at home during the Second World War. Air raids, separation from loved ones and food rationing put the population under great stress. People could still go out, of course, but the range of entertainment available at home was very limited. How did people cope and occupy their time indoors, or when confined in shelters?

A family at home in the 1940s
© IWM D 12058

This wholesome image of a wartime family enjoying some ‘downtime’ is typical of those used by the Ministry of Information for public information and propaganda campaigns.

Dad reads the newspaper, mum darns some tights (‘Make Do and Mend’...) and the children play quietly or broaden their minds with suitable reading material. This photo was taken in 1942 and captures the Chillingworth family in front of the fire in the living room of their suburban London home. 

1. Listen to music

Mrs Bugler pictured in 1943 entertaining local soldiers
© IWM D 13251

Like today, music in the home was hugely popular, but unlike today it was a more social activity. And as with many other things in wartime, you were often forced to make your own.

Here is seventy year old Mrs Bugler in 1943 entertaining local soldiers with a piano recital at her home in East Dean in Sussex. 

Arthur White playing his trumpet, 1942.
© IWM D 10718

Arthur White was captured practising with his trumpet in a hostel for ‘colonial’ merchant seamen in North Shields, County Durham, in 1942.

Celebrating Eid during the Second World War
© IWM D 5163

And this group was photographed enjoying an evening of music and singing during the festival of Eid, marking the end of Ramadan, with members of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps in Woking in 1941.

A gramophone is played in an air raid shelter
© IWM D 1631

A gramophone was the usual way to play recorded music, and served to cheer up people confined for long hours in an air raid shelter, as here in North London during the Blitz in 1941 - as long as you brought the right records!

A family listen to the wireless in their living room
© IWM D 12274

There was no Wi-Fi in those days but you could still go ‘wireless’, listening to your favourite radio programs as other members of the family read the newspaper or knitted.

This family was pictured in Taunton, Somerset, on a Sunday afternoon in 1942. The BBC was the main vehicle for official announcements, and played a vital role helping to support public morale. Comedy was its most important weapon – for example, ITMA (‘It’s That Man Again’) was a hugely popular show, with almost 40 percent of the population tuning in every week.  

2. Take up a craft

Knitting in 1942
© IWM D 10440

Knitting was another favourite activity. Here, Mrs Irene Stacey (left) and her mother Sarah Jones, knit garments for Irene’s new baby at their home in Bristol in 1942. Her husband was serving in North Africa.       

Knitting in a railway arch bomb shelter
© IWM D 1596

Knitting could also help pass the time in a railway arch bomb shelter like this one in Bermondsey, London, in 1940. This family have made themselves at home, bringing many of their possessions with them. The man behind makes sure the clock is telling the right time.

3. Relax with a cigarette

A man smokes a cigarette beside his gramophone
© IWM D 8987

Many people chose to ‘relax with a cigarette’. Smoking was regarded as a necessity for wartime life, whether military or civilian, and generally promoted to ‘ease anxiety’.

This photograph from 1942 was probably taken for use in an exhibition or leaflet campaign.

Promotional image showing a woman smoking a cigarette
© IWM D 18234

Cigarettes were not rationed but the troops had priority and civilians were urged to limit their consumption. And many still had doubts about how appropriate it was for women.

This racy photograph was taken as part of a promotional campaign for a brand of Turkish cigarettes.

4. Parlour games

Army men on leave playing parlour games
© IWM H 37554; H 37555

There were more active ways of passing the time. Parlour games were a popular distraction, as shown in this image on the left, taken in April 1944. It features Lance Bombardier Jack Grundy of the Royal Artillery, on leave at the family home in Irby, Cheshire. Here, Jack and his friend Bob Milliron from the US Army transfer dried peas between plates by means of sucking through a straw. Jack’s wife Dorothy is the umpire, and other members of the family are avid spectators. 

In this thrilling game featured in the image on the right, participants have to pass a matchbox to one another, using only their nose. This image was snapped by Lt. Tenner in April 1944. 

A parlour game played by men and women in 1944
© IWM H 37556

Here the family gets the chance to indulge in a bit of cross-dressing, in this photograph also taken by Lt. Tenner in 1944. As the original caption explains: “Another game is for a gentleman to put ladies clothing on and vice-versa, the winner being the one who dresses completely in the shortest time.” The original wartime caption also specifies that American Bob thoroughly enjoyed the party.

5. Board games

Wartime card games
© IWM EPH 3826; EPH 2521

The IWM has examples of more traditional board and card games with which wartime families could while away the time.

‘Vacuation’, described modestly by its makers Pepys Games as ‘the most amusing ever card game’, was based on the government evacuation scheme for children. The cards featured humorous caricatures of children, teachers and householders and the aim was to get rid of all your cards as soon as possible.

‘War Planes’ was a standard deck of cards, but each featured a silhouette of an RAF or German aircraft, making it educational for members of the armed forces, the Observer Corps and amateur plane-spotters everywhere.

Wartime board games
© IWM EPH 4080, EPH 520

‘Night Raiders’, in which players attempted to bomb an enemy factory, was based on ‘Snakes and Ladders’, except you went up searchlights and came down if you landed on a flak explosion or German night-fighter. It was probably not something to get out if you had a relative in RAF Bomber Command.

‘ARP’ was a race game, with rewards and forfeits along the way, inspired by government air raid precautions set up before the war. Players started with the air raid warning going off and finished at the sound of the ‘all clear’.

6. Have a drink

Labourer Price Evans drinks a beer in the ‘Wynnstay Arms’ in the village of Ruabon in Denbighshire, Wales, 1944.
© IWM D 18484

And if all else failed... unlike today, the pubs were still open. Alcohol was not rationed but only beer was readily available, and its supply and strength varied considerably as a result of shortages. Here labourer Price Evans sinks a pint in the ‘Wynnstay Arms’ in the village of Ruabon in Denbighshire, Wales, 1944.

Some drinks are shared around in an air raid shelter in North London in 1940
© IWM D 12058

Drinking at home was nowhere near as common as it is today, but a tipple or two was one way of coping with life in an air raid shelter, as here in North London in 1940.


Savile Row tailors working on military clothing including a naval officer’s jacket, 1944.
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© IWM HU 63736
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© IWM (P 399)
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