Aunt May and the Blitz

Over the past few months, I’ve transcribed all the letters my family has that were written from my great-great-great aunt May (b. 1882) to her brother John (my great-great grandfather, who came to Chicago from Ireland in the 1890s). I had initially looked into her story four years ago when I was living in London for a semester during grad school. While I was there, my mom had learned from an initial read through of May’s letters to John that she had also lived in London—in fact, in the 1940s, she was living within a mile of where I was living in East London!

While I’m continuing to do research into different areas of May’s life, I wanted to share one bit that I’ve found especially compelling. East London, the area May was living in during at least part of the WWII years, sustained some of the worst damage from the German air raids that ravaged the city. In her letters from this time, she includes a number of details related to living through the air raids—sleeping in the Tube, the noise, the frequency of the raids, and information about the damage it did to her home (68 Rushton Street).

The area where her house was located is now a public park called Shoreditch Park. A number of blocks, including May’s, were bulldozed in 1945 to make way for temporary, pre-fab housing, which was ultimately cleared in the ’60s-’70s to create the park that’s there today. In researching Shoreditch Park’s history, I read there had been a British television special called “Buried by the Blitz” (2006) that featured an archaeological dig of the park sponsored by the Museum of London to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII. The comprehensive project used excavations and eyewitness accounts to reconstruct what the neighborhood had looked like and how it had been affected by the German bombs, and even involved school children and local people in the digging process.

I thought it was interesting that such an in-depth study had been done about the precise area in which May was living and which she describes in her letters (transcriptions included below). Some of the interviews with the older residents corroborate and/or elaborate on aspects of the experiences May describes, particularly the bomb shelters and having to sleep in the Tube. In fact, I even resolved on writing to the museum to see if they would be interested in any of her descriptions of the bomb damage to her address, as eyewitness accounts played an important role in their attempts to piece together exactly where bombs had fallen and what kinds of bombs they had been (the maps from the period that recorded where bombs had fallen proved to be inaccurate when compared with the findings of the dig). I’ll provide an update in a future May-related post on my correspondence with the museum, but for the purposes of this entry, I thought it would be fun to share the link to the TV special, currently available for free on Youtube.

Here is the link to the program: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buS8203B1Dg, and here is further information on the dig from the Museum of London.

Side note: those of you who are fans of the British sitcom Blackadder will be delighted to know that the program is hosted by Tony Robinson, who plays the character Baldrick, dimwitted sidekick to the devious Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) throughout several centuries.

I headed to London on April 7th for vacation and was planning at the very least take a stroll through Shoreditch Park. I also planned to stop in at St. Patrick’s Soho Square Roman Catholic Church, where I knew May attended Christmas mass in 1925 and said a prayer for my great-great grandfather, my great-great grandmother Nora, his wife, and their sons John (my great grandfather) and Edward.

Letters from May
Note: I’ve added hyperlinks to certain political/cultural phenomena that I could identify, to add some context. All spelling and punctuation is transcribed as it stands in the original letters.

Letter 1

Postmarked: 2 October 1940, London N1
Addressed to: Mr. J. J. Enright, General Offices, Illinois Central System, Chicago, U.S.A.
Return Address: From M. Carlyle. 68 Rushton Street. London. N.1 England

Body:

My dearest Jack.

You will perhaps be surprised to hear from me. Thank you for sending my letter to Cis, she wrote me & I was glad to hear from her, but I have not yet answered it; things seem in such a state of chaos I don’t feel able to settle to write; sometimes when writing Alice it takes me three days we have so many raid warnings. You folks on the safe side (so far) must wonder what London is like, if it were not for the raids (& it’s a big if) we would not know there was a war on. The people are marvelous, even when the guns nearly blow the top of your head off nobody panics; but I do wish they would send all children away. My friend Ada & I sleep in the Tube I think you call it the sub-way; & to get a place where we can stretch our legs we are there at 3 p.m.; & stay there till the “All clear” the following morning which is generally about 6 a.m. one must wash & snatch a meal between warnings tho’ we don’t leave our houses and take cover till the guns start going & not always then, our night Barrage is wonderful; I am proud it was the invention of a Dublin man; the noise is terrible but it does not give one a head ache, we slept in a street shelter for some time but our nerves suffered; but down in the Tube you can’t hear a sound; we take a rug & pillow (the floor is concrete, dry but rather hard) & if we are lucky we find a corner; but not always; but I think we will have much better shelter soon. We have just had a warning; the fourth this morning. Before the raids started I was very anxious that Alice should come here as I thought London was the safest place & I am not now sure that it is not, but if things in [Eire?] keep as quiet as they are I am glad she did not come. I pray they will keep so; Alice has Maggie Eggleston staying with her & tho she is now an old lady she is company for Alice; they had the races at home last week. Do you remember your race horse; I think his name was the Red Rover, am I right; how far off those happy days seem now. How long before U.S.A. joins us? Not till after the election I suppose; some say in January; others not at all; I don’t think it matters to us who gets in as both are favourably disposed toward us but W. W is more for isolation. I asked Alice to advance me £5, but unfortunately she could not (I know she would if she could) can you help me? After all your goodness I would not ask you only I really need it. (There goes the all clear; 20 minutes raid) the little circulating work I did is all stopped owing to paper shortage & increase in postage; & I want a few things to carry me through the Winter; particularly a sleeping suit (all in one) it will be very cold coming out into the street in the winter mornings, of course we sleep in our clothes & as we can; this morning I had a strange man beside me, & sometimes I have one at my feet also; what a life. I also would like to get a few tins of cooked meat as a reserve; food is as plentiful as ever only dearer naturally. My bones are very stiff every morning when I try to rise from the floor. I think of poor Nora. I do hope she is getting better, poor girl she has suffered terribly. If you are writing me; I think it would be best if you sent it to Alice; as she is in closer touch with me; as by the time your letter arrived here I may have had to move my bedroom ceiling has fallen down, not bombed, vibration. Strange we can hear nothing of Bill; should anything happen to me I’ve asked different friends to let Alice know, not that I fear anything will, but just in case. I do not want her to be kept in suspense as she is over Bill. Will you please tell Cis I had her letter & hope to write to her soon. I trust the boys & juniors are well, they must be getting quite big. How I would love to see them. If you can’t do as I ask I will understand Jack; but do write me in any case; you would if you knew how I long to hear from you. I trust you are well & not working too hard

All my love.
Always Jack dear
Your loving sister
May

Letter 2

Postmarked: 25 July 1941, London
Addressed to: Mr. J. J. Enright, Illinois Central System, 6,327. Dorchester Avenue. Chicago U.S.A.
Return address: FROM. M. Carlyle. 68, Rushton Street. London. N.1. England

Header: 25/7/41 68 Rushton Street London. N.1.
Body:

Jack dearest,

Many thanks for yours; it was good to see your fist again Many thanks for enclosure, the kind thought apart from the value was much appreciated. You will be surprised (& glad I know) to hear that I am working; of course I would not if there was not a war on; pay is small but practically no work to do; I & a dozen others send out phone warnings (all clear messages) to A.R.P. posts when enemy air-craft are approaching our shores; I started on the anniversary of the day Mother left us; On duty six days a week, eight hours a day & work on Sundays in rota, we have had only one warning since I started, I flatter myself Hitler knows I’m on guard; better still he knows you on your side are. Raymond G. Swing is here I love to hear him on the Radio. I was delighted to hear Cis is so well. Not hearing from her I feared she was very ill, should you see her again will you please say I am anxious to hear from her; it is ages since she wrote me, I wrote her for Xmas; but she may not have got it. I am terribly worried over Alice tho’ in her letters she expresses no anxiety; but I dread that the devil of Berlin may want to take Ireland under his protection, for ourselves I don’t fear an invasion & I think we have had as bad air raids as we ever shall have, had he been in a position to keep up intensive bombing he would have done so & now every day we are growing stronger & with your help I don’t think we need fear the coming Winter. It warms my heart to hear how well the juniors are getting on, how proud Father & Mother would be of them. I remember the morning you went away as well as if it was only last week; I was in bed when you came to say good-bye, & then you came back again & took me in your arms once more, do you remember Jack? Mother went around looking like a ghost & Father came back without his [nice?] color & brought the photo you & he had taken together before you sailed; it stood on a bracket under the clock in the dining room & when you sent yours & Nora’s some years later; it was put beside it; they were there the last time I was home & probably still are. We have had lovely weather but too warm for me; but no doubt it would seem mild to you for summer; Ada an English girl (Alice knows her) & I live together; she is a great pal, when I broke my wrist & got my foot burned with an incendiary bomb; nothing she did was too much trouble. Three months ago she bought chicks a day old 2/6 a dozen; we reared 14 without a foster mother, they are wonderful unfortunately we fear they are all cocks; still they won’t be wasted & will make several tasty dinners during the Winter. I am hoping to get a different job, the monotony of this one is tiring me out; I really mean this  nothing to do except read & tho’ I love reading I don’t do very much as I want to spare my eyes We work in a bomb proof shelter & can sleep there if we wish; have a tin helmet; armlet & badge our photos on our identity cards & a special pass; it makes one feel quite important; its a job some-one must do & it sets the men free for more strenuous work & we old ones feel we are doing our bit, & if I am still there at the end of the war, it will be very thrilling to send out the signal for the Last All Clear; may it be soon; Victory of course will be ours; but I fear we have a hard road to travel first. No doubt Alice told you of Maggie Eggleston’s death. I was glad for her own sake as I think she was glad to go. I wish Norah’s health was better, still she is lucky to have your care & love; blessings I have not to look forward to; but she was a good wife & Mother & deserves the best. I hope the weather was kind for your holiday & that you feel fit & well after it; how I would love to have been with you. A line anytime you have a few minutes to spare will be very welcome. Again thanks dear brother My love to you & your dear ones. Always

Your loving sister
May Carlyle

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