When we think of the Second World War, we often think of the Home Front or the front lines, Dunkirk and D-Day. It’s much less often that we think of those who spent their time behind enemy lines as prisoners of war. As I was looking through the archive catalogue recently I came across an entry for Trooper George Sweetman, of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, whose diary recounts his time as a PoW. As we get close to Christmas and begin to think of spending time with our family and friends, I thought about what life must have been like for men like George at this time of year as prisoners of a hostile nation so far from home. George’s diary gives us a fascinating insight into the lives and emotions of captured British soldiers, how their morale ebbed and flowed with the course of the war, and how important Christmas was to their wellbeing.
On 2 November 1942 George’s unit went into action in North Africa, as part of Operation Supercharge, part of the Second Battle of El Alamein. The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, operating within the 9th Armoured Brigade, lost a large number of tanks during the action, partly as a result of a counterattack led by the 21st Panzer Division. In his diary, George recorded the action: “Went into action at dawn. B Sqd. first in, one shot up A.T.G [anti-tank guns], lorries & tanks, & then Jerries’ main armoured force came & a big fight started”, and his unit took heavy casualties.“We lost B Sqd., lost all our tanks, we got wiped out.” George was taken Prisoner of War (PoW) during this action, and was to spend the rest of the war in a PoW camp.
From El Alamein George was taken through Egypt to Libya and from there he and other PoWs were shipped to Greece and onwards to Italy, arriving in southern Italy on 22 November 1942. The prisoners’ journey was far from easy. The day after his capture George’s convoy was attacked by the RAF: “coming up the Mersa road from Darla we got bombed and machine gunned to hell with our own planes. Several of our mates got wounded & one got blown to bits. A hell of a day that was”. Relative to what was to come in the last years of the war conditions in the Italian camps were fairly good, though life there was apparently rather boring. The prisoners’ main complaint was about the quantity and quality of the food, which came to a head in George’s first Christmas behind the wire.
As you might expect for men held prisoner in a foreign, enemy, country there wasn’t much in the way of a build up to Christmas in the camp. In fact even Christmas cards were a luxury: there weren’t enough available for each man to send one home, and the prisoners had to draw lots to see who would be given a card. Luckily for George he won one, and sent it home on the 8th of December. Post to and from the camps during the war was slow, and George would not receive his first letter from home until March 1943. Apart from this there do not seem to have been any Christmas activities in the camp until Christmas Eve which was, for George and the others, a disappointment: after sports in the morning and afternoon, “we had a meat meal in evening. We had a concert in our hut in the evening it was very good, finished with a blind boxing match so that ended Xmas eve, of course we missed the beer and food. Just went to bed”.
If anything, Christmas Day was an even greater disappointment. Throughout the war the Red Cross distributed parcels to PoWs containing food, tobacco and hygiene items. The parcels were meant to supplement the rations that PoWs received in the camps which were usually insufficient in terms of both calories and nutrients. The parcels often came infrequently due to the circumstances of the war, but when they did arrive they were the highlight of the men’s week. Even more than these deliveries, though, the men hoped for one particular parcel. Every year at Christmas the Red Cross delivered Christmas dinner in a parcel to the PoWs, including everything from Christmas pudding to chocolate and sweets. Unfortunately for George and the other prisoners, in December 1942 their Christmas parcel never arrived.
On Christmas Day the men woke early and made a cup of tea, allowing themselves a ration of 2 or 3 biscuits from their remaining ordinary Red Cross parcel. After finishing this the day continued much as any other, with a parade and count of the prisoners, followed by a church service at 9 o’clock and the standard lunch ration “just the same as any other day”. In his usual understated style George simply recorded in his diary “The Red Cross Xmas parcel which we expected never turned up, a great disappointment”. In the afternoon the men received a small Christmas gift from their Italian captors: one orange for each prisoner. Later, it started to rain. At 4pm the men had their ordinary hot meal, with no Christmas extras. After a “sing song” in the evening their Christmas ended. George’s diary reveals his bitter disappointment: “and so to bed hungry & that was how we spent Christmas Day 1942 in our P.O.W. camp. I thought of home, all the good food. That’s all we think about hear [sic] is food”. Morale in the camps was often low, a consequence of having little to do but sit and think, and the missing Christmas parcel crushed the men’s spirits. This continued into Boxing Day – it rained constantly, and the men were forced to sit in their huts all day, with the same standard food ration that they had on any other day. George simply recorded in his diary “and so to bed, that was Boxing Day and Christmas once again over. Wonder where we shall be next Christmas”.
Over the next week life went on as normal until, in the New Year, a rumour ran round the camp that the Christmas parcels had arrived. On Monday 3 January George recorded in his diary “the tale was true – some Xmas parcels had come in but not enough for one each, so we are keeping them till Wednesday in case some more come in … Roll on Wednesday”. By Wednesday the missing parcels had still not come in, so the men had to share one between two. George copied the contents of his parcel into his diary:
Quite a feast for men used to one hot meal a day, which was often a ‘soup’ of a small amount of vegetables in water; by April 1945, when George was imprisoned in Germany, it was a distant luxury. In 1943, though, the men made sure to savour their good fortune. “We had our Xmas pudding hot”, George wrote in his diary, with “jam & Nestlé’s milk after it”, with an apple given to them by the Italians to mark Epiphany. Compared to his mood on Christmas Day, George was ecstatic: “this is my happiest day since P.O.W. the best food I had … a good day”. The next day the men finished off the remainder of their Christmas parcel, eating their cake, marmalade, butter, and beef & tomato pudding.
For some festive fun I thought I would have a look at Christmas entries in various journals here at the History Centre. We have a wonderful one kept by Audley Money-Kyrle while on board the ‘Riversdale’ during her voyage to Calcutta in 1866.
He passed the morning of Monday 24th December in rehearsal for a charade. “Mrs Smith kindly supplies the necessary articles of female attire from ‘the bonnet’ to the ‘crinoline’.” The Dining saloon was converted into a stage with a curtain fashioned from ship’s flags and the charade opened with a comic song by the steward.
Christmas Day itself consisted of a sumptuous banquet and drinking of champagne (sounds good to me!)
“Oh day of carols and Xmas boxes, of roast beef, turkey and plum pudding, of happy greetings, of Peace on Earth & goodwill to men
Twenty times I have hailed thy advent at my old home and now my 21st anniversary sees me on the deep blue sea with many miles of rolling waves separating me that dear old home & all I love on earth; oh may all the prayers which I am assured will ascend for my safe return be surely answered!
We dined today about ½ past 4. Mock turtle soup. Roast goose, ditto duck, a splendid ham, tongue and roast joint of pork, champagne ad lib at the expense of the ship for this night only. We all made a good dinner, at least, I can answer for myself. When the cloth was removed, & we became a little exhilarated by the champagne the Captain proposed a toast to ‘the Queen’ which was drunk with becoming loyalty. Major Smith then in a complimentary speech proposed ‘the Captain of the ship’ who thereupon returned thanks in a grateful but wandering address; however what he lost in words, we made up in applause, so it is to be hoped that he was satisfied with his effort. Mr Stainforth in a feeling manner then gave us ‘absent friends’ and I followed with ‘the ladies’. There being only 2 married representatives present I was obliged to moderate the style of my compliments & confined myself in general terms on the many charms and graces of the sex & concluded by hoping it should be my good fortune (?) to exchange my state of single blessedness for one of married bliss I might be as happy in my choice as Major Smith or Mr Staniforth (the 2 husbands)- I think this rather ’took’ with them, at least they seemed to appreciate it. We then sang songs & made ourselves merry till about ½ past 10 when we all turned in.”
Look out for a couple more festive diary entries on our social media!
As shown by one of this year’s Explore Your Archive themes #Archivecatwalk ‘the history of fashion is the history of people’. Archives can provide a unique insight into the fashion of the past from sources such as inventories, wills, household accounts, bills, photographs, drawings, magazines and periodicals, diaries and more. Sometimes they can provide evidence where little else has survived. I’ve picked a few examples from our collections for this blog, but there are many more out there!
Inventories, wills and bills
Inventories can provide evidence for the garments and quantities of clothing in households of varied status. Textiles and clothing are not only revealed through bequests in wills but in the given occupations of testators including clothiers, cloth-workers, glovers, haberdashers, hat makers, draper, cordwainers, weavers etc.
Bills and accounts give us dated evidence of prices paid for all sorts of clothing and textiles, such as this example in the papers of sisters Miss Mary Codrington of Walcot in Bath (died 9 March 1754) and Miss Dorothy Codrington (died at Bath in 1768).
We also hold a detailed bill for Lady Elizabeth Seymour dating to 1669 which is mostly for clothing. It includes white and coloured worsted stockings; fabrics including tabby, lutestring, satin, sarsnett, venetian, cambric, farindin, avignion, parrigone, tifiney; laced shoes, and a “pare of golosus”; damask and jessemy powder. Rather pleasingly it also includes an entry for 8 pounds of that most essential of items ‘iockaletta’ (no prizes for guessing!).
Women in the mid-17th century often wore low cut bodices laced down the front with ribbons and coming to a deep point, a linen collar (which was sometimes transparent) ¾ length sleeve with turn ups of lace. They would have worn gowns and petticoats (which are also listed in Lady Seymour’s bill). There was also a fashion for adding ‘patches’ to the face which satirist John Bulwer described as the ‘vain custom of spotting their faces out of affectation of a mole, to set off their beauty’. The shapes could vary from spots, to stars, crescents, or even ‘a coach and horses cut out of black ‘court plaster’. Amazingly this was a fashion which lasted for more than 50 years.
For men the custom of wearing a periwig was adopted following the King appearing in one in 1663. Samuel Pepys recorded his wearing of a periwig in his diary, and is seemingly a little disappointed not to have provoked more interest: “I found that my coming in a periwig did not prove so strange as I was afraid it would for I thought that all the church would presently have set their eyes upon me” The fashion lasted for nearly 100 years, although the use of powder did not begin until the latter part of the 17th century.
Nearly 100 years later, a 1741 inventory of the Earl of Ailesbury’s clothes in London and at Tottenham includes suits of cloth in various colours, flowered crimson velvet, bargen, camelet, flowered silk, 4 tied wigs and 3 bobs, silk and thread stockings, 4 swords, buttons, shoe and knee buckles in gold, silver, pinchbeck and enamel.
Magazines and periodicals:
In a collection of family papers we have 11 copies of ‘The Ladies Cabinet’ magazine covering fashion, music and romance. This 1835 edition includes an advert for ‘French and English Corsets’ with the Patent Black which is ‘instantly unlaced in cases of sudden indisposition’. There is also the Elastic Stay which prevents pressure on the chest in the case of pulmonary complaints and the Gestation Stay, which gives necessary comfort and support to ladies during pregnancy. The corset had come back into fashion after the earlier ‘Empire’ gown of the end of the 18th century. The pursuit of this style led to some extraordinary effort; Laver notes in ‘A Concise History of Costume’ (p162) that in one corset advert a mother is advised to make her daughter lie face down on the floor so she might place a foot in the small of her back to obtain the necessary purchase on the laces.
In slightly less restricted attire, a 1928 magazine snippet shows the remarkable speed record-holder Mrs Bruce (see our Principal Archivist’s blog on some of her favourite archives to learn more about Mary Bruce’s extraordinary story). Post war, fashion began to pick up again, and the flared skirt which had lasted throughout the war was replaced by a more cylindrical ‘barrel’ line with shorter skirts (knee length). This can be seen in this sketch where she is described as ‘a picture of practical smartness in her redingote of beige and grey tweed. With it she wears tan gloves and a felt hat to match’.
CMAS are excited to be working on the conservation of two Roman copper alloy items recently excavated by Foundations Archaeology.
The site at Cholsey, South Oxfordshire is thought to be an Iron Age settlement which evolved into a Roman Villa site. The villa buildings have been preserved in situ, but excavations were carried out on almost 2 hectares of land surrounding them.
The excavations revealed numerous burials and enclosures including a number of impressive corn driers.
Interestingly the archaeologists propose that the site was a prosperous farm that evolved to a villa, unusual as villas were more commonly set up by representatives of the empire.
CMAS are conserving a copper alloy necklace with a circular pendant, possibly made from bone, and a large copper alloy bowl.
The bowl was found upturned within the base of a corn drier, on top of charcoal deposits.
The backfill from the demolition of the corn drier was deposited on top of the bowl. This shows that the bowl was deposited at the time that use of the drier ceased, possibly as a closing offering and that this was done at the same time as closure of the site, not at a later date.
Wiltshire Buildings Record was recently asked to look at Red Lodge Farmhouse, Braydon. This was a farm created in the mid-17th century out of the royal forest of Braydon, which had formerly been a royal hunting ground. The house is of great interest and reflects changing ownership over time until the 20th century, as does almost every house we look at. This time, however, it was a very human tragedy that took our attention.
By sheer coincidence I was on my way there and had called into another farm at Brinkworth nearby. When I mentioned my destination, the farmer exclaimed that his great, great uncle, Hezekiah Matthews, had been killed as a poacher at Red Lodge in 1882, and gave me a transcript of the poor man’s inquest.
Hezekiah Matthews had been one of a group of poachers, all cousins from Brinkworth, who were looking to bag something for the pot on the night of 27th December 1882. Because of previous incidents, a watching party consisting of the Neeld Estate head keeper, William Collins, Henry Reeves, Henry John Reeves, Thomas Reeves, and three others ambushed them, and after a struggle, apprehended them. Unfortunately, two of the keeper’s party were accidentally shot, and Hezekiah Matthews received a blow to the head. They were all taken off to Red Lodge Farmhouse to await the doctor and the police, who were coming from Purton.
Now in The Salisbury Museum, the Salisbury Giant and Hob-Nob were first mentioned in 1570 and 1572 respectively, in records from the Salisbury Guild of Tailors but it is probable he existed by the 1400s. Originally used by the Salisbury Guild of Tailors on the eve of the feast of St John (Midsummer’s Day), they have been a part of processions and festivals in Salisbury, originally to mark the eve of St John the Baptist’s Day (June 23rd) and the eve of the feast of St Osmund’s translation (July 15th), but later to be paraded for special occasions, such as royal weddings and jubilees.
The Salisbury Giant is a tall (now 12ft) figure made from a wooden frame; the oldest part of which is the head. Hob-Nob’s purpose in celebrations and parades was to clear the way for the Giant – he is smaller, and horse-like, with jaws fitted with hob-nails to snap at members of the crowd if they were in the way. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were reports of the hobby horse chasing people and ripping their clothes with his teeth as a result of people throwing things at him. The Giant and Hob-Nob could each be supported by one man holding the frame. This resulted in the Salisbury Giant having a very life-like sway and movement.
The physical appearance of the Giant has changed frequently since the sixteenth century. Most depictions of him in the nineteenth century show a tricorn hat and tobacco pope, but in the twentieth century he was garbed in fifteenth century style robes. One of the biggest changes to his appearance was also in the twentieth century, when his face was painted over with shellac to preserve it, but had the side effect of making him look as if he was from African descent. A restoration later on discovered around 6 layers of pink-ish paint underneath.
Some say that the Salisbury Giant represents St Christopher, the biblical giant, and that he was detached of his religious significance during the Reformation and the Puritan era. However, it has also been pointed out that other than his bearing, the Salisbury giant has no other similarities to the saint.