Imogen Bird, a student on the MA Modern History, posts her personal reflections of a placement in Special Collections.
The Liddle Collection is one of the most renowned collections held by Special Collections and is designated as outstanding by the Arts Council of England. It spans across World War One and World War Two. Over the past few months, I have undertaken a cataloguing placement on the WW2 domestic front in the Liddle Collection. Immediately it was clear that the series was diverse and varied. It provides insights into lives, all equally interesting, but unique in their own way.
One file that struck me as particularly fascinating was the file of Rita Biehal, a young clerical worker in the Office of Special Assignments during WW2. What I first thought was a miniature booklet relating to eye ailments soon became much more interesting. Upon reading Biehal’s supplementary recollections and translating some of the text, it became clear the booklet was actually a publication of the French underground socialist party. It called on comrades to resist the German occupation. It is not known exactly how Biehal came into possession of this booklet. But the organisation she worked for did train French volunteers as special agents in London, so one can assume there are some links between the two. Biehal also states she was often sent regularly to work with MI5. Evidently her tasks were much different from what one supposes files on the domestic front may contain.
The file of Mary Lynn is just as interesting but in a very different way. Lynn discusses her acting career during wartime London, and also as a performer for the Air Force and Army as part of the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). Lynn makes clear that her work was key for morale throughout the war, writing about the many events she was invited to as a performer. Lynn also recounts her days working with famous actress Beatrice Lillie and their friendship that blossomed during the war. Again this is very different from the usual connotations of the domestic front of evacuees and rationing. Indeed, Lynn’s recollections do include mentions of the bombing of central London and the theatre district, but it is how she came about these experiences that make this file more interesting.
Stories like these, help to enrich what we perceive as the domestic front. Not merely rationing, evacuations and air raids, but also stories of the secret service, actors, evacuation tragedies, German tours, and conscientious objectors – to name a few. The stories of the people in these files are so varied and fascinating that anyone with an interest in WW2 should contact Special Collections to find out more. It has been a pleasure interning with special collections. I will treasure it as an experience that has empowered my interest in the richness, importance, and fascination of people’s history.