London Social Life during the Second World War

London during these years was a melting pot. Very early in the war, troops arrived from Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth, then from Poland after 1940 and from the United States after 1941. The influx created a new mix of people, when even those stationed in the country at large, came to the city to spend their leave.

A US soldier helps children with their skipping

London was a good place to lose oneself, and the flux of people gave men and women the opportunity to assume new identities if they wished. Grayson Harte, in The Officer’s Nurse, comments sourly on how the city is a perfect backdrop for a deserter such as Gerald Mortimer, who reverts to his original name of Jack Minns in an effort to escape justice.

Bigamous marriages became common, and the easing of social barriers led to a large number of illegitimate births and an increase in unmarried mothers. Greater anonymity and new opportunities for sexual adventures led to changes in sexual attitudes. Socialising between the sexes became easier, boundaries were more often breached. Fire watching, for example, had the effect of obscuring boundaries between workplace and home. Many offices established sleeping rooms for those on duty or for use as shelters in air raids. The raids themselves evoked excitement and danger, and with death so close, morals inevitably loosened.

This was the ideal – the reality may have been more nuanced

Prostitutes were in high demand. Girls could be seen wandering the streets of Mayfair in their finery every afternoon and evening. Other people might hurry for the air raid shelter when the sirens sounded, but they would continue to stroll undisturbed. They charged between ten shillings and £1 an encounter. Since shop girls could earn as little as £1 a week, it was clearly a temptation. At night, the girls would stand in doorways and flash pencil torches on their faces. Towards the end of the war, though, when the blackout relaxed to a dim-out casual partners were able to see each other more easily.

The first few weeks of the war saw public places deserted, but it wasn’t long before Londoners returned in their droves. Pubs, nightclubs and dance halls were all very popular. People went wherever the best bands were playing. The Dorchester, for example, offered Lew Stone and his band. Even when the bombing started in earnest, it didn’t stop people packing the dance halls and swinging to the latest dance craze. Connie, Daisy’s best friend in The Officer’s Nurse, is thrilled to be going dancing at the Astoria with the doctor she fancies, and makes sure to practice her steps to Glen Miller’s Tuxedo Junction.

Couple saying goodbye at the entrance to Piccadilly underground station, after a night out

Theatres remained open throughout the Blitz and newspapers were full of advertisements for West End shows. In May, 1941, the most popular was Applesauce! at the Palladium. Variety shows were popular, too, with acts like Max Miller and Florence Desmond and the new singing sensation, Vera Lynn.

African American soldier dancing with a British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force member at Paramount Dance Hall

Underground restaurants and nightclubs became fashionable because they were considered safe, until a bomb fell through the floor of the elegant Café de Paris in March, 1941. Snakehips Johnson was leading his West Indian band in Oh Johnny! when the first bomb burst onto the stage. Every member of the band, except one, died. The second bomb landed on the dance floor and killed nearly all the dancers. (See Spies and Suspicions on the Home Front).

It was a sobering incident but it didn’t dent the popularity of ‘going up West’, and large hotels continued to develop underground restaurants and dance floors. Their grills and lounges could be eerily quiet in the evening, since life was going on elsewhere. Customers were escorted down long, deserted passages, past naked brick walls and through grubby doors. Then there would be a burst of music and suddenly they had joined dozens of people having fun in a part of the hotel that had previously been used only to store provisions.

The Ritz had a below-stairs Grill Room which became ‘La Popote’. This is where Grayson Harte, in The Officer’s Nurse, takes Daisy for dinner. It’s a secure space in which he can hand over some very important papers. The walls of La Popote were packed with sandbags kept in place by wooden props and naked metal struts. Graffitti adorned the woodwork and candles burned in the necks of wine bottles set on utility tablecloths. A candelabra composed of more bottles lit the modest dance floor. Behind the stage and the band, a mural of the Western Front in 1914 had been painted and on another wall, caricatures of Hitler and Goering.

The Ritz Hotel

Some restaurants and all hotels provided beds for their customers during air raids. Women often went out to dinner carrying their nightdress, toothbrush and make-up. If the sirens went off, they would not expect to get home until morning and most stayed where they were. There was special provision made in the grandest hotels. Alongside the underground dance floor, the hotel provided dormitories – separate sleeping quarters for single men, single women and couples. Mattresses and camp beds with matching linen were provided, and there was even a warden on patrol to quieten snorers. The Savoy went one further by having an operating theatre with uniformed nurses ready to extract shrapnel from the flesh of paying guests.

Dancing, drinking, eating off ration, were a necessary safety valve for a population working themselves into the ground on a minimum of sleep, and deprived of any luxury. You might not have the money for a slap up evening in a West End hotel, but a ticket to a dance hall was relatively cheap and you could get a satisfying breakfast – porridge, bacon and fried bread, toast and marmalade and a pot of tea for 1s 6d. (about 7p in today’s money) at any of the Lyons Corner Houses. The Lyons ‘nippy’ became an icon of wartime London. Daisy and Grayson, in The Officer’s Nurse, meet at the Coventry Street Lyons – a satisfyingly innocuous venue in which to pass on the news that Grayson has managed to secure safe passage for Daisy’s deserter husband.

The Nippy

Nippys were popular from the start, but many women workers were initially resisted, then grudgingly accepted and finally taken for granted. They worked everywhere: in the Home Guard, in factories, on the buses, sweeping the roads, staffing the banks, driving ambulances and fire engines, while at the same time keeping homes running and looking after children, since even women with small children became necessary as war production got into its swing.

Women factory workers

Apart from work, a woman’s day could entail hours of queuing for meagre rations, followed by sleepless nights from the constant air raids. (See Rationing in the Second World War). By the end of the war more than three-quarters of married women in London were doing war work, some at home but most in offices, factories and elsewhere.

There’s a queue but nobody has any idea of what might be for sale

As the war ground on, the people as well as their city became visibly shabbier. New clothes were a rarity and if anyone were fortunate enough to buy a garment, they wore it apologetically. Houses went unpainted and shops were not allowed to wrap goods in order to save paper. Government propaganda was everywhere and people became as worn down by the insistent lecturing as they did by the privations themselves. The nagging aggravated the lack of small necessities – for women, for example, stockings, shampoo, scent, scissors, nail varnish and hairpins. If people had to eat nothing but turnips and swedes, they would do so, but they didn’t want all the time to be told to do so. The authorities, though, seemed deaf to the annoyance. They were relentless in constantly reminding the population not to waste food, not to leave litter, to use fuel sparingly, to telephone briefly.

Advice and admonition was everywhere: Put money into government savings, don’t spend it! Don’t travel unless absolutely necessary! Whether any of this had the desired effect is arguable. People just got on with winning the war. But even that sentiment had its very own poster!

This article is based on research undertaken for my novel, The Officer’s Nurse.

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