A night of terror

Nella Last

In September of 1939, English housewife Nella Last began keeping a diary that would span 30 years, ultimately producing one of the longest diaries in the English language at more than 12 million words. Born Nellie Lord in 1890, she was a voluntary participant in the Mass Observation project, an initiative aimed at documenting the everyday lives of ordinary British people during and after World War II. Her insightful diary entries provide a vivid account of her wartime experiences and observations, as well as her relationships, emotions, and the social changes that unfolded in the subsequent years. Nella, her husband, and their son lived in Barrow-in-Furness, a shipbuilding town targeted by German bombers in April and May of 1941 during a series of air raids known as the Barrow Blitz, and it was amidst these harrowing events that Nella penned the following diary entry.

The Diary Entry

Sunday, 4 May, 1941

A night of terror, and there are few windows left in the district—or roof tiles! Land mines, incendiaries and explosives were dropped, and we cowered thankfully under our indoor shelter. I’ve been so dreadfully sick all day, and I’m sure it’s sheer fright, for last night I really thought our end had come. By the time the boys come, I’ll be able to laugh about it. Now I’ve a sick shadow over me as I look at my loved little house that will never be the same again. The windows are nearly all out, the metal frames strained, the ceilings down, the walls cracked and the garage roof showing four inches of daylight where it joins the wall. Doors are splintered and off—and there is the dirt from the blast that swept down the chimney. The house rocked, and then the kitchenette door careered down the hall and plaster showered on to the shelter. I’ll never forget my odd sensations, one a calm acceptance of ‘the end’, the other a feeling of regret that I’d not opened a tin of fruit salad for tea—and now it was too late!

I’m so very frugal nowadays, and I look at a tin of fruit longingly sometimes, now that fruit is so scarce—but I put it back on the shelf, for I think we may need it more later. Looking back, I think the regret about the fruit salad was stronger than fear of all being over. Odd how things come back to one—we have been nearly five years in this house, and just after we had moved I went to Blackpool, where Arthur was in the Tax Office there. A gay party of us went into Olympia Fun City, and all the women went to have their fortunes told by a gypsy there called Madame Curl. I can recall every detail and how she upset me and made me vow that I’d never go again, even in fun. She said, ‘You have moved into a new house, but you will not end your days in it,’ and went on to say that something would happen, and both the boys would leave home—the second in a way that I would not expect—and then I’d be a widow and would remarry a widower who looked in my direction often! The boys have gone—Cliff in a very unexpected way; and my poor pretty house I fear will not stand up to much more.

I’ve worked and worked, clearing glass and plaster and broken china—all my loved old china plates from the oak panelling in the hall. With no sleep at all last night, and little on Friday night, I’ve no tiredness at all, no dread of the night, no regrets, just a feeling of numbness. All the day, the tinkle of glass being swept up and dumped in ash-bins has sounded like wind-bells in a temple, together with the knock-knock as anything handy was tacked in place over gaping windows. We have brought the good spring-bed down into the dining-room, both for comfort and safety. My chicks are safe, and my cat, who fled terrified as a splintered door crashed, has come home. The sun shines brightly, although it’s after tea and there is no sign of kindly clouds to hide the rising moon.

All neighbours who have cars, and friends in the country, have fled—a woman opposite brought her key and said, ‘Keep an eye on things please.’ I said, ‘No, you must do it yourself. You have no right to expect me or anyone else to do it for you. You are strong and well and have no children to think of. I’d not put out an incendiary if I saw it strike your house—unless I thought the flame would be a danger to others.’ I think I’m a little mad today. I’d never have spoken so plainly until now. The damage to houses is very widespread – and all round, there’s the circle of hovering balloons. It’s not saved the Yard, though, for two shops have been destroyed—one, the pattern shop, burned like a torch with its wood-fed flames.

The birds sang so sweetly at dawning today—just as the all-clear sounded and people timidly went round looking at the damage. I wonder if they will sing as sweetly in the morning—and if we all will hear them. Little sparrows had died as they crouched—from blast possibly. It looked as if they had bent their little heads in prayer, and had died as they did so. I held one in my hand: ‘He counteth the sparrow and not one falleth that He does not see’—Poles, Czechs, Greeks, all sparrows. There are a number of people round here killed, and houses flat; and a dog whose master was killed, and whose mistress was frantic with fear and grief, ran over half a mile, climbed fourteen steps and crawled under a bed—and both its back legs were broken, and it had internal injuries. A lady saw it and called a vet, who gave it an injection and slept it away: it looked up gratefully and then rolled over.

It’s funny how sick one can be, and not able to eat—just through fright and fear. I keep wondering and wondering how many killed and injured there are. It’s only a little town, and does not need a big blitz to wipe it out. I’m glad Cliff did not come on leave. He will grieve when he sees all the ceilings and gapes in the skirtings, and the tiles in the bathroom; but we have a roof and a light, and have a lot to be thankful for. Our newspapers did not come till 3.30; there must have been a bomb on the line somewhere. Only Merseyside was mentioned on the wireless. We will not want them to know they have got to the Shipyard perhaps.

I’ve opened the tin of fruit salad, and put my best embroidered cloth on, and made an egg-whip instead of cream. My husband will be so tired. I’ll not take my clothes off tonight, and I’ll give the animals an aspirin. My face is clean and I’ve combed my hair and put powder and lipstick on. I’m too tired and spent to have a bath and then put my clothes on again. I could not settle at all if I’d to undress: we may have to fight incendiaries—a lot more were dropped in other parts of town. I thought Ruth and her aunt might be bombed out and be coming, and I got all cleaned up in case they did.

Further Reading

Nella Last’s diaries are held at the Mass Observation Archive. So far three volumes have been edited by Patricia Malcolmson and Robert Malcolmson, and published in the following order:

In 2006, the diaries were dramatised by Victoria Wood in the film Housewife, 49, with Wood playing Nella Last.

Reproduced here with the permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd on behalf of the Trustees of The Mass-Observation Archive © Trustees of the Mass-Observation Archive.

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