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review 2019-09-14 21:46
Informative, entertaining, inspiring, and part of an important series.
A History of Women's Lives in Eastbourne - Tina Brown

Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early paperback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

This book is one of a series about Women’s Lives, and I recommend you check Pen & Sword’s website if you are interested in a particular city or area, as a large number of books have already been published and you’re likely to find a relevant one (or one might be on the making). I had been intrigued by the collection for a while and finally requested this one because my first job as a junior doctor was in Eastbourne, East Sussex, in the South East of England, I remained in the area for quite a few years and although I visited museums and talked to people about the place, I didn’t learn much about the role of local women and their lives in the past.

Eastbourne felt quite different to what I was used to when I first move there, with its gentile atmosphere, the seafront, the fancy (if somewhat old-fashioned) hotels, the Victorian pier, and the natural beauty of the Downs and Beachy Head. As the author explains in the description, the book centres on the lives of women from 1850 to 1950, and it also offers a brief but useful background into the history of the period. Although this will not cover new ground for history experts, it will help casual readers place the lives of these local women in context, and it contains gems specific to the local history and to the women´s social history, and it also incorporates previously unpublished personal accounts and those narrated by relatives and friends of women who had lived in the area.

The book is divided into an introduction, seven chapters, a brief bibliography (a good starting point but not too lengthy or detailed), a section of acknowledgments, and an index. The book also includes pictures and illustrations, some belonging to the personal archives of some of the women mentioned, and also postcards and landscapes of the area. I highlighted many details I found interesting as I read it, and I thought I’d share some of those to give you an idea of the kinds of things you might find in this book (and probably others in the series). Chapter One, Education and Professional Life includes, like other chapters, brief biographies of some local women (either women born in Eastbourne or who lived there for significant periods of time), such as Emily Phipps, who studied for the bar and later moved into teaching. She was said to live by this saying: ‘If you make yourself a doormat, do not be surprised if people tread on you’, and Rosalie Harvey, a medical missionary worker, who helped over 1500 sick people, many children and babies, and animals.

Chapter 2, Working Life, included a mention of the life of female smugglers in Eastbourne, the way the people from town helped families affected by WWI, and the touching story of a woman whose biological father was a Canadian soldier in WWII whom she never got to meet, who considered herself lucky because her mother’s husband (who was also a soldier and away for most of the war) accepted her as if she were his own child, and in fact she never discovered she wasn’t his until she was 22.  One of the biographies included in this chapter is that of writer and journalist Angela Carter, who was born in Eastbourne.

Chapter 3, Family Life: ‘Home Sweet Home’, highlights how society’s rules and political laws curtailed women’s freedom in all aspects of life, even when it came to dress and fashion. Getting a divorce was very difficult for women, even after changes in the law in the late 1850s and in the 1920s.  Having recently read a book about Lady Astor and her penchant for fashion, I found out in this chapter that Queen Victoria wore a headdress made of bird feathers in 1851 and that sprung a fashion (and resulted in the deaths of a very large number of birds). Reading about the change brought to the lives of women by a minor invention, such as the electric iron, made me reflect upon how hard tasks that might seem easy now were for our ancestors. This chapter also includes imaginative and resourceful war-time recipes, and it mentions the good reputation of Eastbourne schools and, in particular, Eastbourne College (a wonderful building I lived quite close to for a while).

Chapter 4, Quality of Life, talks about the changes brought by the NHS, efforts in welfare, and reforms to the workhouse, and the important role women played in those.

Chapter 5, Social Life, is one of my favourites, and includes some gems, such as the fact that nearby, in Bexhill-on-Sea (where I also worked) in 1901, male and female bathers were allowed to mix in the same beach for the first time. The chapter talks in detail about the Eastbourne Pier (I only knew some details of its history and had heard about the controversy caused by its recent refurbishment, but I haven’t seen it since, so I dare not comment); it also mentions the well-known female tennis tournament at Devonshire Park, and I was very taken by the brief biography of Emily Mary Shackleton, who moved to Eastbourne, and when her famous husband died during one of his expeditions, was left to fend for herself with a considerable debt to settle. She worked tirelessly for the Red Cross and became divisional commissioner for the Girl Guides of Eastbourne. The Luxor cinema was before my time, but from the description I would love to have seen it, and it had a Compton Organ, a fantastic instrument I was lucky to get to hear at the Penistone Paramount (don’t miss it if you are anywhere near).

Chapter 6, Political Life, places an emphasis on the local suffragist movement and some of the women who took part, including some of their heart wrenching accounts of being imprisoned and going on hunger strike, the way the attempts at reforming gender discriminatory laws were received, the first women mayors of the area, and such puzzling things as the fact that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children wasn’t formed until 1891, almost seventy years after the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Chapter 7, Spiritual and Religious Life, talks not only about the churches in Eastbourne, how new denominations became more popular as time passed, and also how the churches started organising social events, clubs and activities for all ages. This chapter also includes mentions of three ghosts: the redoubt fortress one, the one at Devonshire Park Theatre, and two nurse ghosts at the All Saints Hospital. I have heard about some of them, and considering the author has written books on that topic, I would take it in good authority.

I enjoyed the combination of general history with local events, the biographies of the local women, and, especially, the personal accounts of women who had lived in Eastbourne at the time and shared their experiences (or those passed on by their relatives) with the author. As I have said before, those are the kinds of details that help history come to life and make us understand what a period was truly like, not for politicians and royals, but for the people in the street.

As this is the first book I read in the series, I cannot compare it to others, and I know each one of the volumes is written by a local historian, so their approaches might be quite different. Mine was an early review copy, and I’m sure there will have been changes in the final version, but my only recommendation, based on the copy I had access to, would be to ensure that the biographies are clearly marked as separate from the rest of the text (by using a different type of letter or by encasing them in a box, for example), as currently they are interspersed with the rest of the content of the chapter, and it is not always easy to tell where one finishes and the other one starts again. Some of the topics overlap with each other and that makes the chapters perfect for reading independently, although it results in similar content being mentioned in several chapters when the book is read in one go, but I did not find this a major problem.

I enjoyed this book, which is informative, entertaining, and inspiring, and includes enough information about the general and social history of the period to be suitable for any readers, even those who don’t generally read history. At the same time it contains a wealth of information on the local history of women in Eastbourne, which will satisfy those trying to get a picture of the era, be it for personal interest, research, or as part of an ongoing project (Writers, I’m looking at you). I recommend this title to anybody interested in any of those aspects, and I will be checking other titles in the series.

  

 

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review 2019-06-02 10:57
A wonderful chronicle for anybody interested in local history
Barnsley at War 1939–45 (Your Towns & Cities in World War Two) - Mark Green

I thank Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This volume is one in a series about different towns and cities during WWII in the UK, called Your Towns & Cities in World War Two (for those interested, Pen & Sword also publishes a similar series about towns and cities during WWI). I was particularly interested in Barnsley because I used to live in Penistone, a town within Barnsley Metropolitan Borough, and I spent a fair amount of time in Barnsley and the surrounding area, so I was curious as to how life must have been like at the time in the area (beyond the visual reminders, like monuments and parades). Each book is penned by a different expert, so the writing might differ, but if I were to judge by this one, anybody interested in researching in more detail what life was like during the war in a particular area of the UK would find plenty of useful material in this collection.

The book, which contains a detailed index and end notes that can serve as a bibliography, is peppered with photographs, maps, propaganda posters and advertisements, and images taken directly from newspapers which illustrate the text, from maps of the German bombers targets in the area (in Sheffield, a few miles South, they manufactured parts for the RAF planes, and it was therefore a target and suffered heavy bombing in 1940), posted silhouettes of the German planes and images of their uniforms, so the population could recognise them, pictures of the men and women who helped in the war effort (both home and abroad), the bomb shelters, a gas hood for babies (it looks right out of a sci-fi movie)…

The four chapters follow the war effort in Barnsley in chronological order, from the preparation period (detailing the ARP’s [ Air Raid Precaution] efforts to recruit people in the whole area, also talking in detail about the poor living and working conditions in some parts of the town, especially for those working at the local collieries [George Orwell visited and reported on what he saw], it also mentions those men from Barnsley who went to join the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War [Thank you], the building of air shelters and the reuse of some facilities for training and as shelters; to what became known as “the Phoney War”, because for eight months, after war had been declared, nothing much seemed to happen, although there were plenty of preparations and movements taking place (for some soldiers who had never travelled abroad it felt like a vacation, while at home they were practicing imposing blackout —there were several deaths and a large number of accidents as well until people got wise to the risks—, rationing, and an increase in manufacturing);  then when Germany invaded the Low Countries and France, we have more rationing, the first men start dying abroad including the first British soldier killed in France, Private William Roper, who although living in Dewsbury at the time of the war, was born and spent his childhood in Barnsley, the women joining more actively in the war effort, heavy rationing, children refugees arriving from some of the heavily bombed areas (there are letters and personal accounts included as well)… And finally, after the victory, we have the celebrations, of course.  The book does not shy away from talking about some of the less than edifying incidents, like crime and robberies taking place during the period, and hate incidents towards some of the allied troops visiting the area (including an incident in Penistone when an African-American soldier was assaulted outside a pub, although seemingly not by locals), and it is a fairly complete chronicle of all aspects of life in the area during WWII period.

As a small but representative sample of the book, I thought I’d share a fragment of a letter by Gunner William Barraclough, a Barnsley hero, summing up the British spirit of Dunkirk, which brought a smile to my face: ‘we had a hot time, but we’re not licked yet —not by a long chalk.’

I cannot sum up the whole book, but I am sure anybody from the region, or interested in researching the local history of that area, will find plenty of useful information about what was happening in the area, and also about what happened to the locals who were mobilised during the war. This would be a perfect present for relatives or friends who remember the era or are interested in it, and also for anybody wanting to become better acquainted with that period of UK history at a local level.

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