|A MASTERPIECE OF OBSERVATION
|Fascinating tales from wartime Norfolk
For more than 50 years, the secret wartime diary of a woman living in Norfolk lay undisturbed in a damp shed in Attleborough.
Captured on the back of empty blue sugar bags, the effects of the second world war had been drawn in intimate detail by its author, Betty Armitage.
Among the entries are descriptions of the Norwich blitz, the day Winston Churchill become Prime Minister and stories featuring a number of colourful Norfolk characters, including a poacher known as Fred and Betty's local landlord, George, a great boxing and wireless enthusiast.
Recently rescued from the ravages of time and hungry rodents, the diary has been painstakingly poured over and transformed into a book by historian Nick Webley.
Mr Webley was carrying out research in 1991 into wartime Norfolk when a friend told him he knew of two elderly women in Attleborough who were in possession of written documents from the war.
The two women – who were in their 80s and 90s – had been asked to look after them by Betty when she left Norfolk a few years after the war ended. The simple instructions she gave them were: "I will never do anything with them but I wouldn't like to burn them."
Realising the potential local historical importance and appetite for the writings, Mr Webley began paying regular visits to the shed, where he would sit for hours transcribing the notes and making tape recordings of the entries.
"They'd been kept relatively undisturbed in a wooden tea-chest in a damp shed," he said. "Some of the entries weren't easy to read because of how long they'd been there and because rats had been attracted to the empty sugar bags."
Among her daily diary entries – which spanned from the first to the last day of the war – Betty described how appalled she felt at seeing how young the servicemen were and how much of a toll the war had taken on them.
"Betty would offer them a home-from-home. In her accounts, it seems they were suffering from what we now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder. She would take the airmen under her wing and get them well and truly drunk," Mr Webley said.
"At other times – especially Christmas – she would invite the airmen and her friends round for Christmas dinner and cook for them."
Many of the young men whom Betty befriended and cooked for simply vanish from the pages – a stark reality of what war is really about.
[RIGHT - WARTIME SPIRIT: Rosie the riveter promotes the female strength behind the industrial workforce.]
Although there is naturally a dark side to the diary, it also contains humour and moments of light relief.
One account described by Betty, thought to have been originally from Liverpool, involves a story about a man and a dog in Wymondham.
Mr Webley said: "Betty was working in Wymondham some time during the war and saw a man beat his dog with a stick. She walked up to him, took the stick from the man, beat him and took the dog home. It shows she was quite a formidable character."
Betty, who was born in the 1880s, worked as a theatrical seamstress and occasional cook. She moved to East Anglia after living in Coventry and London and had a number of jobs in various Norfolk villages.
When war broke out, Betty was a 58-year-old widow who had no children.
Mr Webley said Betty, not being a native of Norfolk, brought a "fresh eye" to the war in her writings and wrote in an unbiased manner about the war and the influx of thousands of service personnel on a small community. Her observations are priceless. In its own small way, the diary is a masterpiece of historical observation.
"Detailed diaries like these, which are complete records of a time and place of interest to us all, are very rare – the keeping of personal diaries was frowned upon by the government of the day."
Following the war, Betty moved to Blackpool to help run a boarding house, where she is believed to have died some time during the 1980s.
Having agreed to strict publication conditions, Mr Webley has not revealed the author's real name.
Betty's Wartime Diary 1939-1945, by Nick Webley, will be on sale from June 25 for £9.99.
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