On wartime diaries and Our Land at War by Duff Hart-Davis

Duff Hart-Davis has recently released Our Land At War: A Portrait of Rural Britain (William Collins, 2015) an interesting new history book, focussed on the countryside during World War 2.

duff hart davis

The hardback so far has received good reviews:


The paperback is due for release in February 2016.

Researching  the World War Zoo Gardens project since 2008, I have read many chunky wartime history books by the likes of Juliet Gardiner and others in order to understand more widely what was going on in Britain on the Home Front in WW2. This has helped put the struggles of zoos and botanic gardens into context but also resolved many questions arising from the ongoing work of transcribing and editing a small collection of WW2 civilian home front diaries.

Some of these diary transcripts were used by Duff Hart-Davis in his research for Our Land At War and  I was delighted to see these diary sections appear in print for the first time.

A few of our family anecdotes crept in too, such as my mum being lookout to her evacuee gang in Sussex “scrumping in Vera Lynn’s orchard” (this is not a euphemism!) It was good to take a copy of Duff’s book up recently to show her these memories in print for the first time as well.

There are further snippets from my diary collection such as Home Guard diary entries by Charles G. Bond, apprentice wartime forester in the Forest of Dean. VE day diary entries record a day  of normal farm work from busy farmer and War Ag contractor John Alsop, farming at Longfield House Farm, High Marley Hill on the edge of the Gateshead and Newcastle collieries  (near Beamish Open Air Museum).

VE Day May 1945 carried on as normal for farmer John Alsop at his Marley Hill farm. (Source: Mark Norris private collection)

VE Day May 1945 carried on as normal for farmer John Alsop at his Marley Hill farm. (Source: Mark Norris private collection)

D-Day got scarcely more of a mention in this busy farmer’s diary:

D-Day 1944 entry in John Alsop's farmer's diary. Image source: Mark Norris, private collection.

D-Day 1944 entry in John Alsop’s farmer’s diary. Image source: Mark Norris, private collection.

The most extensive entries used by Duff Hart Davis are from the 1941 diary of Doreen Kippen, buried away in the Worcestershire countryside as a 20 year adult evacuee in the Tenbury Wells area, covering several pages of his book.

Duff was quite taken with Doreen as being “Lively minded, brave, stoical and slightly irreverent, with a strong sense of humour” in his words.

Doreen Kippen's diary entry April 20 1941 (image copyright: Mark Norris, private collection)

Doreen Kippen’s diary entry April 20 1941 (image copyright: Mark Norris, private collection)

It is a shame that I only have one year of Doreen’s  diaries, one of the stray volumes acquired online, compared to four years of farming diaries for John Alsop and six for schoolgirl, student and scientist Peggy Jane Skinner, all down to the vagaries of surviving house-clearances  and online auctions. Other volumes may be scattered in other people’s collections or have simply been lost or destroyed. https://worldwarzoogardener1939.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/happy-90th-birthday-peggy-jane-skinner/

Occasionally a second volume of a diary I have already transcribed turns up, such as a 1944 wartime diary of a Wimbledon lady involved in ARP in 1944 throughout the V1 doodle bug raids the first diary I collected in 2008. A single 1939 volume turned up this year, one I recognised as by the same author from long hours transcribing the handwriting and its cryptic and routine entries. This has given me missing details such as the previously anonymous author’s name and address, setting off a new line of research and editing for future publication. More of this another time …

As well as diary spotting, it was interesting to see how Duff  Hart-Davis  had written about how zoos in rural and city areas  had survived wartime, including how Chessington Zoo during the 1940 Blitz evacuated staff, livestock and miniature railway down to the safer rural seaside Devon site of Primley or Paignton Zoo, our sister zoo. I will feature more about this with some unpublished first hand accounts in our autumn 75th anniversary blogposts. The Slapton area clearances of country villages and disastrous US training exercise surprised by torpedo boats (Operation Tiger) are also mentioned, now the peaceful home to one of our Whitley Wildlife Conservation  Trust nature reserves at Slapton Ley.

Whilst it was fascinating to to be involved in the research for a new book and read the finished outcome, what was equally interesting was to come across new material in Duff’s book that I hadn’t read elsewhere in print.

The  first surprising section was Duff’s own memories of farm work as a small boy just before war broke out in 1939, an era of horses and steam machinery soon to give way to the more mechanised tractor rich intensive farming of wartime and post-war agricultural policy.

There are also fascinating sections about how the Scottish rural landscapes of privilege and country shooting became home to Special Operations Executive secret agent training camps, the gillies among those recruited to teach the silent arts of stalking and killing. Eccentric  naturalists like Gavin Maxwell, more usually associated with otters in his Ring of Bright Water book, were in demand as deadly trackers, readers of the land and the art of spooring.

Another interesting area Duff Hart-Davis  covers is the decline of country estates and later demolition of the more badly damaged country houses, requisitioned for a wide range of evacuated organisations and military bases. Some of these estates became the postwar basis for safari parks and zoos.

Land girls, Lumber Jills, hidden art treasures in Welsh slate mines, fox hunting n wartime and many other interesting areas are covered in this fascinating book.

Well worth a read in hardback or the forthcoming February 2016 paperback.

Posted by Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo.


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