Toby Bryans: A message from the past

Whilst going through my Grandmother's affairs after she passed away earlier this year my family found part of a letter that she wrote to her parents in November 1940. I showed it to friends with an interest in war history and they asked if they could use it in their work. I think it is a fascinating insight into the life of a remarkable woman and the conditions in London during World War II so, with the agreement of my family, I'm publishing it here so it can be cited in the future.


To continue this interrupted letter: I'd got, I believe, to the stage where we couldn't get on with our work because we got taken to the pub next door for drinks. We heard a few bombs around then, but in the shelters here you can't hear a thing — guns or planes, and everybody is very jolly and helpful. Betty and I finally finished work last night at 1.30, when we changed into slacks, and wrapped ourselves on our stretchers. The ARP man on duty knocked us up at 4.30, and after a cup of soup four of us sallied forth in a WVS car up the Holloway Road to one of the shelters holding about 1500 people. We also went to Finsbury Park tube station where they were all just beginning to pack up their mattresses etc and leave for home, although the "All Clear" hadn't gone. These were both reputed to be of the better type of shelter, so what the others are like I don't like to think, although some of the stories are quite unbelievable. But their cheerfulness through it all is amazing. One dear old soul of 82 was sitting on a bench recounting her bomb story to a neighbour, and enjoying every moment of it. We went down to the Corner House afterwards for a large breakfast of bacon and eggs, but those poor blighters had to go back to cold houses and start off on another day of endless work — and then back to the shelters again.

Tomorrow (the others have gone back) I'm going to see some of the communal feeding centres in N. Kensington, where the person running it wants some advice on what food to sell. Then I shall either go back to Colwyn or I may stay another night if I can get a pass for the Minister's train. They are starting an Underground train which is to go around delivering food etc at a lot of the stations. Tomorrow evening Lord Woolton and the Lord Mayor etc are going on its first trip, and I've been offered a ticket. So if it comes off I shall certainly go.

London is marvellous — there's quite a lot of damage, of course, but it's amazing what a lot of bombs seem to have dropped in the streets, and only broken windows and scarred the fronts of the houses. The actual blitzkrieg is not nearly as bad as it sounds from the papers — I expected to be scared stiff, but I find myself as calm as blazes — most people just don't worry a scrap and carry on, during the daytime anyway, as if nothing were happening. We go to earth soon after six, and stay there until next morning.


Sorry this never got finished, but as usual there hasn't been much time. I went on the Minister's train with all the press and had a great time. It was most interesting to see the people in the stations — we went by car to Notting Hill Gate, and from there by train to Bank station where everyone forgathered. The Refreshment special came along, and we went non-stop back to N.H.G. where the Lord Mayor presented the cheque to Lord Woolton (incidentally it was in the bank weeks before) and everyone had a look at the food and drink and had their photos taken. Four of us finally went back to the Strand and had drinks in one basement and supper in the Corner House brasserie. Then affairs overhead being inactive, we went to the Press Club.

The next morning the same four got up at 4.30-ish again and went down to Aldgate. The report had already come through to Neville House from the Home Office about Coventry. We first went to the shelter in Aldgate where 14,000 people shelter in a railway warehouse. This was the one about which there was so much talk at the beginning of the Blitz because it was so indescribably appalling. But we were very pleased to see that it has all been very much cleared up, and 3-tiered bunks provided, and the whole place has been lit. So then we went on down to Stepney, where Father Groser, who is the really big man down there took us all round his parish. It is all rather grim when you see the roofs of the shelters dripping damp and hundreds of people huddled in the corners trying to keep warm and dry. The buildings, many of them in ruins or gutted shells, look all very eerie in the dawning light, and the poor old people trudging home with their bundles on their backs made me wish that every member of Parliament could be sent down there to spend a night in one of those shelters, and then perhaps something would get done quickly. One feels so helpless, but I sent a pretty hot report into Drummond about the feeding question in the shelters which I hope will be effective.

After all that we betook ourselves baths in the Minister's bathroom which is all very luxurious, and then to breakfast in the local Express Dairy. Later in the morning I called at Devonshire Place on my way to the train to find both John and Connie there, both very cheerful they had a landmine near his hospital, which wrecked the whole place, but fortunately he had just gone over the road to the Nurse's home to see if Connie was all right. She did first aid on all the minor cuts and bruises.

The journey back here was pretty grim — 1.5 to 12.30 am — 6 hours late at Crewe owing to a trip round the country to avoid damaged lines. Fortunately I got into the Luncheon car as soon as I got to the station, because that was the last thing I got to eat before I got back here, except for a slab of chocolate shared round. Luckily I had a couple of Canadian soldiers at the same table — it was that sort of carriage, and they kept us amused and interested all the way. They are great lads, these Canadians. There's not much chance of our losing the war while they are around. They've got such a refreshing outlook on life. That together with the fact that I was feeling so sleepy, didn't make the journey seem so long. I slept the clock round on Saturday night, and felt quite recovered.

I don't travel by night unless absolutely essential — as it was coming back from Edinburgh, or we'd never have got the stuff ready for London. As it was, that turned out to be one of my best wartime journeys.

Who was it Mrs Comfort knows whom I have met? It intrigues me, but I've met so many people up here that I can't figure it out from this end.

I'm so sorry to hear about Eric Blackwell. Have you heard anything from Coventry — let me know as soon as you do.

I've lost for the moment your letter with all my bills added up. So I am enclosing a round check for £11, which should cover everything plus all the little things you haven't put down.

With very much love to you all,