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Keep the Home Fires Burning

Mary Bradley waits at home
She has been waiting two years long
 In 1939 my Granny’s fiancé left to fight in World War II. 
WeddingThe importance of letters from girlfriends, fiancés and wives sent to their men on the battlefield is frequently romanticised. Tales of American GIs sweeping teenage girls off their feet are commonplace. Less is written about sex for the married women left behind.
‘We were not really immoral, there was a war on,’ is how one British housewife explains her behaviour during World War II in John Costello’s Love, Sex and War where he writes that “traditionally wives had waved their husbands off to war on the assumption that strict fidelity was incompatible with soldiering, but such was total war that even on the home front many wives were confronted by new choices and opportunities.”
In The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War Laura Feigel explores what has been described as “the peak of British adultery”. Women not interested in casual affairs but also unprepared to be years without male company often pursued what were known as “wartime marriages” where they took a new partner and lived as man and wife until their husband returned. If they returned.
In autumn 1940, while he was on leave, my Granny married my Grandad. The blitz was in its third week.
In The Secret History of the Blitz Joshua Levine claims that it was World War II that was the true start of sexual liberalisation, not the swinging 60s two decades later. In it he recounts stories of couples fucking in the corner of air raid shelters, a young man who as the first bombs fell on the night of the 7th September 1940 ran to a pub in Soho to pick up a man for the first time because he thought ‘I may die tonight, I’m going to see what it’s like’ and, the one I like the most, the tale of a group in a shelter who were so absorbed talking about their sexual fantasies they didn’t notice the bombs falling until a warden came to check they were OK!
Show girlsSomeone involved in that conversation wrote to London Life describing the fantasies of ‘underwear, corsets, body piercing, dressing in rubber and even a phenomenon known as human pony riding’. The group decided that next time they spent an evening in the shelter everyone would dress according to their own fantasy. Did it happen? Who knows, but what a mental image! In May 1941 as the Blitz ended the magazine featured a cover shot of three showgirls dressed in only underwear and gas masks.
In 1941 my Granny answered a knock at the door. It was her fiancé. He was home on leave. You see, that Mary Bradley didn’t wait two years long. After a year with no word from the front my Granny had assumed he was dead and in a fast courtship typical of that time had met and married my Grandad within just a few weeks.
Data reflects the mood of the day. Illegitimate births in England and Wales went from 24,540 in 1939 to 35,164 in 1942, there was a 70% increase in STDs, and during the six years of war one in five pregnancies in Britain were aborted. When the war ended, religious leaders and figures of authority urged a return to pre-war moral values. For a time sexual freedom was again quelled but as Levine says, ‘Freedoms had been too widely tasted to be forgotten [and] the values of the post-war period gave way to the permissiveness of the Sixties by which point the youngsters who had experienced so much during the war had grown into middle-aged authority figures, with their own fond memories.’
And my Granny? ‘Oh, I definitely got the best one,’ were her words when she told me this story.
Check out more of the great submissions to Exhibit A’s Christmas meme.
Thanks to my friend P the WW2 aficionado for her tips on reading material for this piece.  xxx


  1. mariasibylla

    This is great! I loved the way you interspersed your own Granny’s story into the historical information.

    • watchingDistant2017

      Totally agree. Rooting it in the family experience makes the ‘history’ aspect fall away and allow it to become so vital.
      Plus showgirls…

  2. foresterinthewoods

    You have touched on a subject that has slowly been reflected in the documentaries on PBS. Even some of the new shows on PBS reflect war time changes in England that you have described. Thank you for your look at a particular example of the changes.

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