After discovering heartfelt letters sent from her mother to her father during the Second World War, Polly Pattison has devised a show telling their story. Laura Drysdale reports.
For 15 years, a small, light brown case sat untouched in Polly Pattison’s attic. It had been cast aside when she cleared her late mother’s home, a hurried glance revealing its mundane contents to include a collection of out-of-date paperwork and crumpled receipts.
The sacks and boxes placed with it in the roof space were sorted piecemeal in the seven years following her mother’s passing back in the year 2000.
Once treasured objects started new lives in charity shops, but, lodged out of sight in the eaves, the case survived, totally forgotten about.
It remained that way until September of 2015, when Polly, from Hull, stumbled across it as she retrieved suitcases from the loft for a trip to Majorca with her husband David.
She began to empty its contents, piles of documents for shredding, but was stopped in her tracks when she pulled out a faded Manila envelope, damaged at the edge from being crammed inside.
Beneath it, sat 88 handwritten letters dated between 1940 and 1943 - letters sent from her mother to her father whilst he was serving in the Eighth Army during the Second World War.
“He must have taken those all the way around the war with him,” Polly says. “It was a tremendous shock to find them.”
The words written in scratchy pen in the first she handled were enough to put her off reading any more. “Pauline is full of the devil,” one line read. It referred to Polly, who changed her name in later life, as an 18 month old baby. “She needs a man to take her in hand, she is so used to me smacking her, she takes no notice.”
Another year passed before curiosity overcame Polly’s reluctance and she began the process of reading and transcribing each one, placing them in chronological order to slowly uncover the story of war for her mother and father.
The hardship of war
Ethel Hearson and Ken Warrener were married in June 1939, just three months before Britain and France declared war on Germany. Ken was soon called up and sent to Somerset for training, later leaving for North Africa in 1941, when Ethel was five months pregnant with their first child - Polly.
His war saw him mending vehicles in the desert there, before he served in Italy and moved back briefly to the UK in preparation for D-Day. He then went across to Normandy, through France, Belgium and The Netherlands and finished up in Germany.
“The men were in that war seeing their friends shot down,” Polly says. “But also think of the women at home who were absolutely worried sick, with no idea what was going on.”
Though there are large gaps in the letters, and none that show Ken’s words to Ethel in return, Polly says they capture everyday life for her mother at home. They are humorous at times, describing the likes of a run-in with a “bad-tempered, old post-mistress” and the mischief of their daughter.
But they also portray Polly as an “unmanageable” child and demonstrate the struggles Ethel encountered, repeatedly forced to take shelter as Hull came under intense bombing and managing to survive on rations, all the while concerned for her husband.
One sets out how she visited the cinema to see Desert Victory, a film which documented the Allies’ North African campaign, in the hope of finding out about Ken.
“It was the not knowing where he was or where her younger brother was and whether they were alive or dead,” David says.
“This worry shows itself in the letters in the focus on this child (Polly), who was just a normal child, but [Ethel] is getting rid of her anxieties and fears by complaining about her. It’s always followed though with please get in touch with me as soon as ever you can.”
After Ken was conscripted, Ethel had to leave the new home they shared together and return to her mother’s house, unable to afford to live in the couple’s property alone.
“At the beginning of 1939, she was an engaged woman planning her wedding,” Polly says. “Suddenly, after marrying the man she loved, he was taken away from her, her house was taken away from her and she was pregnant and depressed.”
In 1941, Ethel was temporarily evacuated to a wartime maternity home in Gainsborough, to give birth to Polly. But she spent much of the war back and forth between Hull and the Leeds town of Pudsey. It is thought she was first evacuated there in 1942 to escape heavy bombing.
“Young children were evacuated so the fact that Polly was a young baby, her mum would be encouraged to leave,” David, 78, says. “But that was a personal decision. If Ethel had wanted to stay, she could have stayed. In fact, she came and went as she wanted.”
The letters refer to a Mrs Clayton, with whom it is thought Ethel may have stayed. Polly, now 77, also has photographs of a lady called Connie, a friend her mother made in the area, who had a little girl about Polly’s age.
Though there are no letters from the time, Polly knows her mother continued to return to Pudsey until at least 1944, as her brother Geoffrey was born there that September.
She says: “In one of the letters my mother says ‘I hope you don’t think me selfish coming home but honestly Ken, I feel I’ll be as safe at home in Hull as I am in Pudsey. We have been having regular raids and last week there was a bombs and flares.’
“She says ‘I was under the table with Pauline for two hours and all the time I was wishing I was back home in Hull because here they only have Anderson shelters and none are fit to go in. They have no door, no light and are always flooded.’ They were the Anderson shelters in Pudsey. In Hull, her mother had a shelter built in the back garden, which had electricity, a stove, beds and a door.”
When Polly’s father returned to Hull from the army in 1946, he went to work for the Yorkshire Electricity Board. Though Ethel had been employed in a photography firm developing films and colouring photographs prior to Polly’s birth, she did not work again, focusing on upholstery classes and maintaining the family home “clutter-free” and “spotless”.
The letters, Polly believes, were kept by Ken without Ethel’s knowledge. “I have this inkling that my father knew that if my mother knew he had these letters, she would throw them away.”
Polly knew nothing of them either and very little about her parents’ wartime experience. They never spoke about it.
“I felt really emotional [first reading the letters], emotional at how she missed him and emotional realising she was just at the end of her tether all the time. But there again, some of the letters were so funny. They really made me laugh out loud with her expressions and the things she did.”
Inspiration for show
Encouraged by David and the reaction of fascination after she read aloud one of the letters as a spoken word performance, Polly has decided to share her mother’s experiences with a wider audience as a tribute to all the women who kept the home fires burning during the war.
Realising their great social and historical significance, she has written and devised a show, based on their content. Keep Your Chin Up, which takes its name from the line Ethel used in signing off several of her letters, will be previewed in Leeds and Hull before being performed at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August.
“It really has been like being in my mother’s shoes day by day,” says Polly, who has been performing since joining a theatre group at the age of 60. With husband David, she now runs Wotlarx theatre company.
“You can’t hide the horrors of the war and they’re not hidden [in the script],” David adds. “But neither is the funny side, neither is the coping side, that ordinary people did extraordinary things.”
Keep Your Chin Up will be held at Holbeck WMC in Leeds at 2pm on June 29 and at Karodmah94 in Hull at 2pm on July 5. It will then head to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the Quaker Meeting House Theatre from August 5 to 10 and 12 to 17.