The diaries of Clara Milburn and life in the West Midlands during the war
Jun 16 2010 by Chris Upton
Chris Upton tells the tale of a very ordinary woman and her extraordinary account of daily life during World War II.
For four centuries the diary has played a major role in the way we see our country’s history. From Samuel Pepys’ account of the Great Fire of London, through to the political commentaries of Alan Clark and Alistair Campbell, diarists have told the story of Britain from the inside.
But a good diarist does not have to be near to the centres of power, or close to the flames. More often than not it is the sense of the ordinary and the unexceptional that we appreciate most, a simple feeling of life as it is lived.
In 1979 a middle-class woman from Balsall Common made the literary headlines. For six years in the 1940s Clara Milburn had kept a diary. In all, it ran to 15 volumes, and for Clara it was as much a scrapbook as a diary, and in it she pasted letters and telegrams and clippings from the newspaper.
For almost two decades after her death in 1961 Mrs Milburn’s journals were known only to her family, providing valuable assistance to her grandchildren doing their history homework. It was a family friend – Christopher Morgan – who, in an idle moment, settled down to read them and became engrossed. He convinced the publishers Fontana that Mrs Milburn’s diaries deserved a wider audience.
In 1979, then, edited by the historian Peter Donnelly, the abridged diaries were published, and the very ordinary Mrs Milburn found herself a celebrity. Soon she would even have an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, just in front of a Test cricketer from Northamptonshire and a footballer from Newcastle.
Given that Clara Milburn’s diaries cover the years of war, we might expect great tales of conquest and battle. For the most part, however, little of great consequence is reported. There was the evacuation, of course, and the bombing of nearby Coventry, and rumours from the Western Front.
But that was not, principally, what Mrs Milburn was writing about. It was life on the Home Front, and the joys and heartaches and hardships of living in wartime that mattered to her.
Like Francis Kilvert before her, Mrs Milburn had a sure eye for detail and for the everyday. It was, as she called it. “Burleigh in wartime”, Burleigh being the name of the family home at Balsall Common.
Clara Milburn lived at Burleigh with her husband Jack, who worked as a draughtsman for Alfred Herbert Ltd in Coventry. They had one son called Alan, and it was when Alan was posted overseas in February 1940 that his mother sat down to begin her diary, 70 years ago. Heroically she began it in the middle of gastric flu. “Thursday, 8 February. Three water biscuits and a cup of tea. That is nine water biscuits, four cups of tea and sips of water since Monday night. Five pounds down in weight! Good!”
If Mrs Milburn had begun her diary as a way to keep her mind occupied while her son was away, it turned out to be a long-term commitment. Alan Milburn was captured during the evacuation from Dunkirk, and did not return to England until May 1945.
“Thursday, 10 May,” she wrote in her diary on that red-letter day. “He came!”
“It was good to hear the old familiar noises about the house again. Alan and I soon went down to the grocer’s to get the double rations, making a sort of triumphal procession, shaking hands with everyone we met, from the farmer to the window-cleaner...”
Clara Milburn was born Clara Bagnall in Hannall Lane, Coventry, in 1883. She married Jack Milburn in 1905, and they made their first home together in Warwick Avenue. Later they moved to Canley Corner and, in 1931, to Burleigh, where Clara remained for most of the rest of her life.
In each of these moves they were accompanied by Kate Taylor, who was their domestic servant (and friend) for almost 50 years. The family was solidly middle-class and owned two cars, a Rover and an Austin Morris. And like any middle-class lady, Clara Milburn threw herself into community life, a worshipper at the local church, stalwart of the Women’s Institute and Friend of Coventry Cathedral. It was this middle-class life that made the diaries so popular. The middle classes were the most quintessentially English of all, and so were most of the great diarists.
It was always Clara’s intention to bring her diary to a close once the war was over and her beloved Alan back home. She began the tenth volume in February 1943 with the words: “Wouldn’t it be grand if it were the last!” But it would be two more years and five more volumes before that day arrived. On Saturday, May 12 1945 she wrote: “Here the ‘Burleigh in wartime’ diary ends with victory bells... Alan John is home!” And with that she closed her diary, never to write again.
And that, in many ways, was the best thing, for there would have been sad entries in the years that followed. Jack Milburn died in January 1955 and Kate Taylor six months later.
Not wishing to live alone at Burleigh, Clara Milburn moved into a smaller house in Kenilworth to be nearer to her son and his wife. Most tragic of all, Alan Milburn was fatally injured in a road accident in November 1959, a mundane death after all the heroics of the war. Alan’s doting mother did not long survive him. She died 18 months later, aged 77, at Leamington.
But Mrs Milburn’s diaries will continue to live as a counterpart to the grand narratives of the Second World War. The story of a woman getting on with her life while the world was in turmoil around her.