From Women in European History
By Joseph Flesh
Olivia Cockett was born on October 11, 1912 to a middle-class family in Brockley, a southeast neighborhood of London. She is known principally through the diaries that she wrote for the Mass Observation Project, an institution that devoted itself to cataloging the daily lives of Britons. She was 27 when she began writing for Mass Observation on the eve of World War II. Her diaries are exceptional for their clarity, inward searching, and honesty, revealing the daily stresses and joys of wartime life. She gives us a unique window into the interpersonal relationships that surrounded her, devoting as much writing to family, friends, and love as she does to the war. She defined herself not by her circumstances, but by relationships to those whom she cared for and the common pleasures of life. Cockett's written account is all the more valuable for its quotidian detail. By providing a portrait of civilian life during conflict, it weaves a counterpoint to the clash of titans portrayed in many histories of war.
Olivia Cockett's mother was central to her experience of family, and starting a family was central to Olivia's concept of femininity. The men of the Cockett family are mostly absent from her journals, with her mother the major figure of the domestic landscape. Olivia was very conscious of her strong desire for children, which appears as a major theme throughout her writing.
Olivia does not include her father in a list of the most important people in her life, which may explain why he is rarely mentioned in her journals. She describes a night in a shelter during the Blitz: “Forgot to be frightened in the joy of having Man [Bill Hotes, her lover] and Mick [her nephew] and Mother—my three most important people—all in the cellar with me, playing childish games. I quite forgot why we were there.” She refers to her lover as "Man" throughout her journals. Perhaps she had room for only one male figure in her life, and so her father's importance was gradually eclipsed by Hotes.
The Cocketts had a firstborn son Frederick, but Olivia rarely saw him. He served in the armed forces and was deployed all over the United Kingdom, returning home only at intervals. She did see her sister-in-law and nephew Michael fairly often as they lived nearby. Frederick's absence from Olivia's narrative is partially explained by his physical absence from her life.
Olivia's mother, described as the dominant one in the marriage, was a role model for her daughter's independence and femininity. Both mother and daughter engaged in traditionally feminine domestic activities such as cooking and knitting. But they also worked at full-time jobs, which granted them financial self-sufficiency. Cockett’s mother sold insurance in working-class London suburbs, supplying an additional income that was supposed to allow her and her husband to retire early. But their retirement plans were derailed by the war.
With her mother as role model, it was crucial to Cockett that she herself become a mother. Her desire for babies appears throughout her journals and other personal writing. Being in her late twenties, Olivia may have felt that she was closer to the end than the beginning of her prime childbearing years. Between 1934 and 1940 she wrote a “Baby Book” of handwritten remarks addressed to her future children. As it progresses, she expresses increasing frustration and impatience with her childless state. Written over a period of years, the long-term nature of its composition demonstrates that having children was a persistent, ongoing concern.
The “Baby Book” suggests that Olivia had several abortions: “More than one of you has been sent away by now and I tremble for the waste.” However, the abortions are not referred to elsewhere in her writing. Since she was sexually active and the contraceptive methods available to her were by no means infallible, Cockett may have sought abortions in order not to have unwanted children. Though abortions occupied a grey area of British law at the time, they were allowed in practice.
Olivia still lived with her parents during the period she recounts in her diaries, a common situation for unmarried women. Though she did not mind the day-to-day circumstances of living at home, she was disappointed with the childless status that it reflected. “I’m too old to be living at home still being looked after by my Mother. And I want babies,” she wrote. Nonetheless, she never expressed any annoyance with her immediate family and was able to retreat to her room upstairs when she wanted privacy. She mentions that she had a “sitting area” upstairs, so it is possible that she had her own space for entertaining.
Olivia Cockett remained childless her entire life, but her desire to nurture found an outlet in her brother's children. During the period covered in her diaries, she frequently saw and cared for her nephew Michael. She remained close with her brother’s children as they grew up. Her nephew Michael vividly recalled Olivia's role in his childhood:
“As a child and later a teen I talked to her because she treated me as an equal. She influenced, I absorbed. We loved the exchange and each other. [From her] I learned debate, the delight of words, and the flashes of understanding."
During the period covered in her diaries, Cockett was a clerk at the Ministry of Works. She would be employed there for the rest of her life, eventually becoming one of the most senior women in the Ministry. The job was squarely white collar—she often mentions tabulating accounts at her desk, and seems to have been involved with payroll. Unlike many women who went to work for the first time because of the war, Olivia had already been in the workforce for a decade when the war started. Since her mother worked full-time, it is not surprising that she did so as well. She never describes her position in great detail, focusing instead on the people that surrounded her in the workplace and their reactions to the war.
Cockett’s coworkers, more than her family and friends, served as her barometer for public mood regarding the war. This may be circumstantial to her account, a consequence of the fact she often wrote her journals during free moments at work. The workday included eager discussions of developments in the sphere of world events and their effect on everyday life. Overall she was unimpressed with the quality of her colleagues’ thoughts on the war—“I don’t think the people I know here have got any clear ideas on the situation as a whole. They all dismiss it after a few remarks, quite apathetically,” she observes in early 1940. Still, Cockett’s recordings of reactions in the workplace lend insight into the day-to-day moods of a civilian populace. Upon hearing of the fall of France over the office radio, “we all fell very silent." When air raids on London begin, she notes:
“Atmosphere cheerful. People pull faces and say ‘Pretty bad’ and repeat rumors and facts and wonder when the next one’s coming. At Dad’s works they had a sweepstake, by quarter of an hour, as to when the next raid would come.”The sweepstake demonstrates a coping mechanism, neutralizing possible danger by incorporating it into a game. In time, air raids became a constant interruption throughout the workday.
She unfavorably describes many of the men whom she worked with. All younger and able men were drafted for military service, and there was a stigma attached to those left working office jobs. When war began in earnest, the few young men at her office were replaced by middle-aged women. She describes a 50-year-old temporary clerk as “undersized, smarmy.” Her boss is “five foot nothing, fat, bald, Cockney and sixty,” though some of the sentiment in that description is attributable to a sexual conflict with him:
“Suddenly remembered the probable reason for boss’s fault finding lately. I told him off for getting ‘fresh’ with his hands—foolish of me not to have realized before the obvious cold reaction. As the other female allows ‘liberties’ and enjoys them I suppose he thinks me unreasonable.”Evidently, it was usually accepted that superiors could take liberties with female workers.
Physical working conditions as well as employees’ moods were affected by the war. At the outbreak of war Cockett’s office was moved from central London, which was expected to be a target for air raids, to suburbs east of her home. Later, her office was hit during the Blitz: “The office has been bombed, causing much extra work, as a million index cards disappeared. But no vital damage really. No personal injury.” Her description is matter-of-fact, indicating that war had become an expected disruption in daily life.
The fact that Olivia was never called for National Service, which deployed women to positions often recently vacated by conscripted men, is probably a testament to the fact that she was very good at her job. She seems to have balanced work admirably with the rest of her life, going for strolls and meeting her lover, Bill, on lunch breaks.
Cockett writes frankly about her love and sex life throughout her diary. Most central to her life was Bill Hole, whom she had been with for nearly a decade at the dawn of the war. She met him through work soon after joining the civil service at the age of 17. He was married and fifteen years older than she. Since he was a constant in her life as she grew into adulthood, their relationship was pivotal to Cockett’s identity and sense of self.
Cockett came upon love suddenly. Bill was her first and only serious amorous relationship. She describes herself before meeting him as “singularly free from any contact with or knowledge of—what shall we say?—carnal appetite.” She continues:
“I was chivvied at school for being very down on ‘that sort’ of joke, and for refusing to discuss ‘that sort’ of thing with anyone. I didn’t refuse it very self-consciously. I was just too interested in other things….What little I gathered of the other girls’ views I dismissed as rot, and nasty rot. I was content to keep poetry as my guide to Love, not pimply boys and sticky sniggers.”
Though their relationship was highly erotic—Cockett often mentions sex with him and calls him her “perfect lover”—she resented being seen as a purely sexual object, by Bill as well as others. She is annoyed when Bill makes advances towards her on a train, “not being a come-hither-I’ve-no-undies-type”; but responds favorably to another man’s conversational advances (also on the train home). “It’s extraordinarily refreshing,” she said of that incident, “to be taken at one’s mind value rather than one’s body-sex value for a change.” She did not shy away from sexuality, but demanded that it be engaged as a part of her greater identity.
Olivia Cockett must have had an accurate knowledge of contraception, since she was sexually active but never worried about having children accidentally. She mentions knowledge of contraception as being related to education and class. A Gallup poll of British couples married in the 1940s found that almost three-quarters of them used some form of birth control, so it is not surprising that Cockett had knowledge of the practice.
Bill got on well with Olivia’s family, and her parents were comfortable around him. She came home from work one day to find him in the garden, talking to her mother. Though her family initially disapproved of the arrangement, they put up no resistance—a clear indicator of Olivia’s independence and her family’s progressive tendencies.
Bill and Olivia’s relationship presented her with difficulties of identity that she would not have encountered in a more conventional courtship. She complained early on that she felt “nor maid nor wife nor widow, dirtied and sullied and still refusing to be so natural as to be your mistress.” Eventually, Bill separated from his wife but was unable to obtain a divorce. At that point he and Olivia began to spend much more time together, and they lived as a married couple for the rest of their lives. She even changed her surname to match his when they left London after Cockett’s retirement.
Bill died suddenly of a heart attack in August 1972. In a letter written to Mass Observation in her later years, Olivia wrote: “I felt cut in half after 42 years with him as the center of my life.”
World War II is an unavoidable fact in Cockett’s journals. Her attitudes towards war were shaped by an essential human sympathy that never allowed her to think about the other side as a monolithic, hated entity. She could not fully accept the views offered by official broadcasts, and resented the war’s encroachment on civilian life.
At the beginning of the war Cockett listened to as many different news broadcasts as possible in an attempt to get a handle on what was really going on in the world. (Most national radio stations had an English-language news broadcast.) She reported that the German news at the beginning of the war was “a mirror version of ours. Well put over.” She was confused by the equanimity of opposing views. “They sound mostly quite as reasonable and convincing as the BBC, so that I am more than ever wondering where TRUTH lies.” She was comforted that though there were differences among the broadcast, the various “’newses’ generally confirm one another, in time."
Gradually, however, she became disenchanted with much of the foreign news.
“I have a very strong personal disbelief in the accuracy of, for instance, the Finnish news, and a great longing to know what the news in the Chancellories of the world is, as compared with the loudspeaker version from each country.”The BBC news, she writes, most faithfully reflected the “best” views to hold. Perhaps the BBC reflected the "best" views because it was elemental in their formation.
Cockett’s refusal to take statements about the war at face value is partly attributable to her post-World War I childhood. She was imbued in those years with two strong impressions about war: “That it was very horrible, that it was gone forever.” But in 1940, measures such as the League of Nations had clearly failed and armed conflict was once again the order of the day. Thus, she felt “ruthlessly deceived by those whose words I valued.” She came to base her views on “the determination not to be taken in by idle hopes, to find out the real causes, to believe few official theories.” One contemporary sociologist observed that the loss of confidence in previously trusted principles was one of the consequences of modern warfare. “[War] strikes, not only blindly but also impersonally….Perhaps the outstanding outcome of this is that large groups of people lose all confidence in justice as one of the principles which regulate the course of human life.”
War was mainly the business of men, and Olivia Cockett was glad to be distanced from it by her gender. Her aversion arose not from apathy, but from disgust and bewilderment. In response to male coworkers’ bloodthirsty comments about killing Germans, she writes: “GOD! When will men learn sense?” She was mystified by aggressive male verbal banter surrounding the war, but recognized that it served a purpose. “The worried serious frowns of 1:10 are boyish giggles by 1:30 after a lot of back slang name-calling.”
In Cockett’s diaries, gas masks and uniforms symbolize the war’s intrusion into everyday life. On a trip through London’s greener suburbs with a friends, she notes that they “deplored the number of uniforms….There are a few people about in their Sunday best…they all carry gas masks.” A year later the presence of uniforms was more normal, though no less revolting. “Uniforms are everywhere, unremarked.” And yet another year hence, “loathed striped uniforms and army motors all over the place and wicked boy scouts at play.”
Olivia Cockett’s refusal to completely accept official information about the war, while at the same time working for the government and thereby advancing the war effort, exemplifies the truth and fallacies inherent in the quasi-myth of the unified home front. According to popular historical memory, World War II was perhaps the only period in British history during which the British people came together as a metaphysical entity. Though early histories of the war emphasized its “consensual” nature, more recent research has revealed the diversity of goals and opinions that prevailed throughout the government and the public. Cockett did see the necessity for war in practice, but she loathed it in principle and resented its encroachment into her life. Her sensitivity and susceptibility to public mood makes clear that she was part of a unified entity. At the same time, her negative views of war distanced her from fully taking part in the consensus.
The compelling aspect of Cockett’s account of the war stems partly from her dissociation and distaste for it. She seems to have viewed it as an expression of the basest human impulses, which also had an existence outside of national declarations of hostility. “Slums and strikes and slavery,” she says, “are only peacetime forms of war."
For additional background information about the London Blitz, go here.
For Olivia Cockett, the war was always a backdrop to more essential, human matters. She found the deeper meanings of life to lie within herself and her relationships to people she loved. Her journals reveal her joie de vivre. “If anything in life is worthwhile,” she writes, “poetry, music, food, sunshine, then Life is worth transmitting.” This sentiment was sharpened by the war. “Pictures, plays, music, books, poetry, all the joys of personal friendship and of love: these seem and are of far greater value now than ever before.”
Her love of books and left-of-center political views were common traits among Mass Observation correspondents. Her willingness to share intimate details of her life for a larger purpose indicates a profound social goodwill.
She died on October 29, 1998, at the age of 86.
- ↑ Cockett, Olivia, Love & War in London: A Woman's Diary 1939-1942, ed. Robert W. Malcolmson, Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press (2007), 11.
- ↑ Ibid., 129
- ↑ Ibid., 149
- ↑ Ibid., 94
- ↑ Ibid., 124
- ↑ Ibid., 124
- ↑ Abortion Rights, "History of Abortion Law in the UK" http://www.abortionrights.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=18&Itemid=44 accessed on 5/28/2010
- ↑ Cockett, Love and War in London, 47
- ↑ Ibid., 18
- ↑ Ibid., 195
- ↑ Ibid., 193
- ↑ Ibid., 173, 177
- ↑ Ibid., 68
- ↑ Ibid., 88
- ↑ Ibid., 17
- ↑ Summerfield, Penny, Reconstructing Women's Wartime Lives, Manchester: Manchester University Press (1998): 121.
- ↑ Cockett, Love and War in London, 78.
- ↑ Ibid., 53
- ↑ Ibid., 85
- ↑ Ibid., 13
- ↑ Ibid., 166
- ↑ Ibid., 163
- ↑ Ibid., 40-41
- ↑ Ibid., 43
- ↑ Ibid., 83
- ↑ Ibid., 149
- ↑ Ibid., 160
- ↑ Rowntree, Griselda and Rachel M. Pierce, "Birth Control in Britain," Population Studies 15, no. 1 (1965): 8.
- ↑ Cockett, Love and War in London, 174.
- ↑ Ibid., 44
- ↑ Ibid., 44
- ↑ Ibid., 178
- ↑ Ibid., 194
- ↑ Ibid., 195
- ↑ Ibid., 14
- ↑ Ibid., 25
- ↑ Ibid., 26
- ↑ Ibid., 62
- ↑ Ibid., 62
- ↑ Bossard, James H. S., "War and the Family," American Sociological Review 6, no. 3 (1941): 343.
- ↑ Cockett, Love and War in London, 61.
- ↑ Ibid., 85
- ↑ Ibid., 19
- ↑ Ibid., 66
- ↑ Ibid., 160
- ↑ Harris, Jose, "War and Social History: Britain and the Home Front during the Second World War," Contemporary European History 1, no. 1 (1992): 19.
- ↑ Cockett, Love and War in London, 178
- ↑ Ibid., 160
- ↑ Ibid., 52
- ↑ Summerfield, Penny, "Mass Observation: Social Research or Social Movement," Journal of Contemporary History 20, no. 3 (1985): 439-52.
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