Family writing

Sylvia Barker on a horse (just visible)
Photograph by Lance E. Barker, c.1938

Sylvia Marvell Barker (neé Haworth-Booth), 1906-1992

From my beloved aunt Sylvia’s journals, which include entries on her role in the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) in  London in World War II.

This entry was written in 1941 when Sylvia was based at Knightsbridge Fire Station:

I can’t help but think that this diary will be a very interesting document one say – my account of the Blitzes are interesting even now! I hope if I’m deaded someone will find it & treat it with proper respect.

Fire Station 9.3.41
I have just seen Lance [Sylvia married Lance Elliott Barker, a solicitor who also served in the AFS during the war, on 17 July 1937] off into the wet & windy darkness, sending my heart with him, home to our lonely house (Ruth’s flat now). Life is too full of ‘claspt hands & eternal farewells’ – well – not eternal but always farewells – I know I’m lucky to have him by me at all really.

The Blitz came back to London last night. There seemed a lot of them coming over, a nasty sound, & the crump of bombs near & far. Then the most devastating whirling scream, it seemed to be twisting & turning nearer & nearer – for what seemed ages, and my heart clamoured, but there was no sickening thud & Jeffs said it was one of the new ‘Candelabra flares’ – anyway the place was lit up like day. Afterwards my legs started their odious shaking, luckily invisible beneath my baggy pants & soon went, then we got too busy to worry much, the fire watchers did their stuff & tho a lot of incendiaries fell, very few fires developed at all. Jeffs came back with the news that there were two D.A.s & an unexploded land mine only a stone throw from Bucky Palace & later we heard a bomb had gone right into the Café de Paris with horrible results. I knew Lance was at 8 [at home] (he’s got 3 months furlough owing to Knight’s illness) but was doing a night at the station yesterday, actually riding the red pum. He didn’t go out at all till 4 a.m.  though quite a lot were dropped, then they had quite a job in Prince’s Gate –the All Clear sounded just after midnight & so to bed. We had nothing like the fires but there was enough H.E. to make it pretty loathsome & scattered fairly widespreadly. I do not relish the thought of the Blitz starting again. This lull has been so divine – it’s all very well to pretend one’s not afraid, but if it got really bad again there’s always the awful feeling that one might crack – damn – here are the sirens. I’d hoped the rain would keep the bastards off. It’s useless to pretend one does anything but loathe their odious keening – maybe it’s only a spotter; let’s hope.

13th Not a spotter, they droned over all evening but no bombs.


Another ghastly Blitz last Saturday Night (the 11th). The sirens went off just as Sadler and I were thinking of bedding down in the Control room, be it spoken for it was full moon, clear as day, and we were all expecting it, the blue and the white being on together – there were no bombs until, about 11.45, then it began to get nasty – the first fire call was at 00.06 & after that we never stopped, we only had 12 pumps on the run & the line got so jammed with incoming calls I couldn’t get District Control to ask for more – for nearly 25 minutes – we had 121 calls, with about 70-80 actual fires – & at one time we had 59 calls unattended – Westminster School, Parliament, the Abbey, Bucky Palace – all of them blazing like old Harry – I never felt so utterly helpless in all my life, with no pumps. When the little Greycoat school opposite went up, Hurst Sagin, Godfrey the fire Patrol, and some other bobbies rushed over with some hose and made a heroic effort but she went like tinder – at about 4 or 5 I went off in the staff car with 30 gallons of petrol. It had eased off a lot but I felt a bit fearful as I stood beside my highly inflammable load nicely sandwiched between the blazing abbey roof and the blazing Westminster Hall and heard the guns beginning to thunder again. Not till six did the all clear wail over a London darkened by smoke pall and bitter with the smell of it, everywhere the pumps thundered, & I drove Woodcock through the rubble littered streets surveying the fires. The damage was colossal in Westminster but Holborn was frightful (Lance’s new office’s roof burnt through & water everywhere) but I believe the City is ghastly – the one cheering thing being that they brought down 33. The streets were littered with burnt paper that kept falling like black snow. The abbey was saved, only part of the roof, Parliament is a bad mess as it had 8 H.E. [High Explosive – bombs] – many more Westminster churches are gone. I expect the death roll will be over a thousand. There were the usual grisly heaps of ruins all over ill-starred Pimlico.