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.

These entries were 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 day – 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 [his fire station] (he’s got 3 months furlough owing to Knight’s illness) but was doing a night at the station yesterday, actually riding the red pump. 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. [High Explosive – bombs] 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). [part of this has been cut but will be reinstated in September 2018] 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 Abbey was saved, only part of the roof, Parliament is a bad mess as it had 8 H.E. – many more Westminster churches are gone. I expect the death toll will be over a thousand. There were the usual grisly heaps of ruins all over ill-starred Pimlico.

My eulogy for Digby (Digger) Haworth-Booth 17.9.1940 – 12.2.2022

Digger, Mark and our mother Eva at the Mill House, Balcombe

Thank you so much, dear Barbara, for asking if I’d like to say a few words about Digger, my oldest brother. I think I’m still in denial: I don’t think Digger has gone. He’s still very present to me and I’m sure to all of us. I’d like to recall a time of Digger’s life that perhaps only one or two here will know about. First, he made an impact on the world with an unintentional feat of daredevilry aged about 12. Our brother Peter was his companion as Digger started and drove our father’s breakdown lorry into our garden wall. I recall that all 40 foot of this brick wall, built by our father, fell as one unit. Digger’s natural rebelliousness resulted in expulsion from the first of the two greammar schools he attended. I also vividly recall Digger’s time at sea. He served as an officer in the merchant navy. Like the merchant seamen who sailed out of Liverpool, Digger brought back gramophone records from America – Elvis, especially, and he had, of course, a quiff to match. Digger encouraged me in my early teenage quest to dress like a teddy boy – the bootlace tie, drape jacket, drainpipe trousers and winklepicker shoes. The look was intended, I imagine, to appal our father but I think he was just amused. Digger approved of my outrageous garb and referred to me affectionately as Teddy Tot, which rather undermined the effect.

I remember visiting Digger when ships he was serving on were berthed at London’s East End Docks. These visits were very romantic to me, the docks shrouded in some of the last peasouper fogs, the huge lights on the quays, the impressive, rust-brown freighters. Tea aboard was provided in classic adventure story style – brews so strong that the tea was the colour of tomato soup and with so much sugar that the spoon did indeed stand up in it. I thought that that Digger and his sea-going life were completely heroic.

He sent me letters from his voyages – I always kept them and actually gave them back to him last year as I think of them as important family history. I also had the letters Digger wrote from his voyages to our father after our mother’s sudden death from a stroke in December 1958. You can see how gently he wrote to Dad – trying not to deepen his grief by sticking to the mundane. The letters also show how, despite the magnificence of sailing under the stars on great oceans, Digger grew frustrated with the crude social and cultural life aboard ship. He reflected on the teaching he’d had at school and decided he could do better and save kids from the boredom he’d experienced. He left the sea to re-train as a teacher. His timing was perfect: he met Barbara at college and their great life partnership began.

I think of Digger as always full of fun. I think he was more like our father than he knew – so capable, like Peter too, that he would think nothing of personally building a manhole and associated plumbing if required. I remember how he came over from Durrington to the Mill at Balcombe one Sunday during our father’s last summer in 1981. I had been trying ineffectually over many weekends to repair the wooden bridge Dad had constructed in the 1920s. Digger fixed it in a couple of hours. And Dad passed on his irrepressible native wit to both Digger and Peter. We’ll all miss that but actually nothing can take it away. We’ll always have Digger in our hearts – making us feel special, making us smile.

Eulogy given on 7 March 2022 at Salisbury Crematorium (slightly revised)