Two years ago, I bought a hand-written diary. It looked interesting, although the online seller told me that there was no name on it and they had no idea who had written it, having found it amongst their parents’ possessions, after they’d died. I sent away for it anyway, and read it over Christmas 2016. Once I’d puzzled out the spidery writing, It was so interesting – it was written in 1944, and was the diary of a man who had lived in Loughton (in Essex and near to the North East edge of London), who had been a member of the World War II Home Guard. Being too old to be called-up, but still of working age, he divided most of his time between working as a fruit and vegetable trader at Stratford market in East London, and attending meetings and trainings for the Loughton Home Guard.
It was so fascinating that I read some of it aloud to the dog, but he started looking quite sad when he heard about the food rationing, so I thought it best to read the rest to myself in silence.
If only I knew who the writer was! How could I find out, I wondered to myself. As he had been based in Loughton, I decided to contact the Loughton and District Historical Society, to see if they could give me any help to find out. At first it seemed that the limited references to names and places in the diary weren’t enough, but as I puzzled out more entries and started to transcribe them, more clues appeared, and then – finally – I had enough information for the Society to find out his name – the writer was a man called Henry Norman.
Once I’d finished transcribing Henry’s whole diary, I showed it to the chair of the Loughton and District Historical Society, and he agreed that it was really interesting. But looking at the Society’s website, I noticed that they had their own publishing imprint – would they be interested in publishing it, I wondered? Yes, it seemed that they would!
This was very exciting, but I was concerned about copyright. I knew that the copyright for the diary would rest with the writer, or, if he was dead (which he was), it would rest with the residuary beneficiaries of his will. I would have to track them down.
This proved to be almost as difficult as finding out who the writer was in the first place, as he hadn’t had any children, so there was no obvious place to start. I contacted the Probate Search service, and found that for a fee of £10, I could apply for a copy of Henry Norman’s will. Crossing my fingers, I filled in the online form, and waited.
When the will came back, it seemed that Henry had left his estate to be divided equally between two of his sisters – but… they had also both since died. Handing over another £20, I sent away for the sister’s wills, and then waited again, hoping that, this time, the beneficiaries would still be alive.
A week later, and back the wills came, but I was still out of luck. It seemed that the sister who had died first had left everything she owned to the other sister, so I was still searching, but at least Henry’s estate was no longer divided. After sending away another £10, I learnt that this sister had also since died, and had left everything to be divided equally between two other siblings – a brother and a younger sister. A bit of research soon showed that they too had both since died. Off went another £20, and when the next lot of wills came back I found out that the brother, Richard, had died first, leaving everything to his younger sister (so again, thankfully, the copyright was held by only one person). This, youngest sister had also since died, leaving everything to her daughter. Could she be still alive…? Off went more money to the Probate Search Service!
No – she had died in 1991, leaving everything to her husband – who had also since died, but he, in turn, had left everything to be divided between his two children, Gary and Gail – I held my breath as I looked for them online, hoping that they would be traceable. As I searched, I came across a reference to someone of the same name as the daughter I was now looking for – working for the Women’s Institute. Could this be the right person? There was only one way to find out – I emailed the Women’s Institute, and asked them to please forward my email on to Gail, in the hope that she would be one of the siblings I was looking for.
I had a horrible feeling that if my email was passed on to her, she would assume that I was a scammer, and would fail to reply, so I didn’t hold out much hope. Then one day I opened my email inbox to find something wonderful – a reply! It turned out that yes, she was the person I was looking for, and she would also be able to put me in touch with her brother, Gary, the other joint holder of the copyright.
Neither Gary nor Gail had had any idea that their great uncle Henry had kept a wartime diary, but in emails back and forth one thing was clear – they were both happy for me to have it published! Very pleased, I contacted the Historical Society to let them know that we could go ahead, and then, in a further email from Gary, he mentioned something very interesting… Henry’s brother Richard had also written a wartime diary – and Gary had got it! ‘Please could I read it?’ I asked. Gary was very happy for me to borrow Richard’s diary, and I was delighted when it arrived in the post.
Richard’s diary was written in a slightly different style to Henry’s, but still covering his wartime activities as well as his daily work, and hi diary was equally interesting. Of course, the next question had to be – could we publish this one as well?!
As Richard had inherited Henry’s estate, via his sisters, fortunately Gary and Gail were owners of the copyright for both diaries, and luckily for me, they were happy for us to publish the diaries together. The detective work could end and the editing and transcribing could start.
Finally, this week the combined diaries of Henry and Richard for 1944 and 1945 have been published, and I’m thrilled to see them united as a proper book.
If you’re interested in finding out more, the diary, published as ‘Loughton in Wartime – Diaries for 1944 and 1945’, is available from the Loughton and District Historical Society via firstname.lastname@example.org at a price of £6.50 per copy (plus £1.25 UK postage – email with any enquiries and orders, or to ask about postage to the rest of the world).