When I track the careers of the women my diarist June knew during WW2 I am often struck by how invisible they are compared to the men. It’s even worse for working-class women – but I will come back to that in another post.
Women’s achievements were routinely ignored and their labour dismissed as unworthy of record – I am thinking here of June’s friend Irene Briggs, with whom she dodged bombs at the height of the Blitz on an epic journey in their ambulance to deliver a patient to Fulham Hospital. Details will be in the book.
Irene appears in the 1939 Register with that dread (to me) phrase “Unpaid domestic duties” next to her name, but June says she was an artist, and that when they were off-duty from the ambulance station she painted her (now lost) portrait.
Irene was difficult to identify, so I called in the cavalry in the shape of my clever brother Paul Klein, the Sherlock Holmes of the family.
All I knew about Irene was that she was probably 30-40, lived in Chelsea and had a connection to Austria. He found out that she was born Violet Irene Savile in 1899, one of 3 daughters of the Rector of Beverley (Savile is the family name of the Earls of Mexborough); she had divorced and remarried to William Francis Eggington Briggs who served in the Royal Engineers. (Rather marvellously, William registered a US patent in 1932 for “Miscellaneous advertising or display means not provided for elsewhere using special optical effects involving the use of optical projection means, e.g. projection of images on clouds”.)
The marriage foundered after the war. Irene married a 3rd husband, a veteran of WW1 and WW2, in 1956. I managed to find out something about the careers of each of her partners (that US patent!) but almost nothing about her.
The son she had with Briggs in 1931 died at two days old and she had no other children. She died in Chelsea in 1987.