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date: 28 February 2021

Last [née Lord], Nellie [Nella]free

(1889–1968)
  • James Hinton

Last [née Lord], Nellie [Nella] (1889–1968), housewife and diarist, was born at 81 Salthouse Road, Barrow in Furness, on 4 October 1889, the daughter of John Charles Lord, a railway audit clerk employed by the Furness Railway, and his wife, Margaret, née Rawlinson, whose previous married name was Parkinson. Nella referred to her descent from 'the proud Rawlinsons' (directive reply, June 1939), yeoman farmers who could trace their origins back to Elizabethan times and whose tombstones are in Hawkshead churchyard. She was named Nellie, but was known as Nella, the name under which her diaries were published. After being injured in a childhood accident, Nella was unable to walk properly between the ages of five and thirteen, and she described her education as 'patchy' (directive reply, Jan 1939). The most important early influence was her maternal grandmother, a Quaker whose serene outlook provided her with an emotional touchstone throughout her life. On 17 May 1911, anxious to escape an unhappy parental home, she married at St George's parish church, Barrow, a joiner, William Last (b. 1887/8), son of Edward Last, a builder and joiner; he was a quiet, depressive man whose family disliked Nella 'for what they called my “fine lady ways”' (directive reply, June 1939). Apart from a brief period in Southampton during the First World War while her husband served in the navy, Nella spent her whole life in Barrow.

Between 1912 and 1920 Nella's sister, mother, and father all succumbed to fatal illnesses. Uncomfortable with her in-laws and with the working-class neighbourhood in which they lived, she devoted herself to providing her two sons—Arthur and Cliff, born in 1913 and 1919 respectively—with a rounded education. By the 1930s the two boys had become her closest friends and confidants, and they were still exchanging weekly letters with their mother in the 1960s. In 1930 her elder son, Arthur, left home to train as a tax inspector, while her younger son, Cliff, distressed her by leaving grammar school before matriculation in order to join the family business. (Later, however, after serving in the army during the Second World War, he became a sculptor.) In the early 1930s Nella was active for a time in Conservative politics, canvassing at the general election of 1931 and chairing her ward party. In 1936 she finally persuaded her husband to move to a modern semi-detached house at 9 Ilkley Road on a 'nice little estate' (Nella Last's War, 84) in the northern suburbs of Barrow, where she lived until shortly before her death. But with her sons growing up, she found domesticity increasingly unfulfilling and suffered a nervous breakdown in the winter of 1937–8.

Mass-Observation, which she joined at the beginning of 1939, and the Second World War both gave Nella Last a new lease of life. 'Next to being a mother', she wrote in October 1939, 'I'd have loved to write books … and the boys tell me I've given them more pleasure [with her letters] than if I'd written best-sellers!' (Nella Last's War, 19). Mass-Observation provided an outlet for both her creativity and her feelings. Writing up to 1500 words every day, Nella used her wartime diary to chart, often with great eloquence, every nuance of her anxieties about the violence of war, the difficulties of wartime domesticity, and her growing exasperation with her depressive husband. It was through her public work, above all, that Nella discovered that she was 'a really clever woman in my own line, and not the “odd” or “uneducated” woman that I've had dinned into me' (ibid., 255). She had joined the Women's Voluntary Service before the war, and by the end of 1939 she was serving on the committee of its hospital supply department. When the leadership of the Barrow branch fell apart during the blitz of May 1941, Nella took the initiative in re-establishing the hospital supply work. Subsequently she took on greater responsibilities, working in a canteen and opening and helping to run a Red Cross charity shop. Her descriptions of how she made time for her public work by cutting back on domestic standards, her growing self-confidence, and the shifting balance in her marriage—'peeling off the layers of “patience”, “tact”, “cheerfulness”, “sweetness” that smother me like layers of unwanted clothes' (ibid., 222)—have been seen as clear evidence of how war emancipated women. In Nella's case, however, the war may merely have provided the occasion for a liberating break from what she came to think of as her 'slavery years of mind and body' during the 1930s. Given the creativity and energy revealed by the diaries it is hard to believe that Nella would not have flowered into middle age, war or no war.

In 1945 Nella Last, like many other middle-class women, feared that opportunities for voluntary work would dry up, denying her the strength to resist her husband's pleas that she should resume full-time domesticity. She continued to write her Mass-Observation diaries more or less every week for the next twenty years, and her voluntary work also continued, at least into the early 1950s.

Extracts from the 2 million words of the wartime diaries were published in 1981, providing one of the most intimate insights available into the civilian experience of the Second World War. The post-war diaries, amounting in all to perhaps 6 million words, await transcription, editing, and publication. The story of her later life, which may well be as illuminating for historians as her account of the war years, will not be known until this is done. In February 1966, aged seventy-six and feeling ill, she sent in her final diary entry, wondering if her writing was ever read and 'if the need for it is past now' (diary, 17 Feb 1966). She died at Bevan House, Stackwood Avenue, Barrow in Furness, on 22 June 1968. Her husband survived her.

Sources

  • Nella Last's war: a mother's diary, 1939–45, ed. R. Broad and S. Fleming (1981)
  • directive replies, U. Sussex, Mass-Observation Archive
  • N. Last, diaries, U. Sussex, Mass-Observation Archive
  • Women's Royal Voluntary Service, minutes, papers, Cumbria AS, BDso/27/1, 2
  • Old Station Business Park, Compton, Newbury, Women's Royal Voluntary Service archive, Region 10/2
  • Furness and District Year Book (1939)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Wealth at Death

£5840: probate, 1968, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Podcast

University of Sussex, Brighton
Cumbria Archive Service, Barrow