The Turtle Diaries

 

Pic 1

Florence Turtle in her back garden in 1952, with her Alsatian, Dinah. Reproduced with the permission of  Wandsworth Heritage Service.

Home and then took dogs in the park”: Florence Turtle and her pets through the pages of her diary in the mid-twentieth century.

As part of the pets project, we are looking at nineteenth- and twentieth-century diaries, personal papers and family photograph albums to see what sorts of roles pets played in everyday life.  Some of these records made no mention of pets or companion animals, others mentioned them only incidentally, but in some cases pets featured prominently as part of the daily activities and emotional life of the household.  This reflects the place of pets in the lives of individual families but, taken as a whole, also suggests broader changes in attitudes to pets over time.

While the Victorians celebrated a range of animals as pets, and contemporary advice writers emphasised practical care of companion animals, twentieth-century commentators focused increasingly on how humans should build kind and patient relationships with their pets.  This was the beginning of a new understanding of a bond that remains important to many people today.

One of the twentieth-century diaries we have been studying was written by Florence Turtle. Born in Hackney, Florence grew up in Fulham and Putney with her parents, six younger siblings, and many pets.  These included dogs and cats and their offspring and also, at one time, a tortoise named George and his (unnamed) companion.  In 1930, aged 34, Florence set up home with her sister Barbara in a mansion flat in Fulham.  In 1932 she moved again, buying a house of her own at Kingscliffe Gardens, Wimbledon Park, Southfields, which she shared first with Barbara and her brother Bernard and later with other members of the family.  She lived here until the end of her life.

Florence kept her diary briefly from 1917 to 1919 and then again from 1929, continuing, with some breaks, until 1980.[1]  She used her diary to reflect on the different and sometimes overlapping areas of her life – home, family, work, and her social, spiritual, and romantic life.  Although the entries varied in length and intensity, the diaries show that pets made their mark in all parts of Florence Turtle’s life and in the lives of her friends and family.  What follows draws on the diaries she kept from 1929 to 1959.

Pic 2

28 Kingscliffe Gardens, Wimbledon Park, where Florence lived from 1932 until her death in 1981 (photography by Jane Hamlett, 2017)

Long after they had moved out, Florence and Barbara remained very much in touch with the pets in their old home, visiting to take them for walks as well as to see family.  Some of the animals were barely mentioned in the diaries but two brown female spaniels, called Brunhilde (Brunnie) and Coney, were favourites and played a big part in the Turtles’ lives.  Although she had only seen the dogs once a week or so since she left home, Florence was deeply upset when they died in 1936 and 1939, recording, on the death of Brunhilde, that “the sense of personal tragedy & deep loss” she felt for “darling Brunnie or Toddie-Tan-Toes or any of the other silly names I used to call her” was deeper than for many humans she had known (18 September 1936).

Florence longed for a dog of her own but even though her house had a garden, by the late 1930s she had decided it was impossible because she worked full-time. As she wrote in 1941 after seeing a golden spaniel puppy, “he was such a lovely dog that I would willingly give up my meat ration to him if I could only have a dog like that. Ah me!” (19 July 1941).  Instead, she continued to enjoy the pets of family and friends, especially Timmy Tiptoes, the spaniel belonging to her old schoolfriend, Connie Cowgill.  These relationships were centred on the homes of those involved but also created rhythms of activity outside. This included dog walking in the local parks and commons, where they met other dogs and their owners, as well as trips to their favourite local pubs – here the dogs led the way, expecting arrowroots biscuits, while Florence, Connie and Barbara enjoyed a Worthington beer or two.

“Home and then took dogs to the park” was a common daily entry in Florence’s diaries from 1929.  Since she spent at least five and a half days at work, as a book buyer for London department stores, much of the diary was taken up with business and interactions with her senior colleagues and staff.  Pets also played a part in Florence’s professional life, however. She had begun her career at Finsbury Public Library and in the early 1920s started in Harrods’ book department.  By 1929 she was the book buyer for Barkers of Kensington and also, from 1933, for Barkers’ sister store in Kensington High Street, Derry & Toms.  During the 1930s the diaries (often written in her office at work) show that she and her colleagues discussed their pets.  Florence mentioned the dogs of colleagues she met when travelling to other branches or to meet suppliers and staff and suppliers would also offer their condolences when cats and dogs had died.  For instance, in 1936, the Heinemann representative came into the store to give his seasonal order, and “was very sympathetic about Brunnie says they have a chow eight years old that he trembles to think of the time when she is gone” (18 September 1936).

Her suppliers also brought her animal-related gifts.  When in 1939 Florence mentioned to the representative of the postcard publishers Valentines that her nephew, Ivor, wanted a dog she recorded that “he offered to give me a pedigree wire haired fox terrier dog which I gratefully accepted [–] said he would have given me one before but thought I had the spaniel” (7 June 1939).  The next day she noted that she took the dog, named Monty and registered at the Kennel Club as Montreux Warrior, to her mother’s, where Ivor was living, and the day after that drew a picture of Monty in her diary:

pic 3

Florence’s diary for 8–9 June 1939, with her drawing of Monty, her nephew’s terrier. Reproduced with the permission of   Wandsworth Heritage Service.

Cruelty to, and carelessness towards, animals upset her, and this too found a voice at work.  She made a special show of animal and pet books on a stall as part of the Our Dumb Friends’ League exhibition at Derry and Toms in May 1936.  A very rare expletive in the diary related to a customer who “left her black spaniel in the dog room until a quarter to six tonight & then very hoity toity & did not thank the girl who got meat & water for him – he was a beauty too but his mistress a X—–X but not as good as a canine one anything like!” (15 September 1933).

In 1942 Turtle joined British Home Stores as its book and stationery buyer, and by the end of the decade she felt that she was in a position to look after a pet properly.  Around this time the family gained a part-Persian cat called Toesie, after his four white toes – seen below in the back garden of Kingscliffe Gardens – and an adored Alsatian named Dinah who is pictured with Florence in the photograph at the top of this piece.

pic 4

Toesie in the garden of Kingscliffe Gardens in about 1950. Reproduced with the permission of  Wandsworth Heritage Service.

As explored in our pop-up display, Dinah and Toesie featured regularly in Florence’s diaries from the late 1940s, and Dinah was particularly prominent.  The dog shaped household routines, dictated where holidays could be taken, took against some of her housekeepers, and created havoc in the house and garden, which Florence worked so hard to maintain in immaculate condition.  Yet the family was devastated when the two animals became sick and needed to be put down in the late 1950s, and Florence continued to write about them and the spaces they had left.  On 7 May 1958, four days after Dinah’s death, she took some comfort from the idea that Dinah’s presence was still felt in everyday events:

“I think of Dinah so much she was such a large dog that the place seems empty without her.  The window cleaner came last night for his money rang & went & stood outside the gate & said I do this in case [the dog] comes out.  I smiled & said nothing & thought Dinah is still protecting us although she has gone – we do not quite trust the window cleaner & neither did Di”.

Twentieth-century diaries have been widely studied, including for what they reveal about everyday or ordinary life.[2]  As Joe Moran has written, “Diaries bring together a range of academic interests in cultural and social history: the development of modern ideas of selfhood; the recovery of overlooked or marginalized lives (particularly those of women, who have often been diligent diarists); and the history of everyday, domestic and private life”.[3] Yet the place of pets has been little considered in this respect.  The diaries of Florence Turtle and others demonstrate the emotional importance of pets to individuals and in maintaining relationships between friends, colleagues and family.[4]  They also show how the pets themselves helped structure the diarist’s day–through waking, feeding, walking, and so on–, activities which often also characterised the form of pet-keepers’ diary entries.

All images courtesy of Wandsworth Heritage Service unless otherwise stated.

This month’s blog was by Rebecca Preston from the Pets and Family Life project who has been reading the diaries of Florence Turtle (1896-1981) held by Wandsworth Heritage Service at Battersea Library. The diary and the photographs shown here were donated to the library by Florence’s niece Sylvia Turtle.  They form the basis of part of the project’s pop-up display Pets in the Archives, organised by Royal Holloway, University of London and Wandsworth Heritage Service.

References

[1] The Diaries of Florence Turtle, Wandsworth Heritage Service, D103.

[2] See for example, Joe Moran, ‘Private Lives, Public Histories: The Diary in Twentieth-Century Britain’, Journal of British Studies, 54, January 2015, pp. 138-62; Victoria Stewart, ‘Writing and Reading Diaries in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain’, in Literature & History, Vol. 27(1), 2018, pp. 47-61; Dorothy Sheridan, ‘Using the Mass-Observation Archive as a Source for Women’s Studies’, Women’s History Review, 3:1, 1994, pp. 101-13; Alison Twells, ‘“Went into Raptures”: Reading Emotion in the Ordinary Wartime Diary, 1941-1946’, Women’s History Review, 25(1), 2016, pp. 143-60. See also the popular histories by David Kynaston, Juliet Gardiner and Virginia Nicholson, and anthologies by Simon Garfield.

[3] Moran, ‘Private Lives, Public Histories’, p. 138.

[4] Jane Hamlett, Lesley Hoskins and Rebecca Preston, ‘Pets and Family Relationships in Diaries in Twentieth-Century Britain’, paper presented by Jane at the European Social Science History Conference, Queen’s University, Belfast, 4 April 2018.

 

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