ER's Press Conference in Canterbury, England
Nov. 18, 1942 FURMAN TYESCRIPT [Notes taken by Furman as part of her job in the magazine section, Office of War Information.]
TOPIC: Theme in her own words [of observations made during her trip to England.]
Mrs. Roosevelt: "If we could once realize shortening of the war depended a great deal on what we are willing to do ourselves we would put more into the war effort. I am convinced that the length of the war depends on what the United States does. If we are willing to make personal sacrifices, if women are willing to do more work than seems necessary, I think there could be released more manpower to do the essential things."
[Note by Furman] Mrs. Roosevelt opened the conference with a color incident on her press retinue. After four days there a little English girl reporter, very sweet and pretty, asked her, "Don't you ever spend a morning in bed?" When answered in the negative the little English press girl said, "Oh, we so hoped you would!" This was partly due to the fact that she was so short she had to run to keep up, partly to the fact that, conditions being as they are in England, the press could not stay with the subject of their writings. They were always getting lost. There were no sign posts. If they were assigned to an Army vehicle, it took a wrong turn or [they] couldn't keep up. So at the end of the day there would have been an agreement whereby they could join up and ask questions.
TOPIC: General impressions?
Mrs. Roosevelt: "First strong general impression was that in a country where you are fighting a war, there is one purpose and one only in every thing you do. Second is that there is a complete change in the way of living for every person in England, not just the workers, not just the middle class, but everybody from top to bottom. You don't light a fire before Nov. 1 in Buckingham Palace just as you don't in a cottage on the Clyde. Third general impression is a sense of cold, a sense of what the blackout means, what it takes to go through it—the cold and the blackout—winter after winter and still keep cheerful, still keep up the universal attitude, "We have to get on with this war." Remember, there is no woman in England who doesn't have something that she had to do. Even the housewife is counted in as part of it. She has to stand in line to get her food, has to think of the nutrition of her family. Two Ministries impressed me most, the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Labor under Minister [Ernest] Bevin. Three years of war have passed over England. The thing that impressed me most is what three years does to you, when it is three years that started with preparation for an invasion and you continue acting under that impetus."
TOPIC: A young girl at the controls.
Mrs. Roosevelt: "I stood on the cliffs of Dover and looked across that 28 miles. I sat in a control room there, and saw where enemy planes were flying over, and other planes were starting out to meet them. A girl, a WAAF [Women's Auxiliary Air Force], decides what city should get the alert. The signal must not be given too soon. They don't want to stop the life that goes on in a city any sooner than they have to because that means a cut-down in production. Life has to go on. Yet the signal has to be given in time. A young girl has that responsibility."
[Note by Furman] A reporter interpolated:
QUESTION: "She was trained for it of course."
[Note by Furman] Mrs. Roosevelt's response: Everything has a training—there are schools for everything in England, before returning to her subject of young girls.
Mrs. Roosevelt: "There are some really delightful stories—there is one of a girl whose father was an important official, and when some important move was made and he told her about it, expecting her to be breathless, she airily said, "Oh, I've known that several weeks." When he demanded, "Why didn't you tell me?" her response was, "I wasn't sure you knew' and that is keeping a secret."
QUESTION: "Any ideas for the United States?"
Mrs. Roosevelt: "Any number of them, so many I will have to take each field and develop it. Mrs. [Oveta] Hobby [director of women's activities for War Department] must have told of the military training type of thing."
QUESTION: "Were you advised on timing of women's registration?"
Mrs. Roosevelt: "Nobody gave me any advice at all. If I expressed interest in seeing this or that it was arranged. I never went through a factory that they didn't say to me, 'Stop and talk with anyone you choose. Don't hesitate to ask questions.' When I asked to talk to a group of women who were bombed, they had a town set up for it, and I was allowed to ask questions of 20 women who had been bombed who just happened to come for extra clothing. In the questions I asked, I learned that loss of things did not count with them. Unless they had been injured or some of their loved ones had been injured or killed they made no complaint. One woman who had been bombed out said, 'In the other place, I got a government loan for furniture' as blithely as though she were merely announcing in ordinary times, 'I just moved yesterday.'"
QUESTION: "Your own idea of what you saw there that could well be done here?"
[Note by Furman] Answer to that by implication was Plan for Future, make what's done as war measure today count for future.
Mrs. Roosevelt: "Labor Minister Bevin told me that he never puts up a factory without knowing what it is to be used for after the war. Possible here? Yes, but has to have planning. Bevin is connecting his factories with future education"
[Note by Furman] She told, subject to check with censor, of a shell fitting plant many miles out in the country where there is also a remarkable hospital where many girls live and work in the shell factory. She noted the factory was very substantially built. She was told—that will be one of our good technical schools, residential, free, run by the government, like the NYA residential centers. This is part of the new government scheme for education—they are planning for a type of educational advantages England has never had before.
QUESTION: "Do they plan for future because sense of immediacy is not so great?"
Mrs. Roosevelt: "No, their sense of immediacy is very great. They plan for the future because they went through a period of NOT PLANNING. They couldn't work as they do except for a sense that it has got to be done and the war done for. When that goes they won't be able to keep up. Production went up with the news of North Africa. That shows the people had been tired, and it was done on enthusiasm. The urge to get it over is the first thing that keeps them up. The second thing is the factory canteens. That is why the Ministry of Food interested me so. The food is dull but adequate. Many are getting a much better diet than they ever had. In the British government restaurants—it was perfectly astounding—you could get a good meal for 25 cents—three things (and no one at any house, not even Buckingham palace, can have more than three things) a soup, usually barley because it is not rationed; either fish or meat with vegetables; and a sweet, or perhaps a bit of cheese; usually tea, but sometimes coffee with a lot of milk in it.
TOPIC: Further food and rationing
Mrs. Roosevelt: "Almost everything is rationed. Every child under 14 must of necessity have so much milk (half pint?) the grown-ups have powdered milk. Every school child, every single school child in England gets a hot meal every day. Every mother with a baby gets milk."
[Note by Furman] The 25 cent meal seemed of endless interest to reporters and it was brought out it was made possible by the fact that the buildings were owned by the government, the counter service probably volunteer.
TOPIC: The role of old age.
Mrs. Roosevelt: "The counter women in the government restaurants are old. Any one doing a non-war job is old. Except that many very young girls are in the fire-fighting units and the dispatch-riding units. I saw a drill in which girl dispatch riders were teamed with men dispatch riders, and they jumped their motorcycles over a log that was on fire exactly as the men did. They use every available worker, but train them. A heavy rescue squad put on for me a show in London, a too-realistic show, they even had wounds simulated and showed the Red Cross work. All in it were over 58. Most were over 60. Many wear medals they have won. One man, close to 70, interested me. I asked, 'How did you get your medals?' he replied, 'It was nothing much.' But a man with him told me he went into a burning building that looked as though it would fall down and got three people out. All these things are done by older people. Because all the youth of England is doing some kind of really hard work."
Mrs. Roosevelt: "What use? The only things you could buy without coupon were old silver and old leather work. Bought one or two silver souvenirs, over 100 years old, to bring home. No use of anybody in England going shopping—you get just what your coupons will get, then you're finished. People in the stores are old."
TOPIC: Great gratitude
Mrs. Roosevelt: "I was impressed by the enormous gratitude of the people in England for what had been done for them by the people of America. People touched me in the street to say, 'Please tell them how grateful we are for the warm clothes, for the canteens, for the ambulances.' Without them they would have been cold, hungry, unable to care for the injured."
QUESTION: "Could [free, government] feeding of all children be
duplicated here?" Mrs. Roosevelt: "It is absolutely necessary where women go into industry in great numbers. It frees them from the necessity of getting their children that meal, and from the worry of not knowing that their child is getting a good meal."
TOPIC: Her cold.
[Note by Furman] Can't remember exactly where she got it. Spent her first three days in England soaked from morning till night, reviewed everything in pouring rain, but the girls could stand it and so could she. Later on, got tired, and that was when the cold caught up.
Mrs. Roosevelt: "I was really tired on this trip, I worked as hard as I ever did in my whole life."
TOPIC: The royal princess Elizabeth
[Note by Furman] Asked about this child who will inherit the throne, she summarized:
Mrs. Roosevelt: I saw her only twice at tea, once in a Girl Guide uniform. If she were anyone's child that I met outside a palace, I would say she was very attractive, quite serious, a child with a good deal of character. Her questions put to me about life in this country were all serious questions. She has had to think seriously. I don't think they have kept her from seeing the seriousness of the war—after all, practically very window in Buckingham Palace is out! In those in the Queen's sitting room there were just two panes of glass, and all the rest was artificial—a composition looking like ising glass or cellophane."
Mrs. Roosevelt: "To suddenly look at the business part of the city and see St. Paul's from every side—flat for blocks and blocks—to ride through Stepney (?) with the King and Queen and see what seemingly were rows of little houses and look right through into nothing, not a thing, is to realize why people have lost their feeling for just things. Much that still stands will have to come down. You feel when you go through things historically important that have been destroyed a horror at a common heritage of the world that is gone and can never be restored. But in Canterbury where the little homes are gone you feel the personal tragedy that it means Three hundred old people come back to Stepney shelter every night to sleep because it gives them a sense of security, of not being alone. When I looked at that shelter where 3,000 or 4,000 slept, I cannot understand why epidemics did not break out. It is just a miracle. People talk some about the rebuilding of London, that this vista must be preserved, that slum not allowed again."
TOPIC: [Gifts] brought back?
[Note by Furman] A shillalah given her in Londonderry; Scotch shortbread for the President in a painted tin box given her by the Royal Highland Institute (like our Home Bureau) in a little town between Glasgow and Edinburgh).
Mrs. Roosevelt: "He ate a piece last night. I told him a lot of women had given up their quota of butter and sugar for days and days to give him that cake."
TOPIC: Servant problems?
Mrs. Roosevelt: "You know Great Britain always had a great deal of service, even in families not well off. Now no matter how rich they are, except possibly for the royal family, of course, there is probably only one servant. I'll give you an illustration. I said I'd like to see how people in the summer houses were getting along. I went to see Lady Imray (?) who was here with the Queen. She has three girls in school. She lives in one corner of her house were one room is kept warm. She has put in her own little kitchen. The kitchen is used to cook for 35 children under five, the youngest three months. She does her own clerical work and arranges for the mothers to come to see the children once a month. They were beautifully cared for. Cold, of course, but they are used to that. She showed me how she had worked out the difficult problem of drying their clothes. She had one cook and a farmer's girl who helped in the kitchen, which, of course, was far from the dining room. She herself trundled a two-tire cart from the table and back with food when I lunched there. She waited on us. At breakfast, she herself got up in time to have the things on the side table."
TOPIC: Armistice Day, 1942, in England and Scotland.
[Note by Furman] She didn't wear out her shoes and have to patch them. It merely seemed it should have been that way from the day that she put in, as follows: 8:30, luncheon with Captain Curtin (?) after which she went and saw the whole naval establishment of East Londonderry. That was the luncheon to which the Captain had invited the two heads of each of the women's organizations of England—the groups our boys are seeing a great deal of, and also eight privates, one of whom gasped at the two eggs on her plate, from Navy supplies, exclaiming, "Two months rations!" 11 to the Armistice Day ceremony at the square in Londonderry, there to lay the wreath, then down to the city chamber to sign a book. Drove then to a British hospital caring for the torpedoed, walking up and down wards on concrete paths. To lunch with Captain Toby (?) and many heads of groups there. To a plane and 20 minutes flight to Glasgow. [At] 4 went over the Glasgow Red Cross from cellar to attic, dinner at the Red Cross, made a speech after to the boys in the canteen. [At] 6 inaugurated opening first Merchant Marine Club with broadcast ceremonies. Many men there who had been torpedoed. Then to a factory and saw every machine there was to see. A boy between 21 and 23 was head of an enormous department, a tremendous production thing, chosen for this very responsible task because he was the most promising apprentice. A woman was personnel director. They were doing there two entirely different types of things both of which she completely inspected. Then to an airplane engine factory and all through it. At 11 made a speech to the 750 women on the night shift. Back to the home of the owner, and got to bed at 1 with a breakfast engagement at 8.
Mrs. Roosevelt: "That was the day when I thought my feet wouldn't stand it. But they did."
QUESTION: "When [did she] write [her] column?"
Mrs. Roosevelt: "[I] wrote the column at midnight for the next day."
TOPIC: Our own soldiers?
Mrs. Roosevelt: "Perfectly grand boys. They make friends wherever they go, even when stationed in remote country places. It has been hard on them to take that climate. All had colds. Many had to go to the hospital. But they take it with philosophy, they are grand. I went to a Red Cross [canteen] in an old house. There was a ban against heat there as everywhere. They came in droves as it was the only place in miles around. They had got together a band and they played together very well too, and I had them play something everyone could sing. The younger boys are having the time of their lives—the older men miss the comforts of life, but to the kids it is a wonderful adventure."
QUESTION: "Could England go back to old ways?"
Mrs. Roosevelt: "Don't see how it could, there has been such a complete change in everybody's life, right straight up and down the social scale. Certain types of living will never be possible again. People are working side by side who never could have known and understood each other before. To the young women of 20 to 30, they say, 'you're drafted,' and they put them to work, and move the workers from place to place. I went through their billeting system to see exactly how it was done. They do try to put you where you want to go, but work you have to do."
QUESTION: "[Will] women [be] draft[ed] here?"
Mrs. Roosevelt: "We do not have the same problem yet." [Note by Furman] When a girl reporter remarked the draft might relieve day nursery problem, Mrs. Roosevelt said far from it—would add to it. Asked again if this country not ready yet, said, 'I don't know wh War Manpower actually has gathered as facts. Not yet at a point where we need things that Great Britain absolutely has to have." But swung into quote picked out and put at head of this type-up—could shorten the war by what we are willing to do. Speaking of what English women had sacrificed, said they were thrilled to get a bobby pin.
Mrs. Roosevelt: " I left my hot water bottle behind—I realized I could not possibly need it as much as the person I left it with."
QUESTION: "[Did you] know of [invasion of] North Africa?"
Mrs. Roosevelt: "Not one word until it happened."
QUESTION: "What did you tell the President?"
Mrs. Roosevelt: "Very much as I've told you."
TOPIC: Sum up?
Mrs. Roosevelt: "I'm glad I went because I learned a tremendous amount. I came back with an enormous pride in the ability of human nature to rise above the things that bother most—the little things. When you have to face things, you can!"
QUESTION: "Who got the hot water bottle, the Queen?"
Mrs. Roosevelt: "My aunt, Mrs. David Gray."
Reprinted in Maurine Beasley, ed. White House Press Conferences of Eleanor Roosevelt (New York: Garland, 1983).