By Robert Messenger
Owning one’s own portable typewriter became critically important to people in England at the outbreak of World War II. With husbands and employers signing on to go off to war, many thousands of women needed to quickly find a means of income, often home-based employment, or alternate jobs, in order to “keep the home fires burning”. Owning a typewriter and being adept at using one was almost a surefire way of getting work. Within a week of war being declared, the personal columns of The Times was being used to advertise the services of typewriter owners. In one classified advertisement, an experienced Harley Street surgeon’s secretary said she required a post while the surgeon was on war service. “Own typewriter” she said.
As with Australia and New Zealand, Britons who owned typewriters were also being advised to ensure their machines were kept in good working order, at least for the duration of the war. Apart from trained technicians operating around the country, there were companies which offered “rebuilds” of an existing machine, such as Branson’s on Wellington Street, Leicester, close to the Imperial Typewriter Company’s factory. A New Zealand woman stranded in Sussex Gardens offered to “type manuscripts cheaply”. Even an au pair put typing among the many skills she could bring to a “good home” in return for mere pocket money. Those not necessarily trained at typists – including farm hands - insisted on adding that they owned their own portables when advertising their credentials and job worthiness. In some cases, prospective employers required job applicants to have their own typewriter.
Meanwhile, organisations such as the Red Cross and St John found the need for typewriter donations – many came from the Remington Typewriter Company itself. At the outbreak of war, the wonderfully tireless Fabian socialist Anne Fremantle did stints as a volunteer ambulance driver and broadcaster in French and German for the BBC, as well trying her best for the cause of internees. On behalf of the Arden Society, Fremantle wrote to The Times (for which she also worked) complaining about the treatment of an Austrian poet who had been interned on October 23, 1939. He had been “carried off [to Camp 23, as it turned out] without razor or toothbrush, rug or overcoat. His parting words were, ‘Please, my typewriter and my sonnets.’”
Goodness, try to imagine being a creative soul, locked away without a typewriter!
1942. Nineteen-year-old typist Iris Joyce at work before joining the Women’s Land Army.