The Siren

In searching recently for Christmas items in our collection, we came across this curious typescript magazine from Christmas 1939, which is full of humorous poems, stories, articles and puzzles (D/DU 948/1). The tone for the magazine is set by its title page – a play on the double meaning of ‘siren’ as both an air raid warning and an attractive (scantily clad) woman.

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The Siren was put together by the staff of the Civil Defence Control, the part of Essex County Council which was in charge of civil defence during the Second World War.

The Civil Defence Service was charged protecting people and property from injury and damage. Following general schemes laid out by central government, there were three main strands to their work:

  • Preventative – evacuation, air raid shelters
  • Alleviative – rescue
  • Remedial – clearing of debris, first aid, restoring vital services

The nerve centre of the system was the Control Room, based at County Hall in Chelmsford.

Reading The Siren not only gives an insight into the work of the Civil Defence staff, but also shows that they had a strong sense of humour, poking fun at each other in poems, stories and songs.

The magazine opens with ‘The Cuties of the County Control’, a song about the glamour of the young women who staffed the Control Room:

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‘A Disrespectful Ditty’ on one of the following pages begins with a ‘bereavement’ – ‘We’ve lost the deep respect for our betters once we bore’, which has become lost in the blackout.

It goes on to reference various staff members, including the first County Archivist, Frederick Emmison, ‘relentlessly efficient in the middle of the night’, and steadfastly avoiding getting tipsy at the staff party.

Other verses poke fun at two of the Deputy County Controllers – Major J Meikeljohn and Mr H.P. Jamieson – before another verse spares other managers the same treatment: ‘But on these exalted persons may depend our daily bread, So you can’t expect us to rush in where angels fear to tread’.

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Later in the magazine we find a ‘Prefatory Alphabet’, which gives a wonderful insight into what was on people’s minds, such as:

‘G is for Gas-mask. Alas for humanity –

Visibly sign pf social insanity.

K is for Knitting, nocturnal and endless;

Those making the garments will certainly spend less.

M is for Molotov, Soviet minister,

Whose machinations have lately been sinister.

R is for Rota that grimly enmeshes you;

Think of the coffee that nightly refreshes you!

V is the Volume of work that oppresses

The people whose job is to clear up the messes.

W’s the Warden, ensconced in a helmet,

Who moans of the light ‘twixt the curtain and pelmet.’

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Some of the pieces do not relate directly to the war, but provide some escapism, such as this (slightly cheeky) meditation on a day out in Epping Forest:

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Even though the staff of the Civil Defence Service were engaged in serious, vital work during the war, what comes through in The Siren is a strong sense camaraderie amongst the staff. The magazine was clearly supposed to provide some light relief at a dark time; as one of the couplets of the ‘Prefatory Alphabet’ says:

‘U are the reader. We hope this experiment

Will bring you good cheer and the odd spot of merriment’

We have only been able to just begin to lift the lid on these people and their work – if anyone out there has any more information do get in touch.

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