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Transcribing the wartime diaries of Anthony Heap (1910-1985)

Passport photo of Anthony Heap

​Passport photo of Anthony Heap

Robin Woolven enthuses about the extensive diaries of Anthony Heap, especially those covering the Second World War, which he has transcribed. As well as chronicling daily and shelter life in St Pancras, the diaries most valuable contribution is the first hand reporting of air raid damage by a man who knew his London well.

The use made of Anthony Heap’s diaries by leading social historians Juliet Gardiner in 'The Thirties' and 'The Blitz' (both 2010), and David Kynaston in 'Austerity Britain' 1945-51 (2007) and 'Family Britain' 1951-57 (2009), correctly suggests that the diaries are worth a closer study. The Heap extracts in these books led me to the diaries themselves at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) (ACC/2243 in 56 volumes) and then to transcribe those for the Second World War. Covering his activities and thoughts from the summer of 1938, the Munich Crisis, the Phoney War, the Blitz, the long lull to the Baby Blitz of 1944, the flying bomb and long range rocket offensives, peace and the 1945 General Election to the end of 1945, Heap wrote on average 300 words daily, the transcription to date totalling over 372,000 words. And this excludes Heap’s lengthy literary and theatrical reviews as his two hobbies were attending first nights and reading at least a book a week from Mudie’s and later Boots lending libraries. For theatrical and film historians the transcription does mention the theatre and the show or film attended and a summary of the budding critic’s review.

With their regular record of daily weather, meals, personal thoughts and family trivia, unedited detailed diaries run a high risk of rapidly boring readers. However, Heap’s recording of daily and shelter life in wartime St Pancras makes interesting, at times fascinating, reading as the diarist coped with wartime shortages and rationing as well as married life, with all the changes imposed on the 31 year old Heap who had resolved to remain a bachelor. The volumes covering the 1930s had recorded his unsuccessful relationships with a number of young women, and in 1940 with a married woman with children. In 1941, in the course of his weekly tours around St Pancras Air Raid Precautions Depots to pay the Wardens and First Aid Post staff, he met the young woman he married in October that year.

Extract from the diary of Anthony Heap

​Diary entry by Anthony Heap

​A great follower of English diarists, including Pepys and Arnold Bennett, Heap wrote his own diary in the hope that it would be read. He recorded in 1941, having finished Kilvert’s diary, “If my diary proves to be as well worth reading a century hence, I shall be more than satisfied with my labour of love.” Seventy years on, today’s readers of Heap’s social and political views will experience the occasional shock at some of his more politically incorrect attitudes, but, at the risk of offending many, Anthony Heap can be excused as “a man of his time” with conventional male chauvinism, gross anti-Semitism, and much active support for the far right. Heap “hated of the Bolshevik swine” and rather disliked London’s poor – the latter view not being an ideal attribute for him when he unsuccessfully stood as a Municipal Reform (Conservative) candidate in the 1937 St Pancras borough elections. From 1933 to 1936, as a follower of Sir Oswald Mosley, Heap joined the British Union of Fascists as a non-active member. However, he subsequently joined the St Pancras Conservative Association (becoming Ward 8 assistant secretary), admitting to his diary that he had joined “partly to please Mother and partly with an eye to the vague prospect of getting a better job through acquaintance with some of the more affluent male leading lights …. But not being essentially politically minded (what political sympathies I have are still with the Fascists) or feeling not quite in my element in an organisation of which the personnel chiefly consists of frowsy old women, I cannot bring myself to become really enthusiastic about it all.”

One cannot help feeling just a little sorry for Anthony Heap as, having tried to build on his grammar school education (St Clement Dane’s) by attending night school and achieving his Associateship of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries (ACIS), he spent 13 years in the finance department of Peter Robinson’s department store at Oxford Circus. His father, a dentist, committed suicide in 1933 and Heap moved to a variety of sets of rooms in Camden Town and then to a flat just south of the Euston Road, the first of four in that neighbourhood. With the approach of war he volunteered for the Police War Reserve and attended training sessions, but on the out break of war he was in hospital, on the danger list, suffering from peritonitis with nurses distributing gas masks to bed patients lest the expected ‘knock out blow’ arrive.

Sacked from Peter Robinson in 1939, he experienced Employment  Exchanges, but soon found a post in the Borough Treasurer’s Department in the St Pancras (later Camden) Town Hall – a job he retained to his retirement in 1975. Continuing abdominal problems ensured that he avoided conscription so he remained at the Town Hall, collecting rents and paying employees, while his friends joined the armed forces and kept in touch with him, surely their most frequent correspondent.

Heap’s diaries record a wealth of information on wartime rationing, shortages, prices, housing, health provision and popular entertainment. However, the most valuable contribution made by the Heap diaries for local historians is the first hand reporting of air raid damage by a man who knew his London well. His comments on life in the many shelters he frequented are memorable and, as soon as the all clear was sounded, he set about touring newly damaged areas to report on the type and degree of destruction and damage and comment, where appropriate, on the people and the home front situation generally. Sometimes he took longer walking tours a few days after the attack – such as his walking tour of the City after the raid on 29 December 1940, or his frequent and routine walks around Holborn, Hampstead and St Pancras and the West End.

Copies of the transcribed volumes will be made available in LMA and Camden Local Studies. Unedited and without benefit of an index, the nearly 450 pages of single spaced typescript will still require some serious reading, but Anthony Heap’s helpful habit of adding an comprehensive annual ‘Retrospective’ highlights the major events of each year.

15 June 2012
Last Modified:
03 October 2018