Vol. 9 No. 2 - 2009


by Ellis Foy

Young Ellis Foy of Warrenpoint, fresh from a degree in French and teacher-training course at Trinity College in Dublin, found herself working in the Postal Censorship service in Belfast. Her main war effort was to be her two heavy years with the Women's Land Army over in England, which she has described graphically in her book "Peaceful Wartime" published by Pentland Press in 1999 (ISBN 1-85821.700-8). But her months with the Censorship made interesting memories too.

Postal censorship office
Postal Censorship office

The Censorship occupied Drumglass House outside Belfast, set in its own grounds wiith a lovely view across to the hills. I cycled out there every day ... Training lasted a week... The Censorship staff were temporary Civil Servants, all women ... I was placed in the registered mail department where about twenty of us worked with two supervisors, both pleasant to deal with. We handled only incoming mail, so there was no intrusion into letters from people we knew; any one that was addressed to a familiar name you simply handed to somebody else to read. The first thing we did on opening each envelope was to record the money enclosed.

Each of us had an official number, printed on the seals we used to close the letters again. Most of them were to servicemen and followed a stereotyped formula: "Dear Alf, I hope this finds you as it leaves me, in the pink. Here is 2/6, I hope that old censor doesn't help himself to any of it " etc. The only codes we ever came across were obvious private ones that it seemed mean to be reading. Rarely did anyone write anything 'anti-security', but any reference to troop movements or locations or bomb damage had to be cut out with scissors, making nonsense of the news on the other side. The reputed 'blue pencil' would not have been any good against ink. Most of the work was pretty boring, and when in addition I grew tired of the smell of old bank-notes I asked for a move to ordinary mail.

If I'd thought the registered letters were dull, the others in their near-illiteracy were much worse. I found only one really good, amusing, affectionate letter from a photographer father to his married daughter, describing his efforts to buy clothes and to rescue his long johns from falling out of the parcel - all sorts of funny little details. After a couple of months I did a French test; apparently my degree was neither here nor there! The test was solemnly sent to London for checking, after which I am glad to say they awarded me an A. Alas, I don't think I had more than half a dozen letters in French all the rest of the time, but they were interesting ones.

However, at least the spelling and odd expressions in the letters were often entertaining, what with 'enevoples', ' Did you answer anti's letter' and 'He lives in a bunblow' ... 'Taking the baby to the clinic to be humanised' (yes, really !) ...

As we were already holding up the mail, whether letters were actually picked out for reading or not, work went on seven days a week, so our rest days varied ...Occasionally I got away for a week-end... Back in Belfast, I felt cooped up, depressed by the war, disgusted with dictators and not particularly enchanted with any government...

At work, I read as fast as possible most of the time, to make the hours go and the day seem to mean something, if I could clock up in my mind so many letters dealt with. All the same, I couldn't resist jotting down quickly the more extraordinary names ... place-names too fascinated me, especially the English double ones, for instance Middle Wallop (quite near where I lived later on) ... Some of the Irish place-names were even better: Lisnawhiggle, Favour Royal and Cavantillycormack. One week I dabbed down a tick on either side of a line under 'Men' or 'Women' for the use of postscripts, and found one in each 2.6 letters from men and one in every 3 letters from women, thus disposing of the myth that only women went in for postscripts, for what that's worth.

The staff fire-watched in small groups. My turn came round twice while I was there, but luckily there was never anything to do but be sociable. The place was a school in peace-time, so we slept in wooden cubicles all down a long dormitory. I was with six others, including Mr Barnaby, who kindly made tea and cleared away. We played darts for a while ... Mr M. told our fortunes ... The second time ... Mrs Rothwell from Scotland said she'd lived twenty years in Dublin, then moved to Belfast and had no regrets ... She thought people in Dublin examined you when you got on to a tram much more than they do here. I hadn't noticed any difference; of course all winter here you can hardly see who, or what, is getting in or even sitting beside you in the black-out...

I escaped from ordinary mail and got myself moved to the R.A.F. room ... The people here work much harder than my old lot ... I find it pretty strenuous on the whole; I'm distinctly tireder at the end of the day but not fed-up, as I was for weeks at the ordinary mail, and not worn out by breathing hot, stale air all day. This room has a splendid view, lots of windows, and quite a lot of fresh air ...It's quantity, not quality, that is my aim; sheer eye-work, hardly brain-work and no physical effort, yet some days I can just about cycle home and then flop, too tired to eat ...

Ellis Foy at the farm
Ellis Foy at the farm

My parents were not enchanted by my decision to join the Land Army, especially my father, who of course said it was a waste of my education and did not speak to me for a week before I left ...

Ellis Foy
Ellis Foy

But she did leave, in May 1943, and worked strenuously out-of-doors on various English farms until October 1945.