Public Lecture | Masculinity, romance and 'temperate heroism' during the Second World War

Dr Alison Twells

'I have a seaman on board who writes the most passionate letters to every dame who gives him encouragement': masculinity, romance and 'temperate heroism' in servicemen's letters to knitters during the Second World War. 

In February 1943, S. E. Ridge, an ordinary seaman aboard HMS Ganges, then docked at Ipswich, wrote to fifteen year-old Doris Dockrill to thank her 'very much for your presents which I received from the Streatham Comfort Fund today. Sorry I can not write much to you, as I do not know weather [sic] you are a miss or a mrs which makes a lot of difference in letter writing as you must know.' While many of the dozens of servicemen who wrote to Doris Dockrill between 1940 and 1945 sent a straightforward note of thanks, for many others, like Ridge, their focus slipped beyond gratitude to engage with Doris as a young woman. Some expressed a romantic interest, asking her age, if she was single, whether she would please send a photograph, even whether she would be available for a date next time they were able to make their way to south London. For some girls, letters from servicemen were less benign. In the same year, a group of seamen aboard HMS Collingwood were charged with sending obscene literature through His Majesty's post. According to Dennis Maxted, a fellow rating, the men had been writing to a girl in Glasgow and 'telling her all the things they were going to do with her and to her, sexually of course, and her father found 'em and reported 'em to the Commanding Officer…' As with Doris Dockrill, the likely context for such correspondence was the comforts fund, a group of women and girls, organised in neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces, who provided letters of support and woollen and other goods for men in the forces.

The focus of this lecture is sex and romance in three collections of letters from British servicemen to women and girls who knitted for them as part of their patriotic duty in the Second World War. I will explore the motivating emotions for letter-writing, the deployment of sex and romance as mechanisms for maintaining wartime morale, and instances of men making use of their anonymity and mobility to engage in a sexually explicit, even abusive, correspondence. I ask in what ways the notion of 'temperate heroism', the term suggested by Sonya O. Rose (2003) to describe hegemonic masculinity during WW2, is complicated, compromised or problematised when experiences of sex and power are brought to the fore. More broadly, the paper addresses current critiques in the history of masculinity concerning the neglect of working-class masculinities and the tendency to focus on cultural scripts/discourses about masculinity rather than what men actually did or felt. Beyond this, I want to raise questions regarding the applications of history today: do letters such as these -- which include, at one extreme, understandings of predatory sexual behaviour as 'normative', and on the other, the benign use of comforts funds to make contact with potential romantic partners -- provide a way of exploring wider gender dynamics, particularly in the light of the #MeToo movement?

Monday, 9 July
Flinders University Victoria Square
Room 1, Level 1
182 Victoria Square

Dr Alison Twells, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

Dr Alison Twells is Reader in History at Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK. She is the author of The Civilising Mission and the English Middle Class, 1792-1850: the 'heathen' at home and overseas (Palgrave, 2009) and an edited collection, with Clare Midgley and Julie Carlier, Women in Transnational History: Connecting the Local and the Global (Routledge, 2016). She currently works on gender and sexuality in C19th and C20th diaries and letters; creative history; and, with Dr Jane Haggis (Flinders University), a project exploring the applications of history in the present day.

Light refreshments provided | registration essential


Further Information:

HASS Public Lecture 9 Jul (.pdf - 229.88 KB)


- Public Lecture | Masculinity, romance and 'temperate heroism' during the Second World War (collapse)

Mon, 9 Jul 2018
12:00PM - 02:00PM
All day:
Flinders University Victoria Square, Room 1, Level 1, 182 Victoria Square, Adelaide , SA, 5000, Australia

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