Life in 1936 – Virginia and Dorothy

Births and Deaths

Virginia Woolf (1882 to 1941)

My Grandmother, Dorothy (1910 to 1990)

Right. To get all this into some perspective in my mind, Virginia was 28 years older than my Grandmother.

Virginia was born into the remaining 19 years of Victoria’s Reign – a ‘Late Victorian’. Dorothy missed the Victorian times and the following nine year reign of Edward V11 and was born 20 days after the accession of George V.

Both Virginia and Dorothy lived during the reigns of George V, Edward V111 and George V1. My ladies shared the years 1910 to 1941 so have 31 years of common ground in history. When Edward V111 abdicated in 1936 Virginia was 54 and Dorothy was 26. Both were adults during this ‘scandal’ in 1936 which is going to be the year of my focus.


Both Virginia and Dorothy would no doubt have been reading, on that December morning in 1936, some version of the astounding newspaper headlines. So, given that my ladies now have some shared experience I will explore what each of their lives would have been like in that year of 1936.

This is a snippet of my nan’s writing. She was recording her memories a few years before she died and this valuable source is going to be my inspiration for imagining her life in 1936, 28 years before I was born.

unnamed - Copy


Below are Dorothy and her first husband Frank with their daughters Hilda (my mum, left) and Joyce (my auntie, right) in about 1934. I couldn’t find a photograph that I know for certain to be 1936 so this is the nearest I can get. It’s only a couple of years so let’s pretend that the photo is 1936. Dorothy’s role was as wife and mother to two young children at this time. Dorothy would have been 26 years old. She went on to be very happily married to Frank for twenty nine years, until he died in 1958.

Below are Virginia and Leonard at around the same time. Virginia would have been 54. She went on to be happily married to Leonard for … twenty nine years …. until she died in 1941.


Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisèle Freund, 1939 Estate Gisèle Freund – IMEC Images © National Portrait Gallery, London

After Frank’s death, Dorothy had another long and happy marriage to Amos. They were married for twenty eight years, from 1960 until he died in 1988.

After Virginia’s death, Leonard went onto have a long relationship with Marjorie Parsons for, yes, you’ve guessed it, twenty eight years until he died in 1969.

My couples are more similar than we may have originally supposed.


In 1936 Dorothy would still be struggling to come to terms with her brother’s death. She was 26 years old and her brother, Claude, only nineteen. Claude was killed on the 12 September 1935 in a mining accident when there was an explosion underground at North Gawber Colliery. Eighteen other men were killed that day and 4,000 friends and family assembled at the pithead anxiously waiting for news. I can only assume that Dorothy was one of them. To add to the tragedy, Claude was only working that day as a favour for his brother John, to cover his shift for him. John had a nervous breakdown as a result of Claude’s death, never recovered and died in Storthes Hall Psychiatric Hospital in 1988.

Virginia also lost her brother, Thoby, in 1906. Virginia was 24 years old and Toby was 26. Thoby died of Typhoid that he contracted while on holiday in Greece. Like John, Virginia’s mental health suffered as a result of bereavements, first her mother, then her father and then her brother.

Both my ladies, in their mid twenties, knew what it was like to loose a brother under tragic circumstances. To lose anyone is terrible but to lose someone so young and so unnecessarily is tragic. Both ladies would know incredible heartbreak while they were very young adults. Virginia would have said goodbye to Thoby as he travelled to Greece, unaware of the tragedy that would unfold and to Dorothy, that day would have been like any other with her brother going off to work as normal but, sadly, he never came home again.

Home in 1936

In 1924 Virginia and Leonard moved to Tavistock Square, London.


Photo of Tavistock Square, taken by C Ford March 04. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

My own photo of New Street where Dorothy lived in 1936

I have just come across another coincidence. Virginia’s mother, Julia, died at the young age of 49 years. Guess how old Dorothy’s husband, Frank, was when he died? We certainly seem to have a lot of number coincidences in the lives of these two ladies.



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