Category Archives: Life and Times

Dorothy in 1936

Dorothy …. An ordinary year …. family, community, getting by and hard work

In 1936 Dorothy was a wife and mother to two girls aged five and six. There was an age difference of just fifteen months between her daughters, Joyce and Hilda. Like Virginia, she suffered with headaches; migraines. She would lay on the sofa with a vinegar pad on her forehead. Also like Virginia, she had a husband who took care of her when she was suffering.

Dorothy had a happy childhood and in 1936 was in the seventh year of her long and happy first marriage. A community existed that looked out for each other, provided friendship and support. Like Virginia, Dorothy came from a big family (four boys and four girls) and had a close relationship with her siblings.

Being a wife and mother would have been hard work. Dorothy Wilson, in Memories of Royston says ‘it was hard work being a wife and mother in those days and being a husband and dad wasn’t easy either.’

‘The men worked down the pit’ she says, ‘that’s when they had work to go to’.


I am struggling to find exact references to 1936 but Dorothy Wilson says that in Royston in 1931, they had just one cold water tap, gas lights, and a black leaded coal fire and oven. Relatives; grandparents, aunts, cousins, lived nearby and the children would play football and cricket. They would fly kites and ride bikes.

I can imagine my grandma (‘nana’) taking her children to the park, and going to the Coop where everything was weighed out from huge canisters; the sugar and flour and butter.  The butter would be ‘cut in pats and patted out into grease proof paper’. Dorothy would return home and start making bread and perhaps bake some buns. Some days she may make a meat and potato pie for when Frank came home from work. People had a pride in their houses and liked everything to be neat and clean.

Dorothy might get up at half past five to make Frank his ‘snap’ for work and then she would start washing clothes, the manual way, and washing the floors. She would look out for the milkman’s horse and cart and then go to him with her jug.

Dorothy wasn’t rich and she didn’t have servants like Virginia did. She didn’t travel abroad and she didn’t have a house in the country. Dorothy wasn’t an intellectual and she had fewer opportunities and fewer luxuries. However, she was happy.


Virginia in 1936


Virginia – 1936 wasn’t a great year really … agitation, headaches, writing and worrying. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Virginia began 1936 with headaches and her head bursting with ideas. She was in the country, having spent a miserable Christmas at Monk’s House in Sussex. She was looking forward to returning to London.

In her diary entry for January 3rd Virginia mentions that she had to find £70 (about £4k) ‘out of her hoard’ to pay for her share of the house. This meant that her hoard was reduced to £700 (about £44k). Virginia’s efforts at this time were in finishing The Years. She was still unwell and wrote that her ‘head is still all nerves’. She ends the entry for this day by saying that she ‘ordered a sirloin and we shall go for a drive’.

On the 5th January Virginia reports that her’ head is quiet today’ Her health sounds like it was paramount in her mind and she was wary as one false move ‘means racing despair, exaltation, and all the rest of that familiar misery’.

On the 16th January Virginia reports that ‘seldom have I been more completely miserable’. This was because she was dissatisfied with The Years. In to February and Virginia is still reporting headaches and having to lay still to vanquish them.

March sees Virginia walking round Kensington Gardens discussing politics. She writes briefly about Europe and Labour Party meetings and about Hitler. She mentions how near the guns are and how she can see them and hear a roar. She refers to answering the ‘incessant telephones’ and having done nothing but walk and work during this ‘laborious Spring’.

In June she notes that the previous two months had seen her battle a dismal and almost catastrophic illness but that she is finally recovered. She refers to ‘the divine joy of being mistress of my mind again’.

In November, Virginia writes again of the headaches and of the suffering she endured while writing The Years, describing it as being ‘like a long childbirth’. She forced herself into her room, in her nightgown, with a headache and had to lay down after writing a page.

Virginia seems to go from the depths of despair, convinced of the failure of her novels, to being ‘exalted’ when Leonard reads her work and comments on it favourably. Her moods are up and then down.

So, we get a hint of Virginia’s life in 1936. Walking, writing, troubled by political events, battling mental health problems, worrying over the quality of her writing, not believing in her abilities, taking to her bed, keeping her diary and trying to stay calm for the sake of her sanity.

Overall, a difficult year. I get the impression of a troubled agitated lady, in turmoil over her writing, struggling day to day and never quite finding peace.

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.

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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.