Oxford alumna Sheila Lesser, who had a distinguished wartime career at the BBC, died last year leaving a battered case jumbled with papers. It proved to be a vivid time capsule — letters home recording every single day of her undergraduate life in the 1930s.
By Jessica Thurtell
‘My Darling People,’ wrote my mother, Sheila Lesser, on 14 October 1934, beginning the first of some 350 letters home from her undergraduate years at St Hilda’s. She started as she meant to go on: ‘I’m afraid this letter will be rather a rush . . .’. She wrote home (you’ll find this hard to believe) every single day — sometimes twice in a day — detailing her whole Oxford experience: tutors, academic struggles, friends, even her love life. When Sheila died, aged 98, her old, battered attaché case, forgotten for years in her loft, came into my hands.
It was in wild disarray, little batches of letters escaping from perished rubber bands in among a litter of single sheets. Just sorting them into sequence took me two weeks. But she came dancing off the pages, full of life and determination, earnestness and humour, bubbling with the thrill of this great experience of her life so far.
Her father was Henry Lesser CBE. Highly intelligent but born into poverty, his studies at night school eventually led him to become a barrister. He was giving Sheila the opportunity he never had and she was very aware of the home sacrifices that were being made to pay for her. She was desperate not to disappoint. She was also ambitious for herself. ‘I absolutely must be someone at Oxford,’ she wrote.
Sheila read German and French (dropping the latter after the first year). She understood from the first that an Oxford education meant so much more than pure academia. She tried societies and clubs of every variety — from the Union to OUDS, the French Sorbonne Society to the Jewish Society, of which she eventually became secretary despite being totally non-religious herself. She founded the St Hilda’s Dancing Club to further one of her great enjoyments. She threw herself into all the available activities and seems to have been in a constant rush in her desire not to miss a moment. ‘In great haste’, ‘I’m in a frightful rush’, ‘Five hectic minutes before dashing off ’, ‘Frantic rush, awful crisis!’
These were days long before Facebook, before texting, blogging or mobile phones. Few people had telephones even in their homes. If you needed to contact someone, you wrote a letter — and the General Post Office service collected and delivered several times every day. So when, on Friday, Sheila wrote home, ‘Cyril has asked me to the dance tomorrow but I’ve left my blue skirt at home. Please post it’, her Sunday letter to her mother read ‘Thanks very much for my skirt. It looked very elegant and the dance was grand! Not home until 12.00!! Luckily the porter was still there.’
In 1934 only four Oxford colleges admitted women and romantic life at the University had a very different dynamic. The girls were hugely outnumbered by men and greatly in demand as a result. A typical letter offers a window on the scene. ‘I’ve another gay week ahead. Austrian Club gala with Peter tomorrow, “Cherry Orchard” with Japolsky on Friday, Michael Foot at the Union with Cyril on Thursday and the Dance with Godfrey on Saturday. I also have masses of work to do.’ In this whirl of social activity, she resolutely maintained her reputation — ‘everyone knows I have a heart of ice’ — despite several close shaves. ‘Mums, what shall I do? I believe I’ve fallen for Cyril again. . . . Healthy relationships with most men are impossible. . . . I’m afraid I want him to take me to dances and things. I’d adore it if he kissed me (awful confession!) tho’ of course I don’t let him. I do NOT flirt.’
Coming from a family in which politics and world affairs were everyday topics, Sheila was especially interested in all the political societies — and scathing about most of them. She attended all the Union debates and meetings of all the political societies but was interested ‘in an objective way. They amuse me.’ She wrote home describing some of the debates and adding her own scathing comments: ‘What rot!’ . . . ‘They’ve got no perspective’. The Liberal Debating Society ‘just talk and talk but get nowhere’. Of the Conservative Club she announced ‘I’ve never heard so much rot in all my life, but somehow I think my social instinct will have me seen there again!’ She disagreed with the communist-leaning Labour Party but respected it nonetheless because members ‘are much more energetic and sensible. They want something and they are all working hard to get it.’
One of Sheila’s great joys at Oxford was the tight-knit group of half a dozen girlfriends who talked and danced, read and drank cocoa together throughout those three golden years. Known to each other as ‘The Family’, they supported each other through every essay ‘crisis’ — including holding ‘a coffee and sausages party to get some ideas for me’ — as well as every romantic entanglement. They cycled, walked, knitted, laughed and shared the precious gramophone bought for 35 shillings (£1.75 in today’s money and a serious outlay for them). They loved dancing, ‘we spread soapflakes on the floor to make it slippery!’ Cocoa was their main fuel — anything more was a rare exception: ‘[A friend] gave us sherry before we left — 2 glasses! . . .and now once we start to giggle we can’t stop — you know!’ An innocent age indeed, but those Oxford years were a beacon through her whole, long, life.
She visited Germany twice — in 1935 and 1937. By then the Nazis were making their presence felt and staying with a Jewish family (she was Jewish too) had its problems. They went on one outing, by train, and her friends were informed they would travel in the cattle-class carriage at the back, while she — as a British national — could travel in first class. Typically, she stuck with her friends. I hope I would have been as brave.
She went straight from Oxford, pausing only to learn touch-typing, to join the secretarial pool of the BBC at Broadcasting House in London. Just before the outbreak of war the call went out for German speakers, so she found herself typing the first news bulletins of what became the German Service. From there she was recruited to start the infant News Information Service, cutting up copies of the newspapers and filing them by subject for reporters to quarry. By the end of the war she was working in the Newsroom as a copytasting sub-editor. And she waltzed up Oxford Street with Richard Dimbleby on VE Day.
Sheila always maintained ‘Oxford made me’ — the disciplined mind acquired there enabled her to make such a success of her life. Though she gave her career to marry a young orthopaedic surgeon, John Mayer, and lived the rest of her life in Kent, she also became a JP, became the first female chair of the Tonbridge Bench and then chair of the Kent branch of the Magistrates’ Association. The programme of training she instituted for JPs was to become mandatory across the counties. She never stopped learning, going to adult education classes in all sorts of subjects, and keeping her mind intact till the end.
All text and images © Jessica Thurtell, who is pictured above left with her mother.