Kate Frye (or, rather Mrs Kate Collins), one-time actress and suffragist activist – and an excellent diarist – spent the Second World War at her home, ‘Hill Top’, in the tiny hamlet of Berghers Hill, perched on the ridge above Wooburn Green, Buckinghamshire. Even in this remote spot they were not spared bombing.
On 1 September 1940 Kate noted in her diary ‘German planes – hour after hour – that nasty heavy jerky drone.’ 8 September ‘German planes droning over head – terrific search lights – a great red glow over London – flashes of gunfire and bombs. About 3am things seemed to get quieter and I went to sleep. London had its biggest raid from 5am till daylight – fires, killings and maiming and making people homeless. Most of it down by docks and East End.’ 26 September ‘The sirens went about 12 midnight. German planes have been going round and round for an hour and I heard bombs and gunfire in the distance.’
15 October 1940 ‘Had my bath before 9.30. A raid warning. I could not help thinking of the change from a year ago, when no bombs and a warning put one all in a flutter and now I got into a bath and took no notice.’ 16 October 1940 ‘Evening. Germans had been circling and dropping bombs and then three crumps. I thought our end had come. Folks came from next door and John went out with them to put out paraffin incendiary bomb in The Heights garden. One in our garden by the Woodman’s Hut. I started sweeping up glass and nailing up dust sheet to keep rain out.’ Next day ‘I saw the trees down round the bomb crater. The miracle is we are alive and as far as we can tell the house, except for one window, safe. A great deal of damage to the cottages and to the Kennels [this was a large house owned by Kate’s much richer relations, the Gilbey family].
The Woodman’s Hut Theatre was the local entertainment centre, for it was here that Kate and John staged short community plays. One was ‘a war-time German scene which I am at present calling “Heil Hitler” It is really Brenda Gilbey’s plight visiting in Bavaria.’ Kate had not been impressed by Brenda’s discipleship of Hitler. ‘Heil Hitler’ was staged in the Woodman’s Hut Theatre in January 1940, together with ‘Recalled to Life’, a sketch John had carved from A Tale of Two Cities.
The manuscripts for these sketches haven’t survived, but others have, all designed, in one way or other, to raise morale. One, ‘Go To Pot: a sketch of silly people for silly people’, alludes to wartime conditions, such as paper shortages, as well as to local Wooburn places and people. Another, ‘Babes in the Wood with the Blessed Gerard’, was written for performance by the St John’s Ambulance Brigade cadets, Blessed Gerard being the founder of the Knight’s Hospitallers. The manuscript indicates that over a number of performances lines were updated so that, early in the war, gas was cited as Hitler’s secret weapon but, by 1944, that had been changed by hand to read ‘the pilotless aircraft.’
A third sketch, ‘Time Is with Us’, has as its protagonists two wandering masons whom Kate based on the wooden figures on the front of an ancient building that was once Wooburn’s Royal Oak pub. Through these characters she tells a tale of a witch burned at the top of Windsor Hill, which leads up from Wooburn Green to Berghers Hill. That witch had cursed, ‘As I go up in flames – down shall I come one day in flames to punish you. Bombs – Bombs that’s what ‘twill be.’ ‘If any mother son of you shall be alive until that day or any of the kith and kin of you who stand and laugh shall be on Beggars Hill when Bombs are falling down – then woe to them.’
While John manned an Observation Post and ran the local St John’s Ambulance group, Kate entered, of necessity, into the wartime spirit of ‘make-do-and-men’.For instance, before the war they had often eaten rabbit, a cheap meat, bought from the butcher. But during the war John set out to catch rabbits himself. As Kate wrote: ‘It’s really dreadful work and John has had to kill them’. But she was able to spread the largesse so that ‘all around have all had pies.’ She was remarkably stoical in playing her part in the process, writing in her diary ‘John found he’d snared two bunnies. One dead the other he had to kill. However he was awfully good – got the jackets off beautifully and disembowelled them. I then washed them, cut them up and left them to soak. Cold work.’
Finally, after five and a half years of life such as this, came her diary entry for 8 May 1945 – ‘VE Day and it’s All Over. The wireless has been on and it is so wonderful one is not utterly cut off. John at decoration – what we have in stock and bits of wire and string and a great do and the getting ready to hear the Prime Minister at 3 o’clock.’
Later Kate was ‘on Wooburn Common to see John set light to the Bonfire and try and get some bangs going.’
Back at Hill Top, they heard the ‘relay of King’s Speech at 9pm. He got along well – here and there some terrible pauses. Then the news and description of all the seething masses of people cheering and it’s just fine. What we have always looked forward to and knew must happen one day – even in our darkest hour, but that it has happened is just a miracle. Then to light flood lamp and all walk round and admire and the house did look pretty. John has worked on it. Then cocoa and biscuits and more wireless at midnight and afterwards.’
You can read the story of Kate’s life here. It will make good lock-down reading. Kate’s diaries, recounting her experience of the Second World War day by day, are now held in the Archives of Royal Holloway, University of London.