In 1945 Ivy Bennett won the very prestigious ‘British Council’ Scholarship enabling her to travel to England to study whatever she wished. Her plan was to study child psychology, perhaps to undertake a Doctorate at the University of London. At the request of her mentor in Australia, Mr Foster, she wrote a long letter reporting on life in London with a view to preparing the next scholarship winner. Londoners were in the early stages of recovery after a long, long war which had finally ended nine months beforehand. Ivy Bennett’s letter was dated 16 March 1946.* Let’s ‘listen’ to her impressions.
In the first place conditions are not as bad as I had been led to expect.In many ways there are a lot of things in shops etc. which we have not been able to get in Australia for years. In other ways the position is very difficult. This applies to all forms of “service” especially transport, accommodation and shopping. All the mechanics of living and getting about are very strenuous and time-consuming; much of London is still running under emergency conditions of staffing etc. and there is very great weariness and fatigue in all the working people.Accommodation is a difficult problem with so much desolation and wreckage everywhere – and such limited staff and skeleton organisation....London is very shabby and grimy and only her essential services operate fully, so that the ordinary person finds life very strenuous. One queues for hours everywhere.
The universities were in chaos. Staffing was low. Experienced teachers were hard to find and demand, intense.
London is so full of foreign students – Poles, Chinese, Dutch, French, South American, Jewish, Turkish, that one is expected to work pretty independently, at least at first. All the postgraduate classes I have seen are terribly overcrowded, carrying on under all kinds of difficult working conditions, and individual supervision is quite impossible.
Day-to-day life was ‘strenuous’. Getting around was hard and clothing nigh impossible to obtain.
I think it will help the next student if [they] remember that London is very shabby and grimy, the soap ration (3 small cakes per person per month for all purposes: household, bath, washing) quite inadequate and all normal laundry services disrupted so that utility factors come first in clothing. Life is very strenuous in London and one’s clothes have to be very comfortable and durable. [The woman scholarship holder] would be wise to equip herself with a full wardrobe in Australia as shopping is very difficult in London, the dressmaking position hopeless and the rationing very severe. I received 10 coupons from my arrival until May, but was fortunate enough in having been given a special grant of 66 coupons to spend in Western Australia on the grounds I was the ambassador for Australian wool! This helped me a lot and I think the next student would be wise to work on the assumption that there is no clothing in England of any description that she can get or is worth getting, and come supplied with winter underclothing and weather-proof clothing, and as full a wardrobe as she can manage.
One’s best investment is a really good weather-proof top coat – one wears it constantly. Shoes are also hard to get in London – especially good walking shoes. I should be extravagant about shoes and coats if I were planning again. And I’d also get a supply of knitted gloves and scarves in wool – one wears them all the time and kid gloves are never warm.
London is in a chaotic state. eg I can’t use an electtric iron because an incendiary bomb wrecked the wiring of this house four years ago, and as yet there has been no labour to fix it so one is wise to omit the frills and crisp white collars and go in for silk and wool – something which is warm, does not need constant pressing and can be worn under the continual top-coat. Australian winter suits can be worn almost all the year round here…
It is a good idea to arrange to have someone in Australia send parcels of foodstuffs occasionally so that you can go armed with a tin of honey, jam, treacle, sugar, sweets, butter, cheese of meat from Australia. Tea is not short over here. What most people like is some sort of fat, protein food (not canned fish) or something sweet. Personally I find food rationing adequate but to the English after 6 years, it has become very dull and monotonous. They have been living on extracts and powders and condensed foods for so long that plain tinned foods, especially meats, milk and sugar – are precious rubies to them. A tin of condensed milk when added to the eternal semolina packets, will make dessert for a whole family.
* University of Western Australia: UWA Archives Cons 507