Peter Searby (ed) Cambridge at War: The Diary of Jack Overhill 1939-1945

IssueMay 2011
Review by Bill Hetherington

“I like… Peace News, the best of the weeklies”. So wrote Jack Overhill in his diary of daily life and activities as a shoe repairer and pacifist conscientious objector (CO) in Cambridge during the Second World War.

Born into a family of bootmakers, and ordered by his father to leave school at 14, Jack devoted all his spare time to self-education and attempts at novel-writing, as well as keeping a diary for most of his adult life. The 25 typescript volumes were deposited in the Cambridgeshire County Library, and the editor has selected the Second World War portion for publication.

Jack’s detailed notes of changes in food and clothing ration allowances, shortages of unrationed food, air raid alerts and bombings in Cambridge (and allied bombings of Germany – British press exultation described as “despicable”) all give a more complete picture of civilian life during the war than most social histories.

Jack describes himself as a Communist, which Searby aligns with Jack’s pacifism: “During the 1930s, pacifism grew in the university and to some extent in the city, partly in consequence of the growth of Communism, with which it was linked”. In fact there was virtually no overlap between 1930s communism and pacifism; political pacifists were linked with the ILP and the Labour Party. Jack’s identification with Communism – to the extent of arguing, at a public meeting, with Bertrand Russell that the Soviet Union, as “a young state, had to put down opposition… conditions would change later” – marks him out as a maverick.

Jack did not relish being a regular member of any organisation; he was briefly secretary for individual members of the Cambridge Anti-War Council, but “the meetings bored me”. He attended an occasional Peace Pledge Union (PPU) or Quaker meeting, and came to know Alex Wood, who sent a letter of support for his conscientious objectors’ tribunal.

It is a pity that in the extensive editorial footnotes on people mentioned by Jack, Searby does not explain the prominence of Alex Wood or Charles Raven in not only the Cambridge but the British pacifist movement.

Jack gives interesting details of some CO tribunals, including his own, and almost at the end of the volume the continuing nature of the anti-war struggle is demonstrated by a report of his son’s CO registration in October 1945.

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