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Their Doris/my Doris: Personal Connections While Exploring WW2 seafarers’ masculinity by Dr Jo Stanley

I especially like doing history when serendipity bring personal connections with the women whose pasts I’m looking at. Re-knowing these ‘names’ as emotional embodied subjects helps me better understand both them and me, but also women I know – in this case my daring Great Aunty Doris.

That bridge is even more satisfyingly attuning when I can talk with the women’s female descendants. That way we can discuss feelings and meanings, not simply deeds, and as a by-product, this connection lessens the distancing that the Covid-19 crisis currently forces upon us human beings.

This week I happen to be doing some off-piste work on entertainer Doris Hare. (You may remember her as Reg Varney’s mum in the TV sitcom On the Buses.)

For years Doris, the ‘Sweetheart of the Merchant Navy’, has been in my thoughts as the most important women in the very male world of commercial seafarers in WW2. Decades ago I’d found records of her anomalous role via the National Union of Seamen archives, at Warwick’s Modern Records Centre.

Doris (1903-2000) not only presented a peak-time WW2 radio show for seafarers, Shipmates Ashore, she was also loved as the main celebrity raising money for the NUS-backed Charles Radcliffe Convalescent Home at Limpsfield, in the Surrey Hills. She was as revered as Vera Lynn, but as a shipmate, not a sexualised consumer good. After Mrs Hare’s first child, Susan Jane, was born one donation even arrived addressed simply to ‘Doris Hare’s baby, London.’

A fan wrote ‘No wonder we call you the Florence Nightingale of the M. N. after the way you have spent time and money on our behalf.’

Late in 2020 the news came out that a book about Doris’s history had just won the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize for best proposal for a first biography. What a shock! So someone else in the modern world not only had a Doris Hare folder or sub-folder.  They were even interested enough in her to want to write a full-length book: But Will it Get a Laugh? The Life of Doris Hare in Three Acts.

I Zoomed with the writer, Kate Crehan: she in New York, me in the Pennines. She was looking through cultural lenses; I was looking through labour history specs.

It turned out that this CUNY Professor Emerita was Doris’s daughter.  What a new dimension! And when Susan, Doris’s other daughter, in Denbigh, sent memorabilia I was able to get even more of a sense of the woman who’d been distantly significant to me in my search for gendered histories of seafaring.

Then Kate emailed a picture of Doris, ‘bursting with ambition’ as part of the Bing Kids in 1919.  Uncanny! Doris looked exactly like a picture of my great aunty Doris Shaw and her troupe of juvenile dancers a few years later. Later, when my Doris was touring, her troupe’s chaperone could have been the same one who protected the Bing Kids.  Perhaps the Bing Kids’ costumes had even been passed on to my Doris’ troupe. Maybe my Doris and had even worn Doris Hare’s cast-off skirts, even on same stages.

Doris Hare, (seated on the piano, fourth from left) and the Bing Kids, 1919. Image courtesy of Kate Crehan.

I don’t have many details of my Doris (1916-1988). But she performed as a Bluebell Girl in 1930s Paris, then danced on bare-backed Irish horses in the Baker Brothers’ circus. She was the boss’s pistol-toting missus. Instead I’ve been collecting a fake album: images that could have been her, to help me invent her better, for fiction. ‘Kate’s Doris’ has helped.

How does this new knowledge affect me,  this member of the UK and international auto/biography community?

‘Meeting’ Doris Hare enables mental cross-dressing and illuminating time-travelling. I see that if I too had been an exhausted lonely seafarer of WW2, I’d have cleaved to Doris Hare as a beacon of all the warmth and homeliness I desired. She was a figure who represented the antithesis of cold and dangerous seas.

My quest to understand the way seafarers think about sex and gender is endless. Doris Hare, as given to me by her daughters, takes gender-aware labour history a step further. Her story helps enhance understanding of how one of the most hyper-masculinist trade unions, in a profession that required members to manage emotional distance, was able to incorporate this ‘Other’:  a feminine ‘shipmate’ /a mother ashore.

Current news of prolonged pandemic-enforced disconnectivity in 2021 is made a bit easier by these heartening serendipitous connections. It’s a joy to me that I’ve gained a new angle on ‘my Doris’ and our wider seafaring family, through Kate and Sue’s Doris. We’re sort-of sisters.

Jo Stanley, Ph.D, FRSA, FRHistS, is a writer who specialises in gender-aware international maritime history. She particularly enjoys working with museums and film companies.  As a former Londoner/ Scouser now living in a Pennine mill village she does textile art. To help the Covid-19 crisis, she is currently exploring creative  therapies as a practitioner. Her website is www.jostanley.biz and her blog is at htttp:// genderedseas.blogspot.com.

Image credits:

Sheet music for Doris Hare’s best-known song. Image courtesy of Eve Tar Archive.

Kate Crehan. Image by Joe Bohorfoush

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