Revealed: children’s diaries that chart WW2, life in Victorian Britain, and bed bugs during the Napoleonic Wars

Diaries written by children and teenagers during defining moments in history are to go on display for the first time.

The accounts, which date from 1813 to 1996 and include tales of bed bugs at boarding school during the Napoleonic Wars, the pop culture of early 20th-century American Scouts, and coded accounts of wild teenage behaviour during the Blitz, will go on show at the V&A Museum of Childhood as part of the Great Diary Project.


The display, which will run from 17 May to 12 October, will showcase diaries acquired by historian Irving Finkel, who has for years been rescuing diaries and storing them in his office at the British Museum.


Here you can take a look at some of the extracts featured in the exhibition, accompanied by commentary provided by the V&A:

Bill Kirkman and the Second World War, 1945

Bill Kirkman began writing a diary aged nine, and continued to keep one throughout his life. Here, aged 12, he describes burning a handmade effigy of Hitler on VE Day at the end of the Second World War: “Sent telegram. GERMANY DEFEATED. HOORAY.

“Tuesday 8th – Went home to celebrate VE day. Had large supper and burnt Hitler’s effigy on a huge bonfire at 10pm. Went to bed at midnight.”

World events run alongside curious anecdotes, such as the mention of his “first time in long trousers”.

Kirkman went on to become a journalist reporting in Africa, and he flew on the first transatlantic jet plane.



Top of the Pops culture, 1960s

This five-year-diary from the 1960s by an anonymous author represents the horse-riding, Bunty-reading teenager, who describes everything as ‘Fab’, and adores the glamour of Princess Margaret’s wedding and watching Top of the Pops:

“May 6th 1960: Today was HRH Princess Margaret’s wedding to Mr Anthony Armstrong-Jones. Marian and Helen came to watch it on TV. It was so fabulous that it isn’t true. Margaret’s dress was superb.”



Raleigh Trevelyan and the Napoleonic Wars, 1813

This diary was written during the last year of 13-year-old Raleigh Trevelyan’s life. It is an animated account of his time spent in an English boarding school, when he was constantly flogged, and suffered outbreaks of bed bugs.

Raleigh’s diary is packed with details that give you a rich sense of the time he was living in, as he sends supplies to the Duke of Wellington’s armies during the Napoleonic Wars. His lively personality comes through strongly, with detailed descriptions of food and his attempts at jumping out of windows to escape from school.

The diary ends tragically with an account of his declining health, and the unsuccessful attempts to cure him with the application of leeches to his temples and rhubarb drinks. His illness is unknown:

“Sunday 4th April, 1813: About 300 soldiers were in church. Took a walk – Had new potatoes.”

“Monday 5th April, 1813: Had a half holiday because of Lord Wellington’s victory over the French at Vitoria in Spain. Took 151 pieces of carrion, provisions (to) ammunition wagons…”



Working in the coal mines, 1838

This bleak diary entry was written by RR Maddison, a teenage apprentice coal miner working in the pits of Ouston and Pelton, northern England, in 1838. He describes how a fellow miner was killed by a falling block of ice, and later how he shot a blackbird.

The understated style in which the diary is written offers an insight into the poor working conditions of young people at the time:

“Monday January 15th: Went down Ouston Pit…a great deal of ice in the pit shaft which made it very dangerous riding…There was a man killed in the King Pit – by the ice falling upon him while riding in the shaft. Very frosty.”

“Thursday January 18 th: At home shot a blackbird. Very frosty. People sliding and skating on the Tyne.”



Life as an American Girl Scout, 1930s

These Girl Scout diaries, written by 12-year-old Ruth Freeman ‘Kimmie’ Kimball in 1930s Massachusetts, are specifically labeled as: ‘Open for Inspection’.

Kimmie represents the typical Girl Scout spirit pepped up with Coca-Cola, movies, hockey, campfire songs and perky nicknames for friends: ‘Pussy Cummings and Hoppie Pantyweist’.

Her diary entry for 30 September 1937 offers a glimpse into her world: “Jigg’s birthday. Played a game of field hockey. That’s a wonderful game! Lost 3 pounds since school started Believe it or Not Ripley… Got a letter from Dovie. She is a Jew. I wasn’t sure before.”


For more information about the exhibition, click here.

To find out more about the Great Diary Project, click here.


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