Darning Socks and Dressing Ghosts – a brief life of Constance Babington Smith (1912-2000)
So… In my last post I lamented – some might say griped – about the fact that none of the many second-hand books I’ve owned have passed through the hands of anyone of note. You can probably guess what happened next. Within days I’d come across a book[i] that was not only signed by someone I’d heard of, but also by someone mentioned in that very same post – Constance Babington Smith. Now, Constance was never an archaeologist, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t of interest to anyone concerned with the history of archaeology.
There was, for instance, her involvement in air photo interpretation during the Second World War, a role that saw her rubbing shoulders with the likes of Glyn Daniel and Dorothy Garrod, among others. Her book about air photo intelligence at RAF Medmenham remains a highly readable and recommended account, and is still an excellent introduction to some of the basic principles of air photo interpretation (clue – it isn’t just about looking at aerial photographs). First published in the UK in 1958, Evidence In Camera borrowed its title from Medmenham’s in-house magazine, punning cleverly on the photographic, documentary, analytical and secretive nature of the work undertaken there. For the US market it was retitled Air Spy.
Then there was Constance’s post-war career as a biographer, a career that got off to a somewhat sticky start over a topic that Kate wrote about recently – letters. The publication of two volumes of letters written by her distant cousin, the writer Rose Macaulay, caused quite a fuss when they first appeared, mainly because they revealed that Rose had had a secret affair, lasting some 25 years and unknown to all but a handful of her closest friends, with a married man. Not only that, but in one of the letters Rose had asked the original recipient to destroy the correspondence[ii].
Constance was born at Puttenham in Surrey on 9th October 1912, the fifth of nine children born to Sir Henry and Lady Elizabeth Babington Smith. Much of her childhood was spent at Chinthurst Hill, a house near Wonersh in Surrey designed by Edward Lutyens. Her four brothers were sent to Eton; Constance and her sisters were educated at home by a series of tutors and governesses. Her father, with a long and distinguished career in the civil and colonial service behind him, was appointed a director of the Bank of England in 1920, but died just three years later at the age of 60.
Somewhere along the line, a talent for haute couture revealed itself, which led to Constance training as a milliner and working for a while for Aage Thaarup. She also began writing articles about fashion. Consequently, the 1930s seem to have comprised a mix of millinery and journalism – and eventually aviation, on one occasion combining her interests by designing a hat with a bomber on it to wear at an aviation-related garden party – along with the kind of hectic social life to be expected of someone of Constance’s age and background. All this was interrupted only by a stint back home looking after her mother, a duty that as she later explained fell to her as “the eldest unmarried daughter”. It was while there that she began visiting Brooklands to watch the racing and flying and really “got bitten by the aviation bug…though I didn’t want to be a pilot myself”. She now came to the attention of CG Grey, editor of The Aeroplane, and from 1937 until the outbreak of war she contributed a regular series of satirical articles on aviation matters, often in verse.
Joining the WAAF in 1940, she quickly found herself involved in air photo intelligence, where she stayed until the end of the war. As with the much better known Bletchley Park, Medmenham gathered together people from a remarkable variety of backgrounds, including a high proportion of women. The man largely responsible for establishing the photographic reconnaissance and intelligence operation, Sidney Cotton, had apparently fought hard to ensure that women could participate: “My reasoning was that looking through magnifying glasses at minute objects in a photograph required the patience of Job and the skill of a good darner of socks”[iii]. Patience required indeed.
The war that Constance experienced at Medmenham contrasted markedly with events faced by her cousin Rose Macaulay a short distance along the Thames in London. In Evidence In Camera, Constance wrote that “I sometimes used to think that photographic interpretation was a nice clean job, as even after the heaviest attacks, and even with the largest scale, you never saw any blood”. Writing to her sister Jean during her spell as an ambulance driver at the height of the blitz, for Rose the experience “rather gets one down. One wonders all the time how many people are at the moment alive under some ruin, and how much they are suffering in body and mind. But it doesn’t do to think much in these days, or to start wondering what ‘There were a few casualties’ covers.”
Constance’s comment seems to chime with common misconceptions of air photo interpretation as detached and objective, although it is heavily qualified (“I sometimes used to think…”) – her job, after all, involved drawing inferences from the clues offered by what was visible about what might be obscured or hidden, about what had happened or what might happen. The presence of blood among the rubble was a given. This was one of just a handful of times in her book that Constance hinted at the human cost of the work she and her colleagues were involved in – bombing targets were often chosen on the basis of their intelligence reports. There were other costs too. In an anonymous obituary published by The Times, the writer noted that Constance “could never quite set behind her the tragic background to the successes of photographic reconnaissance during the war, in which so many of the … pilots who visited RAF Medmenham never returned from their long distance flights. Indeed, from wartime on, her bright and cheerful manner seemed to conceal a continued sense of the personal losses of those days. She never married.”
After the war in Europe ended, Constance was posted to Washington D.C. to participate in the preparations for the invasion of Japan. Following Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender, she stayed in the USA working as a researcher for Life magazine. Returning “exhausted” to Britain in 1950, she decided to become a housekeeper. “In England at the time women who were trained to take over in an emergency in case of illness were needed badly. I thought I’d train and do this for a bit, as a temporary job, which I did for several years, and it was very, very hard work”. She planned to write a book about it, but the idea “was nipped in the bud in its earliest stages”. Instead, in 1955, she was asked – by who it isn’t clear – to write the book that became Evidence In Camera, “and since then”, she said in 1978, “it’s been non-stop”.
Evidence In Camera was quickly followed by Testing Time (1961), a book about test pilots, and the first two volumes of Rose Macaulay’s letters. She also wrote biographies of Amy Johnson (1967), Rose Macaulay (1972), the poet laureate John Masefield (1978), Iulia de Beausobre (1983) and Margery Blackie (1986). Additionally, she published a third volume of Macaulay’s letters, this time those sent to Rose’s sister Jean (or, rather, the ones Jean hadn’t destroyed), an illustrated edition of Rose’s Pleasure of Ruins, and three volumes of addresses by Father Lev Gillett of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as a variety of articles for newspapers and magazines.
As a biographical subject, Constance herself is somewhat elusive. Her own books were generally the result of prolonged and painstaking research, collecting as much written material – principally letters – and interviewing as many people as possible, making those books and the archive they generated an essential resource for subsequent researchers. I’ve had to rely here on a smattering of largely secondary sources[iv], some of them the sort of thing that Constance herself was less than enamoured by, displaying as they did a tendency to dwell – often inaccurately – on one or two aspects of her wartime work, and perhaps partly a reason for her approach to some of the subject matter in her own books: “My friends urged me to try and set the record straight, but I just can’t be bothered. It has been going on for so long. At the time, though, these things worried me very much”.
[i] The tome in question was Constance’s penultimate book, her biography of Iulia de Beausobre. It also contained two loose b&w prints featuring Iulia, one of which features on the back cover of the book, credited to Constance’s sister Susan.
[ii] The matter of the letters and their publication is discussed by Sarah LeFanu in her highly recommended 2013 book Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer’s Journal, an account of some of her experiences writing and researching her biography of Macaulay. These included meeting Constance.
[iii] I am useless at darning socks. Just saying.
[iv] Apart from the books I’ve mentioned, the main sources used here include an article about Constance by Philippa Toomey from The Times, 18th November 1978; Philip Errington’s introduction to the 2002 reprint of the John Masefield biography; and obituaries published in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, among others, plus odds and ends previously gathered for chapter 6 of this.