Today we feature one of English PEN’s most unsung heroes, a successful writer who served diligently on PEN Committees for decades and whose heroic war work alone earns her a place in our list.
Noel Streatfeild is chiefly known as a writer of children’s stories, including the highly popular novel Ballet Shoes but also wrote adult novels including Saplings (1945), which became a ten-part BBC Radio series in 2004.
An active PEN member during the war, in 1940 Streatfeild was a signatory of ‘To the Conscience of the World’, English PEN’s plea to the world to take action over the Nazi threat to Europe. She also served on PEN’s Refugee Sub-Committee from 1941, alongside Storm Jameson, Hermon Ould and other key members of the time.
In July 1941 Streatfeild was asked to join PEN’s Reception and Social Committee. She was a stalwart member, organising parties and events for hundreds of refugee writers in London and helping to plan the infamous 1941 wartime Congress.
During the Congress, Streatfeild worked tirelessly as a hostess, providing teas and sandwiches and overseeing the practical running of the Congress, even hosting delegates in her home.
However, Streatfeild’s war work was not confined to her activities with PEN. In one letter, International Secretary Hermon Ould writes to commiserate with Streatfeild about the bombing of her flat in Piccadilly in 1941. The letter typifies Streatfeild’s wartime behaviour, as Ould writes: ‘I expect you were out looking after other people at the time.’
Alongside her work with PEN, Streatfeild also worked for the Women’s Volunteer Service throughout the war, among other societies and charities. She writes to Ould in 1943: [y]ou say, what has become of me. I don’t know if you ever knew it but in times of national stress I hie [sic] me to the Borough of Deptford where, since the war began, I have been in charge of the feeding of the populace for the W.V.S from mobile canteens.’ Streatfeild, in typically gallant style, had made for Deptford at 5:30am as bombs fell, working with other volunteers to feed an estimated 11,000 civilian homeless, 12,000 civil defence and providing tea for a further 10,000 people held in air-raid shelters overnight. As Ould wrote in reply, Streatfeild was a ‘real heroine’, an observation she demurely ignored.
After the war, Streatfeild continued as a reliable and diligent committee member – a skillset somewhat rare in PEN circles as evidenced by the amendment she put forward in 1945 proposing the dismissal of ‘any member of the Committee who has not attended 50 per cent’!
She also wrote reports for PEN News on PEN Congresses, updating members on what had taken place intellectually, socially and in terms of the tricky politics of the organisation.
She was still on the Executive Committee of English PEN in 1950 when Ould wrote to her to discuss the newly minted ‘Declaration of Human Rights’, which was to be a key point of consideration at that year’s Congress in Edinburgh, where Streatfeild was one of the English delegates. She received an OBE for her work as a children’s author in 1983.
Though perhaps not as high profile as other PEN Members, the hard work behind the scenes of Streatfeild and women like her – such as Irene Rathbone, Janet Chance, Inez Holden and Margaret Kennedy – have kept the organisation going over the last century.