Francis Balfour diaries shed new light on wartime Edinburgh

Ian Balfour reads his father's war diaries. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Ian Balfour reads his father's war diaries. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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THE outbreak of the Second World War heralded nearly six years of conflict, which saw millions die and millions more living under the shadow of battle. Now diaries kept by an Edinburgh lawyer offer a fascinating insight into how the war unfolded and how it affected daily life in the Capital as people did their best to go about their ordinary business, all too aware of the dramatic and terrifying events in the wider world.

Francis Balfour, of Edinburgh law firm Balfour Manson, recorded regular news and observations about the war as well as his own activities and family life.

Ian, his brother Bill and their mother Isobel stayed with relatives in Canada for most of the war. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Ian, his brother Bill and their mother Isobel stayed with relatives in Canada for most of the war. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The diaries have now been published online by his son, Ian Balfour, who followed his father into the family firm but at 83 is now semi-retired.

Ian and his brother Bill went, along with their mother Isobel, to stay with relatives in Canada for most of the war, leaving Francis on his own.

But before that, the family all had to move out of their large house in York Road, Trinity, overlooking the Forth, because it had been requisitioned by the Navy.

Amid fears of bombing, they opted to move out of the city, to Harvieston House, a boarding house, near Gorebridge.

Princes St station gave first real impression of war; pitch dark, sand-bagged everywhere.

Francis Balfour

Ian recalls: “It was owned by Mrs Mackay, a fairly formidable landlady. You could go for a night or a week or as we did, nine or ten months.

“We rented the whole of the top floor.

“Father drove or took the train from Gorebridge station into the office. We went to the local school at Eskbank.

“The idea was to get away from the threat of bombing – you were eight or ten miles out of the city, but it wasn’t too far to commute.”

Luftwaffe reconnaissance pictures of British warships in the Firth of Forth by the Forth Rail Bridge, 1939.

Luftwaffe reconnaissance pictures of British warships in the Firth of Forth by the Forth Rail Bridge, 1939.

The family travelled to Mull for a holiday just two days before war was declared.

“Got up at 4.30am, and left at 5.30,” recorded Francis in his diary entry for September 1, 1939. “In Oban, reports of Germans invading Poland.”

The following day, a Saturday, he noted: “Grand weather. Farm right on sea, and fine sands. Went to lona in ferry-boat. Everything pointing to war today; papers alarming.”

They went to church on the Sunday, but Francis wrote in his diary: “Student speaking; largely political – our righteous cause, etc. Radio news on getting back – Germans have attacked Poland, chiefly bombing by air. 1500 killed in Poland. Our time limit to Hitler expired at 11am. We are now at war; France fighting with us. Mussolini apparently to stand aloof from Hitler. Hitler thanks him, says he can manage alone.”

Francis Balfour

Francis Balfour

Francis returned early to Edinburgh by train, while Isobel and the boys stayed on a little longer before heading home.

This selection from the diaries covers the early stages of the war.

PART TWO: ‘It’s funny to see learned seniors rush about with tin hats on’

PART THREE: ‘It’s difficult to believe that we are re-united; four years since we were separated’

Sat, Sept 16, 1939: Train to Edinburgh; very hot. No food to be had on train. Swarms of evacuated parents kids returning to Glasgow; had enough of a country life. Princes St station gave first real impression of war; pitch dark, sand-bagged everywhere.

Thurs, Sept 28, 1939: Supplementary Budget out; income tax ½/- per £. Ish and boys had gas masks to carry around.

Friday, Oct 6, 1939: At John Black’s for supper; they took me back in car; great difficulty in seeing road in black-out; no fun driving that way.

Sat, Oct 7, 1939: Lovely day. Bombastic speech by Hitler to-day. Queer war: mostly slanging one another on the radio. No air raids yet, in spite of the prophets, who promised them within ten minutes of war.

Mon, Oct 16, 1939: First air raid on Forth. I crossed bridge half an hour too soon to see it. No sirens sounded. Our cruisers were bombed beneath the Bridge. Four Nazi bombers down. We saw anti-aircraft fire in town.

Mon, Oct 30, 1939: Another air raid today; several down. One was chased over the Pentlands, back over Dalkeith, and was finally grassed at Humbie. We have had the sirens once or twice now. First time I was in Mackies, and we all retired to the kitchen and watched the dough experts at work. Also had a short spell in the Shelters in Princes Street Gardens. Nothing to be seen except our own Spitfires streaking across the sky.

Fri, Nov 24, 1939: First experience at a Conscientous Objectors’ Tribunal; the lad getting exemption from military service.

Tues, Nov 28, 1939: Lunch a Crawford’s with Bill when the sirens went off. We just sat on and finished lunch. No planes appeared.

Sun, Dec 31, 1939: Hogmanay. Nobody sat up at Harvieston to bring in the New Year. No whistles or hooters, of course.

Tues, Feb 20, 1940: Much excitement caused by a shell from Inchkeith, fired to warn a ship from entering the minefield, going through a house in Salamander Street.

Tues, Apr 23, 1940: Budget Day. Stamps up to 2.5d, income tax 7/6, tobacco and drink up.

Fri, May 10, 1940: The Nazis have invaded Holland and Belgium, without warning. They specialise in Fifth Column work – secret preparation by spies and local Nazis; and are making great use of parachute troops, fully armed, and disguised as Dutch or Belgians, clergymen, or even women.

The Government is to be radically changed; Chamberlain is the scapegoat for the Norwegian failure, and will be replaced by Winston Churchill. To-night, Ish and I went to see a house, Burnbrae, at Cockpen, which may be vacant in the autumn.

Tues, May 21, 1940: The General Assembly started; a shadow of its former self. No procession, etc. War still going very seriously. The Nazis claim that they have already won. That remains to be seen. The British Govt is rushing thro’ an Act to mobilise the whole nation; it means conscription of wealth and population.

Sat, May 25, 1940: I went this afternoon to see a bungalow in Gorebridge, Fairshiels, which might do us; put in an offer of £675. Thought we could always re-sell after the war ends, if it ever does.

Tues, May 28, 1940: Perhaps the worst news today since the war began. The King of the Belgians has capitulated, tho’ against the wishes of the army and ministers of state. The BEF may be cut off and annihilated. Humanly speaking, the position is as grave as can be, but Churchill says we will fight on.

Tues, June 4, 1940: Tremendous heat wave continues. The boys play in the river, in bathing suits. Meantime the great evacuation from Dunkirk is finishing. We have saved 350,000 men. Today I began as a learner at the War Room, 25 Palmerston Place, as I feel I ought to do some kind of service. The war has been brought nearer to us now, by the removal of all signposts which might help enemy parachutists and by the erection of stone barricades across the roads, e,g, near Gilmerton.

Mon, June 10, 1940: Spent the morning at the War Room – first time on duty alone. News tonight that Italy has entered the war. Great outburst of indignation all over the world at this needless step. Sailors and others have wrecked many ice-cream shops in Leith and Edinburgh and elsewhere.

Wed, June 19, 1940: Invested in a portable radio set today, in Cockburn Street. It will save us going downstairs and we can get the news at any time.

Wed, June 26, 1940: Last night we had our first real taste of War. The sirens went off at midnight – very eerie in the darkness. Fortunately the boys did not waken. We heard the Nazi planes clearly, and later there was gunfire, followed by several explosions. A house near West Calder was struck and two people killed.

Thurs, June 27, 1940: Relieved JR Philip at the War Room this morning. Nazi planes were over last night again; bombed Dalmeny Woods, thro’ which we so often walked, and shattered the windows in Lord Rosbery’s house, setting the woods on fire also.

Sat, July 6, 1940: Torrential thunderstorm this morning. Was in bus at Newtongrange on way home when sirens went. I stayed in the bus. No planes appeared.

Mon, July 8, 1940: At War Room this morning. The mutual destruction goes on. Britain has raided Libyan harbours, sunk Italian transports, bombed Germany again, damaging aerodromes, docks, transports, and sunk five German ships off Norway by mines; the Nazis continue their day and night air raids here, mostly in England. From tomorrow, tea is to be rationed – 2oz per person weekly.

Tues, July 16, 1940: Edinburgh looks more warlike than ever, with machine-gun nests erected in brick at strategic points – the GPO, Liberton cross-roads, etc. Elwyn has covered our front windows at the office with adhesive muslin, as a protection against HE blast.

Fri, July 19, 1940: Order that no new cars to be bought privately henceforward. Bad for the trade. This evening a Nazi plane bombed Leith, demolishing a tenement in George Place and killing about eight people. There were no sirens,

Mon, July 22, 1940: Another raid – on Leith Docks. Albert Dock, and Seafield Hospital involved. Devlin’s fish store. Lower Granton Road was gutted by incendiary bombs.

Wed, July 24, 1940: The interim Budget is out: Income Tax increased to 8/6; Beer and tobacco duties increased, and all wages and salaries to have income tax deducted at the source. In the Sheriff Court, the first fines have been imposed upon careless car owners for failing to render cars inoperative when unused. Had a nice walk with Ish tonight, to Borthwick, along the valley.

Fri, Aug 2, 1940: Had the sirens again last night. Nazi planes have been dropping leaflets, containing Hitler’s latest speech. It seems a futile thing, when the leaflets were fully quoted in our press.

Sat, Aug 3, 1940: The shipping agents phoned to say that passages have come through for Ish and the boys. It was a strange sensation to think of their going, even tho’ prepared for it. This was a lovely day, and we had a picnic at the river. Nazi planes raided Portobello tonight, but bombs did not explode.

Fri, Aug 9, 1940: Phoned darling Ish at Whitakers; perhaps the last time I will hear her voice for a long time.

Fri, Aug 23, 1940: At Sheriff Court this morning with John Black, charged with leaving a light showing. He made quite an eloquent speech himself. Fined £1, all the same. At War Room 4-7.30 and again all night.

Sun, Sept 29, 1940: Bombs at 5am. A distillery in Dalry, and the new houses at Crewe Toll. Two children killed, 14 people injured, at latter. The Dalry place was blazing when I passed on the bus.

Mon, Oct 7, 1940: Sirens at 8, but not before a tremendous explosion outside that shook the house. Sirens again at 10, till midnight. Then from 3.50 to 5am. A more distant bomb the last time. The first bomb was in Roseneath Place, round the corner; it broke the windows in Marchmont Crescent and Warrender Park Crescent as well. Apparently no casualties, but owing to a time-bomb, all the houses were evacuated at midnight.

Mon, Dec 30, 1940: London has had a terrible incendiary raid; much of City part-burned; We have retaliated by raiding Bremen with 20,000 incendiary bombs. How stupid and mad it all is.

• The diaries are online at