Blanche Horton’s Diary
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the first entry in Blanche Horton's diary.
Between 1918 and 1919 thousands of delegates, diplomats and reporters from all over the world arrived in Paris for the Peace Congress. Culminating in the signing of The Treaty of Versailles, the congress set the terms of peace following The First World War.
One person making the trip to France was Blanche Horton. She travelled from London to Paris in December 1918 and kept a diary, recording her experiences. Her diary was a private account of her life, she didn’t think anyone would ever ‘wade through’ the pages. However, her account is an insightful firsthand vision of France just one month after the end of The First World War, as seen through the eyes of a single woman.
Blanche was employed by The General Post Office from 1910 as a Clerk, and undertook an administrative role in Paris from December 1918 until March 1920. Blanche didn’t always record the exact date of her entries, often just writing the day of the week, however our research suggests that her first entry was written 100 years ago, on 11 December 1918.
The diary starts as she drives up the Champs Elysees to her hotel, the Majestic, hoping for a passing Tommy to lift her down the steps of her vehicle. Blanche talks about the excitement of eating Parisian food such as vegetables which are never ‘served in the same way’ twice. This contradicts other accounts of the food on offer at the Majestic. On 6 August 1919, Sir Eyre Crowe, Assistant Under-Secretary of State wrote: ‘on one occasion a noticeable increase of the numbers on the sick list, on a scale approaching an epidemic, was attributed… to the entire and prolonged absence of fresh vegetables’. 
Blanche laughs at an article in The Daily Mail, which incorrectly reported that delegates received an allowance of £25 to ‘be well dressed and chic whilst in Paris’. In reality, Blanche was working long hours at the Astoria hotel, requisitioned for British delegates’ work, in circumstances which must have been difficult. The Astoria was still being used as a military hospital at the end of the war.
On 15 November 1918 the Office of Works requested thorough cleaning as soon as the hospital was demobilized. But after a month of scrubbing, parts of the Astoria were still ‘dirty and [the] stench was unbearable’. Blanche often writes about being exhausted after long days at work. In January 1919, after a Sunday at the office, she writes that the day was an ‘absolute horror – finished at 10.45pm… latest up to now. Still the shorthand typists often work very late so we are not alone in our troubles’.
The huge effort of administering the Peace Congress demanded hundreds of British staff. From November 1918 until April 1919, ‘messages flooded into London demanding more chambermaids, more valets, more cleaners, chefs, waiters, commissionaires, more English-French male reporters, more office keepers, a locksmith, more shorthand typists, more printers, more stokers to deal with “confidential waste,” more typists, and more Girl Guides’.
 There was a shortage of space to accommodate all of the delegates and women were usually housed two or three to a room. The impact of living in such cramped accommodation was frustrating to Blanche who wrote that the Majestic ‘is a rotten hole to be ill in… Even one’s bedroom is not private.’ The housing situation impacted on the delegates’ health and Blanche wrote in January 1919 that ‘a sort of flu is round the whole hotel.’
Peace had only been declared a month before Blanche’s arrival, and the war is never far from her descriptions. Most of the statues at the Madeline were still sandbagged when she visited one Sunday just before Christmas 1918.
Blanche describes Paris as very busy and writes about spotting political and military leaders. She watched the ‘King of Italy + his son drive down the Champs Elysee’ from the second floor of the Astoria hotel, remarking that ‘one could only distinguish between them by the moustache of one.’
In January, Blanche stayed up late to catch a glimpse of Marshal Foch who had dined at her hotel. In April she ‘went down to meet admiral Beatty’ who she describes as ‘more adorable than ever’.
Many of Blanche’s entries give an idea of the restrictions she lived under as a woman. Blanche was expected to adhere to a curfew and women were chaperoned. However, she and her friends often ignored the rules so they could enjoy socialising after dark in Paris. On the 16 January 1919, Blanche ‘went to the pictures… without permission! Nearly bashed into Miss Bingham just outside the hotel entrance so I rushed… across the road… Returned about 11pm and slipped safely in.’
Blanche often refers to the men she encounters, and frequently comments on the lack of them. She had a very quiet new year after being assured that the ‘guards band and about 50 officers [would] appear for our benefit’. Unfortunately, no band and no officers arrived. She explains that in her hotel there is approximately one man to every 50 girls.
Blanche describes her Christmas in Paris as three separate tragedies. The first tragedy was waking late, and almost missing breakfast. The second tragedy was not receiving any letters. The third tragedy happened at a Christmas day dance. Blanche wore her best gown, complete with scarf. And even though there were plenty of Tommies and waiters, none gave any ‘advance at all’ even though she ‘gave one shocking glad eyes’.
We’ll be sharing extracts from the second half of Blanche’s diary in the summer, to coincide with the centenary of the signing of Treaty of Versailles.
– Joanna Espin, Curator
- Behind the Scenes at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919’, Sally Marks, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2 (May, 1970), p.168.
- Ibid., p. 163.
- Ibid., p.173.