May was born in the early 1890s to a family with a farm-working tradition, in Trusthorpe, a small Lincolnshire village near Sutton-on-Sea and Mablethorpe. When May was eight years old the family moved ten miles down the coast, nearer to Skegness, to a seaside village, Chapel St Leonards. May developed a love of books and poetry at her new school where she met Will Hill, her future husband, marrying him in 1912. They remained in Chapel, where Will, after serving away on land-duties during the Great War, became established as a carrier of light farm-goods and people, at first equipped with pony and trap and later a motor vehicle.
Skegness had continued to grow in popularity as a major seaside resort since before the turn of the century. The nearby smaller resorts, including Chapel, attracted increasing numbers of holiday visitors with each new decade, swelling the summer populations. By the 1930s May, like many fellow-villagers, was accepting holiday-makers as paying guests. In 1936, the first Butlins holiday camp opened in Skegness with great acclaim, further boosting the reputation of the area as a holiday centre. However, the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 changed the situation dramatically. Lincolnshire, with much flat landscape near the East Coast, assumed great strategic importance as an ideal location for military airfields from which to launch bombing raids. Centres for training RAF and Army recruits were set up in the Skegness area and almost overnight Butlins was transformed to become ‘HMS Royal Arthur’, a huge Royal Navy training centre. Chapel St Leonards soon became home for several serving officers. Many Army recruits were billeted in houses near May’s home and the whole area took on the character of an armed encampment.
Within a few months of the commencement of the War, May began to keep a Diary, recording and commenting on happenings both local and across the world. These eloquent comprehensive Diaries and her Poetry, which reflected her thoughts and prayers, have come to light at different times over a number of years and have been affectionately transcribed by her grandchildren. The selection of Diary entries presented in the compilation within the book ‘The Casualties Were Small’ has been chosen to include those which reveal the specific experiences and events which inspired her Poetry. Whilst many episodes held most significance for the family and the close-knit village community, major wartime events such as the capitulation of Italy and the coming of the Second Front – ‘D-Day’ are featured.
As the first Diary has unfortunately never been recovered, the earliest quoted entries are from autumn 1940. May’s immediate family members were then: Will, husband (always referred to as ‘Father’ or ‘Fa’) who was serving as a wartime coastguard, Rene, grown-up daughter, who lived as a housekeeper elsewhere in the village and was a Red Cross member, Ron, who had just volunteered for service in the RAF, and Jean, a pupil in her second year at senior school.
The Diaries refer to many of May and Will’s other close relatives, who included around forty nieces and nephews, most living in or near the village. Several of these had been drawn into war service and the early Diary entries showed that some of the other servicemen stationed in the village were beginning to be regarded as part of the extended family …