Who were you, Bill Pole?


22 May 2023
The utility clothes, the curly hair. Smiling. Enjoying the outdoors… mucking about in a boat. Helen Tovey reflects on a photograph of her grandmother and the story it tells...

I’ve always loved this photo (above) of Mouse (my granny). She was born in 1921 and looks a very young woman here, her early 20s most likely – do you agree? So this puts her slap bang in the timeframe of the Second World War.

We have photos of her in her elegant WRNS officer uniform from this same period, carefully posed and lit, by society photographer Dorothy Wilding, whose signature is scrawled in pencil across the bottom corner of these images. Stylish photos indeed. However, it’s the photo shown here that I really love.

To see her so young and happy, healthy and beautiful. Not looking as though she has a care in the world. I guess I always half-thought that she was mucking about in that boat with my grandfather, but of course they didn’t meet until just after the war.

So this was a photo I’ve always known. My mum has a copy. I’ve scanned it and loved it, seeing it often over the years when riffling through my digital folders.

Then, last spring, my uncle lent me a box of family albums that I’d never seen before. And on scanning one of the albums [which in my digital sterile world I’ve now called Hallas Album 4] I stumbled once again upon this exact picture of Mouse, among a collection of loose photographs tucked inside at the end.

Now, however, on seeing the photo in the context of the album I realise that a little more of the story has been revealed. 

Here is Mouse in the stern of the boat. But who was the oarsman? The camera changes hands, and she clicks the shutter. Recording him forever. 

A pipe dangling from his mouth, pulling on the oars. As happy and carefree as her. 

Another photo, simply tucked in at the end of the album.

I turn it over. I’m an obsessive for scanning in the back of each photo, just to make sure I don’t miss a clue. There, in Mouse’s neat biro handwriting, is his name. BILL POLE.

So – who were you Bill Pole?


  • My granny’s name was Elizabeth Mary Hallas
  • She served in the WRNS in the Second World War on Sunbeam II in the Helford River, Cornwall. We do know, however, that she was the only woman serving on board, and, as such, wasn’t allowed to sleep on the yacht. Instead, each night she would be rowed ashore. 
  • She worked in the SOE – purely as an admin role – crossing paths with agents and helping them on their way to France.

Do you have a Bill Pole in your family who fits the … bill. If so I’d love to hear from you.

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