As a child, home and family were extremely important for Alfred Ireson. His strict religious upbringing has evidently instilled a sense of family-orientation and intense community spirit in the same way that Carolyn Steedman believes that ‘children, when they grow older, express gratitude for the harsh discipline meted out to them.’(16).
As an adult however, a mystery begins to emerge surrounding his wife and children, with little mention in his memoir of his children’s childhood or his marriage to Eliza.
Respect and admiration for his parents is a common theme in the beginnings of his memoir, a telling portrayal of the relationships between youth and their elders in the 19th century. His days of journeying around the country meant that his rare returns home were ‘echoed with joyous notes of God’s goodness’ (16), and hospitality from his parents, siblings and his hometown community moved him to feelings of comfort as well as sadness of the life that he has left behind. A brief description of his family home as a child further accentuates this tone of the comfort that home brought him: ‘with its low ceiling and cosy appearance’ (Part 2, 27). ‘Wonderful expanses of meadowland stretches itself all round’ making it ‘a haven of rest and delight’ made cheerful by his dear Mother. Contrary to other working-class memoirs, Alf’s home, though humble, does not display the popular stereotype of destitution and poverty. Instead he assures us that this home has been imperative in creating the good man he becomes as his life goes on.
He talks of his sister Annie and his mother in a most favourable way, stating they are ‘two of the most precious earth ties I have had in my life’ (Part 2, 25). He assumes that his love for his only sister Annie’s ‘affectionate nature’ may be due to her taking after the Spencer family (his mother’s side) like himself, while his brothers ‘were of the Ireson type’. Likewise, his Mother was a focus of love in his life; with her ‘sincere piety…her kindly thoughts and tender prayers were Heaven’s best gift’ (8). Hardly anything is said about his Father and brothers, giving the impression that Alf was connected much more deeply with the women in his family. He relates his Father’s temper at Alf’s constant crying as a baby, when he took the crying Alf , put him in a sack and ‘swung him from the top of the stairs over the bannisters’ (7), claiming he was going to drop the ‘squalling brat’ (8) down the staircase. This may obviously be a family tall-tale, but the absence of Alfred Senior does create an air of interest surrounding this particular character.
His childhood family life fell under the ‘poverty-stricken days’ (10) of the ‘Hungry Sixties’, which left his Mother having to adapt herself and her children to the appalling economic times of country life, in order to make ends meet. Alf’s Father’s stonemasonry work meant he worked away, only coming home for weekends, leaving his Mother Hannah to become self-sufficient to a degree. ‘She taught us all to sew and knit, and net’ (10) with them often having to walk around 15 miles to reach anywhere, or taking a ride on ‘Shank’s pony’ (10). However tough it may seem, especially for single parents, life as a child in the ‘free open country provides fun and mischief for boys, and girls alike’ (11)
Alf’s wife, Eliza, whom he met in Gloucester, was a dressmaker when they met; with Alf’s unfavourable description of her stating that she ‘appeared short and stout…reserved’ (59). This is one of the few descriptions that poor Eliza gets, with Alf outlining her sisters in a more favourable light even. At the time of writing the memoir, women were still not seen as having the importance that men had, especially when talking about work, which Alf does tirelessly. According to David Vincent, ‘disconnection between their family experience and their intellectual and moral selves is partly to be found in their attitude towards women’ (1980, 227). This may foreshadow Eliza’s absence in the memoir as it rigorously explores elements of his missionary working life away from home more so, which worked hand in hand with his search for complete morality and contentment as a Christian, rather than any home experiences amongst family. Gagnier has also found that ‘men refer more to their jobs or occupations (their social status)’ more so than women who ‘refer far more frequently to their husbands or lovers and children’ (1987, 355). This further coincides with the critical idea that ‘where courtship had to take place over a long distance, communication was tenuous’ (Vincent, 1980, 227), which may mean that at the time of Alf’s recollections, his marital relationship may have been at a turbulent episode due to distance, and therefore, requires little recall for Alf within his collection of mainly happy memories.
Many friends expressed concern over Alf’s ‘spirit of restlessness’ (78) in regards to his marriage to Eliza thanks to his rambling man days.
He is a roamer. He’ll never settle down.”(79)
But this fear never came to be. He went on to have children with Eliza, and presumably spent a joyous and content life with her, prophesied by a character called ‘dear old dad Harris’:
I knew he would come out right, and that we would be proud of him.” (79)
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363
Ireson, Alfred. ‘Reminiscences’, TS, pp.175 (c.35,000 words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of childhood, education andfamily from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.82-8. Brunel University Library.
Steedman, Carolyn. Landscape for a Good Woman, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987, 16.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247.
Great Fen: 1700-1900 Map. Web. Accessed 18th December 2015. http://www.greatfen.org.uk/heritage/maps/1700-1900
Peterborough Images: Whittlesey Railway Station. Web. Accessed 19th December 2015. http://www.peterboroughimages.co.uk/blog/whittlesey-railway-station/