The depression of the 1930’s, has great significance in Alice Pidgeon’s memoir.
Orphaned at just six years of age, Alice and her sister Doris went to live in St John Groom’s Home for little girls.
Before devastation struck the Pidgeon family, however, Alice recalls a hard-working and devoted family. Her father, a reported for the Daily Chronicle, would work late into the night. Alice remembers hearing his typewriter in action even in the late hours. Her mother was a high-class dressmaker, and would sit up sewing for hours after her daughters had gone to sleep. Her parents worked hard to earn a living. Her father who was frequently bed-ridden due to consumption, would often leave his sick bed early so that he could get back to work, despite the doctor’s wishes.
It was this attitude and strong work ethic that Alice herself carried on into her adult life. She worked as a nanny. With a strong compassion for others and a patient, caring nature, she found enjoyment in the care of youngsters. She moved from family to family, the majority of whom embraced her into their family and welcomed her hard work. One particular family gave her a terrible experience, but Alice did not let this stop her from carrying on with her work as a nanny.
She describes how she traipsed across counties in the North of England, looking for work and attending interviews. With very little money, she walked for three days with only tea and hot lemon to drink and not a bite to eat. After collapsing on the pavement whilst walking through the night, she willed herself not to faint.
She made her way from Fallowfield, through Manchester and on to Farnworth where her sister Doris was staying with their aunt. After devouring some steak she slept for fourteen hours, waking up to find her feet swollen and bruised. This was the price she paid for her dedication to finding work. She knew that she either worked tirelessly to find a job, or else she would become unemployed or end up trapped in the job she was in, where she was for the first and only time, treated with cruelty and contempt.
Reading this section of Alice’s memoir I was reminded of a poem by Samuel Bamford, as follows;
GOD help the poor, who on this wintry morn
Come forth of alleys dim, and courts obscure!
God help yon poor pale girl, who droops forlorn,
And meekly her affliction doth endure!
God help the outcast lamb! she trembling stands,
All wan her lips, and frozen rod her hands;
Her mournful eyes are modestly down cast,
Her night-black hair streams on the fitful blast;
Her bosom, passing fair, is half reveal’d,
And, oh! so cold, the snow lies there congeal’d;
Her feet benumb’d, her shoes all rent and worn:
God help thee, outcast lamb, who stand’st forlorn!
God help the poor!
Samuel Bamford, ‘God Help the Poor’
Read by Chartist John Barton in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848)
Fortunately she was successful in getting the job as a nanny in Fallowfield and was very happy there. She later moved on to look after the cousin of those children she’d cared for in Fallowfield and she made good friends with a young lady named Nellie.
Alice worked hard and showed dedication to her work, proving resilience and acknowledging the fact that unemployment and poverty were very easily come upon.
After meeting and dating a young chap named Arthur, she married. The first thing Alice describes about Arthur in their early days of marriage is his occupation and his dedication to his job. ‘Arthur had worked for a firm conscientiously for ten years on nights, but during the thirties the firm decided to bring in some younger men…’ (p15) A good work ethic was something Alice clearly admired in her husband, and she saw the importance of his ‘conscientiousness’. This line also leads to the topic of the Great Depression.
The depression was precipitated by the stock market crash in America in 1929, which then took its toll on the rest of the world. In Britain it meant that unemployment rocketed, benefits were cut dramatically, so that people who were only just getting by, had to pay out even more.
It was common for most working class families to earn just enough to survive. After two and a half years of unemployment for Arthur, he had just about given up hope. He, like Alice had done previously, traipsed across the country in search for work, where he encountered hundreds of other men applying for the very same jobs as himself. This was the situation of the thirties. Nobody appeared to be better off than anybody else, chances were slim.
Alice and Arthur grew their own vegetables and did all of their own shoe and sewing repairs to save money through this difficult time. There was a slim line between being frivolous and having no other option but to choose the cheaper option. Instead of taking the bus to town to look for work, Arthur would walk. Through all weathers he would march on in search for employment.
Alice, again, sees the good in her husband. His dedication to his family and to giving them a better life was the most important thing to her and his most endearing feature. She says:
‘No one was a more conscientious worker given the chance to work, but after hundreds of disappointments, any man would have lost hope. These were the days of the depression the thirties, thousands carry the scars of those experiences in their hearts to this day.’ (p17)
Thankfully, Arthur was soon to find work as a library porter. It broke Alice’s heart to see her husband struggle and continually be disappointed, but she admired his bravery and commitment. Working class Britain was united in its anger against the lack of work and in their desperation to feed and clothe their family.
Alice carried on sewing to make extra money through the unemployment phase. She got a job working as a daily nanny to a three week old baby while Arthur was unemployed, but, she says, when Arthur told the Labour exchange about her work, a chunk was deducted from their unemployment pay. So much so, that it was hardly worth while Alice went out to work.
It is interesting to see how some aspects of the society in which Alice lived, actually corresponds to the society we are in now. The extent of the recession in current times is not so grave as the thirties, but spirits are often just as low and benefits are, once again, to be cut.