Alice Pidgeon spent most of her childhood and adolescent years in St John Grooms Home for little girls, an orphanage in the South of England, where she was sent to live with her sister, after their parents died.
There is no definitive mention of politics or protest throughout her memoir, but Alice describes in detail some of the trials she faced when plunged into society after living in the orphanage. She details the problems she encountered, the characters she met and the general ways of society during the early 1900’s, which in turn reflect on the politics of the time.
Her life in the orphanage was good; she was well fed, clothed and cared for and she and her sister Doris had many happy memories there. However, Alice states in her description of her adult life, that she has lived a very sheltered life in the orphanage, and that she did not understand the way of the world.
Both her mother and father died of illness. Her father was a long-term sufferer of consumption, and he used to carry on working, in his role as a reporter for the Daily Chronicle, against the doctor’s wishes. As Alice states, there was no National Health then, so men would have to keep on ‘until they dropped’ (p6).
When the girls of the orphanage left school, they would become house-girls, where they would assist in the upkeep of the home and they received 3d per week. At the age of fourteen the girls would leave the orphanage and go to live with relatives. Most girls went into ‘good service’ which was work in offices and shops. But Alice
recalls, with great awe, how one girl went to work as second maid to Winston Churchill before then going to work for one of the King George V doctors.
There is an air of great respect when Alice refers to governmental or royal persons of the time. She reveres those of power, but this comes from an innocence and naivety which she later discusses.
She remembers a time when she saw King George v in his car with Queen Mary, and her astonishment at seeing someone of such stature is astounding.
But her real sense of the politics and class-systems of the time comes at the age of seventeen, when she finally leaves the orphanage to live with the Jamesons who were some old family friends. She enjoyed her time with them, to begin with. But this was her first experience of being in, what could be deemed, the real world. After living a very sheltered life at the orphanage where she was surrounded by girls of a similar age and stature, she was unaccustomed to the class systems that were in place in society.
Alice was badly bullied by the nurse who lived with the Jamesons, and was not used to such treatment. As she states,
‘I was like a glorified under-nurse and I was very naïve for seventeen’ (p9)
Alice goes on to further demonstrate her lack of knowledge of the class system when applying for a position as a nanny and suggested that the lady wrote to John Grooms for a reference.
‘The reference was evidently satisfactory so she wrote to engage me. I could write a good letter but had no idea how to write a business letter so I just wrote what I felt. I had no idea there was such thing as class distinction, so, this is how I replied:- Dear Mrs… /… and I finished up with heaps of love from yours affectionately, Alice Hodson.
She wrote back saying she was very sorry but had since made other arrangements’ (p9)
Alice writes in her memoir, with the help of hindsight, ‘Perhaps she thought I did not know my place’ (p9). This was Alice’s first insight into class and how the politics of society worked.
‘I had no idea there was such thing as class distinction. I had a lot to learn…’ (p11)
The unfairness and injustice of the class system in society was a concept that fell heavily on Alice. On applying for a job as a nanny once more, Alice passes over her reference. She requests a reference back from the lady who looked to employ Alice. Alice states her naivety and confusion around the matter, and ponders why she should not be able to see a reference of the person employing her. As she says, ‘this seemed a very one sided affair to me’. (p13)
Society was very segregated and there was a strong emphasis was placed on class distinction.
It was not uncommon, however, and society had been fractured since before Alice was born. People had tried for a long time to bridge the gap. Protests took place and one interesting fact is of the Bolton Whitmanites.
Bolton has strong links to Alice’s story, being Alice’s first home place, and it intrigues me to read the story of the Whitmanites. The group consisted of lower-middle-class men in late-Victorian England who found the American poet, Walt Whitman, an inspiration in their desire to reconcile spirituality, science and socialism. The poet was about to celebrate his sixty-eighth birthday when the men wrote to him, not expecting of a reply. However, Walt did reply and a friendship was developed between the men in Bolton and the American poet, and this friendship was to become an influential part in the political stance in England at the time.
After Walt’s death it was evident that his involvement with the Independent Labour Party had helped to establish Whitman as a patron saint of British socialism. All this came from a small group of men, who took the initiative to speak out to someone who influenced them.
Alice saw difficulty and desperation throughout her life, however, as it took a great amount of time before significant changes happened within society regarding class distinctions. Her husband, Arthur, went on to struggle in his quest for work; often resorting to jobs he was unfit for and in spite of his ill health. As I have written in my blog ‘Life & Labour’; that was the depression of the 30’s, and Alice and Arthur’s situation was not uncommon.
 Robertson, Michael, Professor of English, College of New Jersey, WORSHIPPING WALT, History Today Apr2004, Vol. 54 Issue 4, p46-52. 7p. 5 Color Photographs, 8 Black and White Photographs. Web source. Accessed 25/04/13