Hilda Swettenham (b. ~1907): Researching Writing Lives

‘With all these noises[,] good and bad, it made for an exciting life.’ (24)

Upon my initial reading of Hilda Swettenham’s memoir, I was immediately immersed into her world, just how it was in the early-twentieth century. I knew that her autobiographical writing was so raw and unique that it had to be made ‘attractive and accessible to a public audience’ (Rogers and Cuming, 2019, 189) in order to do her justice. It has been such a pleasure to work so closely with her memoir, taking a deep dive into her life and memories through the intimate and intriguing autobiographical writing. ‘‘Early Working Life from 1921 to 1936’, and other autobiographical fragments’ offers a thought-provoking and ‘unique insigh[t]’ (Vincent, 1980, 224) into working-class lives, particularly in relation to women in the Northern textile industry during the early-twentieth century.

I have had little prior experience with blogging, having used this literary form only once before on the Prison Voices module last year, so I was eager to get to grips with his style of writing once more. During this collaborative research project on the Writing Lives website, I have gained many new skills and perspectives about the online research process, including my newfound fascination with contemporary photographs and sketches which depict what life was like at the turn of the century.

As a researcher, I have learned how to take seemingly random and insignificant fragments of information and stitch them together to create a broader picture, allowing me to make wider observations and contribute my findings to public history. The problem, however, with this approach is that autobiographical writing is ‘necessarily subjective in form and limited in number’ (Vincent, 1980, 224), meaning that it is often difficult to make all-encompassing statements about the working class in general. The fact that ‘autobiograph[ies] contain[n] certain inherent distortions and biases’ (Rose, 2001, 2), means that ‘memoirists are not entirely representative of their class’ (Rose, 2001, 2). Despite this, the Writing Lives collaborative research project has taught me about the intimate and subjective nature of the memoir, allowing me to understand the lives and memories of working-class people on an individual level.

‘Goodbye to the old Collyhurst, we shall not see your like again[.]’ (25)

Social media has played a major role in my research on Hilda’s life and memories, particularly on sites like Twitter and Facebook where I was able to discover many of my scholarly secondary sources and visual aids. Never before have I found community pages and local history forums so useful, as they have given me access to provincial information and personal knowledge that I could never have found in any history book or online journal. Twitter has been especially helpful in enabling me to contact fellow students and scholars, share research and advertise my blog posts to people who are genuinely interested in the Writing Lives collaborative research project.

I am so thankful to have taken part in this project and to have learnt so much about Hilda’s fascinating life and memories. I have taken such an incredible journey with our Collyhurst author, and I hope that I have been successful in my attempt to ‘‘bring to life’ the author and the memoir’ (Rogers and Cuming, 2019, 189). Considering I was not even aware that a place called Collyhurst even existed, I think I have gone far since I first picked up Hilda’s memoir. Her autobiographical writing is such a ‘rare commodity’ (Vincent, 1980, 224), a goldmine rich with social history and local knowledge, and she has inspired me to delve into the past experiences of my own family.

‘Goodbye to [Hilda Swettenham], we shall not see your like again’ (25)!


Primary Sources

Swettenham, Hilda. ”Early Working Life from 1921 to 1936′, and other autobiographical fragments’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 1790-1945 (3 volumes). John Burnett, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds.). Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989. 2:0750. Available: http://www.writinglives.org/uncategorized/hilda-swettenham-b-1907-biographical-entry

Secondary Sources

Rogers, Helen and Cuming, Emily. ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant Reading of Working-Class Autobiography’. Family & Community History 21:3 (February 2019), 180-201. Available: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14631180.2018.1555951?needAccess=true

Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of British Working Classes. London: Yale University Press, 2001. Available: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ljmu/detail.action?pq-origsite=primo&docID=3421599

Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth Century Working Class’. Social History 5:2 (May 1980), 223-247. Available: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4284976?sid=primo&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents


Fig. 1: Illustration depicting a young woman writing a letter whist sitting at her desk, using a writing slope, dated 19th century. Available: https://www.alamy.com/illustration-depicting-a-young-woman-writing-a-letter-whilst-sitting-at-her-desk-using-a-writing-slope-dated-19th-century-image186318744.html

Fig. 2: Screenshot of the handwritten manuscript of Hilda’s memoir. Swettenham, Hilda, ‘Early Working Life from 1921 to 1936’, and other autobiographical fragments, MS, pp.24 (c.2,500 words). Brunel University Library.

If you are interested in doing any further reading about life in Collyhurst and surrounding areas during the early-twentieth century, here are some interesting contemporary books which include autobiographical, historical and critical writing, recommended by Friends of Angel Meadow https://www.friends-of-angel-meadow.org/, a Manchester-based organisation which aims to protect and improve Angel Meadow Park and St. Michaels’ Flag.

Bertenshaw, Mary. Sunrise to Sunset: An Autobiography of Mary Bertenshaw. Manchester, BBC Radio Manchester, 1991.

Jones, William Kenneth. Different Times: A view of life in inner Manchester during the first decades of the Twentieth Century. Hertford: Authors OnLine Ltd, 2005.

Kirby, Dean. Angel Meadow: Victorian Britain’s Most Savage Slum. South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2016.

Phillips, Alan. This Collyhurst Kid (Volumes 1 & 2). Web. Accessed 7th May 2021. Available: https://www.all-things-considered.org/?fbclid=IwAR0Im8X4OD-8D8Z1bd3vj7R55szWoRhAl_1frsmIjQKXB_dRtJO3ddEUzJE

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