‘I thought you might be interested in the cutting green to me by a woman from Collyhurst[.]’ (1)
The turn of the twentieth century brought about much cultural change, political upheaval, and economic depression, prompting the dawn of many turbulent decades as Britain initiated its ascent towards modernity. An age of transition had begun, and few were more affected by such social unrest than the working classes of Northern England, particularly working-class women. Providing an intriguing insight, Hilda Swettenham’s memoir embodies what it means to be a working-class woman in the early-1900s. Unconstrained by the linear narrative structure of other working-class autobiographies, the memoir ‘self-reflexively mediate[s] on the fragmentary nature of […] the workings of memory’ (Rogers and Cuming, 2019, 185), constructing a patchwork of personal memories and local history. Describing her early-working life in Collyhurst, an inner-city area of Manchester, Hilda introduces issues of class and gender in the interwar years, undertaking a nuanced and intimate perspective to discuss sensational memories which hold ‘symbolic value in the formation of the individual’s personality’ (Vincent, 1980, 225).
While her biographical entry does not provide a date in which the memoir was written, Hilda’s retrospective narration indicates a sense of hindsight which adds a nostalgic quality to the memoir. Written almost as a bitter-sweet love letter to Collyhurst, the author reminisces about its ‘community spirit’ (25) as opposed to the ‘slums’ (24) that have since replaced the town of her childhood. Hilda’s intimate and loving memories of her young adulthood are also grounded within Collyhurst, expressing a sense of sentimentality towards this central setting, writing that ‘we shall not see your like again’ (25). The influence of Collyhurst is engrained in the voice, language and style of the memoir. Written as if to a friend, the voice of a Northern working-class woman resonates through intimate descriptions and comical anecdotes which create a tone of humour, and the use of colloquial language and Northern slang are further indications of the author’s identity. Like many working-class autobiographies, Hilda’s 2,500-word-long, handwritten manuscript was ‘unpublished and largely unedited [with] a number if visible corrections’ (Rogers and Cuming, 2019, 184), so even through the underlining and crossing-out, it is clear to see her vibrant personality glaring through the pages. For example, she observes a neighbour being ‘arrested for obscene behaviour’ (23) and discusses ‘smells good and bad’ (13).
Hilda’s life seems to begin at fourteen years of age when she was employed at her first job in a shirt-making factory. She describes the trials and tribulations of the sewing trade in the 1920s-30s, detailing the worker rights and poor conditions she experienced, as well as providing comprehensive explanations of the specific machinery used in this industry. The memoir also discusses gender politics in the workplace, using anecdotal evidence to explore the daily lives of working-class women, while also touching upon ideas of unemployment in the aftermath of the First World War. It is important to address the significance of the title of Hilda’s memoir, ”Early Working Life from 1921 to 1936′, and other autobiographical fragments’, which directs the reader’s attention to the focal subject of her autobiographical writing.
‘When one sees today[’]s children looking bored, one can only feel a little sorry that, with all their material benefits[,] they have lost the ability to hearty laughter[,] the most delightful noise of all[.]’ (21)
While Hilda contributes little detail about her family, barely mentioning the existence of parents, children, a spouse, etc., she refers to some of her relatives in humorous anecdotes. A fragmented family tree can be deduced from the scraps of information provided in the memoir, including the fact that she has three brothers who wore trousers with ‘a most offensive smell’ (18), a ‘Grannie Foster’ who ‘had a cure for every ailment’ (10), and a cousin who ‘was arrested for obscene behaviour’ (23).
Like many working-class autobiographies, a key theme of Hilda’s memoir is the concept of memory. An interesting section of her autobiographical writing centres on the vivid recollection of sensory memories, exhaustively depicting scenes which illustrate the smells and noises of Collyhurst. It is also worth noting that, although there is no explicit reference to the First World War itself, many implicit allusions and scattered memories of the influence of war are littered throughout the narrative, acknowledging ex-servicemen and the impact of war on employment.
Hilda’s autobiographical writing is a fascinating interpretation of working-class history, acting as an amalgamation of ‘the events, the activities and the thoughts of a lifetime’ (Vincent, 1980, 225), which respond to the social norms and cultural practices of her lifetime. While Hilda’s experiences are personal and unique, her memories can be used to reflect the demographic of working-class women from an industrial town in Northern English during the early-twentieth century.
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
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
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: Britain from Above. (1939). The Corporation flats, Queen’s Park and the surrounding residential area, Collyhurst, 1939. Available: https://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/image/EPW061685
Fig. 2: H. E. T. (1880). Collyhurst, Angel Meadow, in 1880 [Drawing]. Manchester Evening News, Manchester. Available: https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/nostalgia/gallery/nostalgia-collyhurst-source-agriculture-coal-11145146