“Class was dreadfully important then. It often puzzled me.”
Bessie Wallis’s family was working class. She makes no effort to hide this fact in her memoir. The “poverty-stricken” district in which she lived is a clear example of the limitations that come from being working class. It shaped the interactions Bessie and the people around her had with others, mainly those with different profession or from different areas of the country. For example, when families from parts of England and Scotland moved in to the village into semi-detached housing of a much better standard than those of the local miners already living there, the foreigner children at school were berated by Yorkshire children due to this jealousy, “Class reared it’s ugly head.”
An interesting snippet regarding class includes an interaction between Bessie’s brother Danny and a local middle-class woman. She needed to get past a gate while on a horse and told Danny “Open this gate, boy!” The working class mining boy retorted “Who do you think you are ordering about?” The story of this woman, Lady Jane, trying and failing to find the identity of Danny was retold to Bessie by a “delighted” servant as “No one liked Lady Jane.” This shows a misunderstanding between the two parties, with the lower-class mocking and defying the supposedly more “respectable” class without any backlash.
Danny expresses his disgust at her entitlement, “If that’s how the gentry are taught at their posh schools, i’m glad i’m working class!” In this there is a sense that working class is actually better because of their attitudes to others and supposed lack of conceitedness.
The servant delighting in Lady Jane’s failures reminds me of the turbulent relationship between Bessie and her Aunt, illustrating that although the lower-class may serve and the upper-classes, this duty was very separate from their personal dislike of their employer, and was an unspoken issue. Bessie even admits when she was nearing the end of her time there that
“The dislike between Aunt and myself was, by now, very strong on both sides.”
There were definitely ways that the middle class tried to keep the working-class in their place, such as with the sheep dog trials held by the owner of a local vast estate. Bessie reports that he would “not have dreamed of holding the show just for the miners.” explaining that “He hated miners too much.” Since he chose the judge, “Most of his tenant farmers entered for the sheep dog trials and they usually won hands-down.” This shows how hatred for the lower class fueled prejudices even when it came to competitions and an event that is meant to be unbiased is infiltrated by class grudges.
This sort of favouritism also was present in the mines, “A very fortunate few worked in the pit offices but this depended entirely upon whom one knew – and not what one might know!” This nepotism ensured that the powerful figures and their friends could maintain the safest and most secure jobs within the district.
A large portion of Bessie’s exposure to class expectations was while she was a servant to her Aunt and Uncle. Even before then, however, she could sense the difference between her cousins and herself, “It was not easy to say I had been the odd one out or that I had felt to ill at ease with my cousins. Dick and Lucy were such frightful snobs!” This highlights how class relations are practiced even as young children, learnt from their upbringing.
Bessie remembers in school when “the wealthier children used to sneer” but she reflected at that young age whether “expensive games like tennis and private swimming lessons compare to the fun of our street games?” In this way Bessie wasn’t upset by this sneering but took pride in the fun she had without needing the money.
In Domestic Service and Class Relations in Britain 1900–1950 by Todd, S the text discusses the role of young girls in servitude to upper-class families, pointing out that “many working-class mothers wanted their daughters
to enter service, even when other forms of employment were available, because it socialized girls into class and gender subordination.” this links with Bessie’s experience such as when her parents forbade her to be a pupil-teacher. By forcing young girls in these positions parents hoped their daughters would learn how to behave appropriately.
This “transition from school to employment frequently sharpened a girl’s sense of her class, often negatively.” Bessie did reflect that her experience made her feel old beyond her years.
Despite this there was particular “neglect” of working-class servants “by the labour movement.” This is speculated that it is because “These lackeys of the rich were not attractive to trade unions, and few of them were adult men.” As a result the struggles of young working-class women who made up the majority of the servant population remained ignored by the bolstering forces of the Labour movement of the time.
At the same time, the existence of services meant “Middle-class women” like Bessie’s Aunt could “Lead increasingly independent lives without challenging the sexual and class divisions of labour.” Meaning that working-class women took over household labours so that middle-class women could exercise free time without the guilt of ignoring her womanly responsibilities.
It’s not as if Bessie has a completely uneasy relationship with upper-classes, however, as she admits, “Before I went away I’d had a number of friends from wealthy families.” implying that the barriers between the classes are not as rigid as they could be and whether conflict takes place is based on the amiability of the individual.
Bessie’s upbringing in a poverty stricken working-class village meant that she grew up around class hostility and oppression, knowing very well from the start that she was disadvantaged and that her future would be affected as a result. Like her brother Danny she stood up for herself against what was expected from her by her parents and employer while also in a role ignored by movements designed to relieve the oppression of the working class.
Bessie’s memoir highlights issues such as children being taught class behaviours from a very young age and nepotism means favouritism was very much in practice when it comes to different classes competing against each other. Interestingly enough, both cases of class rebellion (Danny and Bessie herself) resulted in them leading lives with much more success and independence than their parents had ever experienced.
Todd, S., 2009. Domestic Service and Class Relations in Britain 1900–1950 Past and Present, 203(1), pp.181–204.
J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982)