Bessie Wallis (b. 1904) Habits and Beliefs part 2

Now that I have discussed the habits and beliefs of children as documented by Bessie Wallis I will now focus on the attitudes of the adults in the community.

Firstly, I realize that Bessie talks a lot about the behaviour of her father, a figure she seems to have high respect for and whom she states is popular within the village. Therefore I consider discussing his habits and beliefs will be a good place to start.

He was a frequent in the pubs where he had “singing engagements” in which he played the role as a “Minstrel and sing Foster’s songs accompanying himself on his ‘G’ string banjo.” This alludes to a culture of musical appreciation. This came with a problematic side though as he “usually came home worse for drink” and he “could not say no!”. The fact that this was a common occurrence implies that this behaviour was tolerated and perhaps encouraged due to the money he brought back.

The character he plays includes “black-face” and Bessie’s mother helped darken his face with soot before he had these arrangements. The Foster he mentions is Stephen Foster, a composer who wrote songs specifically written for black-face minstrel shows. It is not discussed whether this was considered racist or not but this sort of behaviour would be regarded as discriminatory now. It seemed to be a big hit with the locals, however.

Although he mentions these acts of performing and getting drunk, Bessie’s discourse on her father suggests the work ethic of the populace, “For sixteen years my father had done a strenuous job. He never missed a day’s work.” It highlights the strength of both mind and body of her father and what was expected of the male relatives of the family in the mining industry.

Although their livelihoods depended on the pits, there was a strong belief of unity in the village. For example, when the buzzer sounded announcing a casualty of the pit, “The pit always stood idle the next day as a token of respect to the dead man’s family.” There was a sense of community and respect for those who risked their lives and also respect for the family. So even though this meant a day in which a miner could not get money, showing respect to other mining families was priority.

In fact, this pride did not stop with who your neighbours were but also what you drank. Bessie recalls her grandfather warning her “Think on! I don’t like Barnsley Brew, I only like the local beer.” when she was asked to fetch the beer for him every week. This infers a preference for local and a distaste for what is outside of the community.

Finally i’m going to concentrate on the role of the church in relation to habits and beliefs. Bessie mentions the important figures within this center of the community – older women. “The backbone of the Chapels were the old ladies. They were the organisers and administrators who knit, sewed, crocheted and also solicited the local businessmen for funds.” This is interesting because it suggests how it was believed that the elder females would be in control of the events that were so important in Bessie’s childhood such as the “Church teas” at which “The food was made all the more wonderful by being cooked and prepared by the people themselves.” This shows a culture of resourcefulness, independence and again, local pride.

This significance around independence is emphasized when Bessie talks about bringing the left over food to the old people. “They always gave such a welcome. Although most of them certainly could not afford sixpence they always paid. They were fiercely independent and charity was hated.” There seemed to be a relationship between the community helping each other out but also respecting the other party’s want to be self-sufficient.

When Bessie was in the South, the attitudes of the north were mentioned again, such as when the young vicar she had made friends with “Had transferred to a mining district as he preferred to make his Ministry in an area where people were blunt and straight after that he had encountered in the south.” This underlines the differences between the the south and the north of the country, such as where West Melton was. It expresses that those from mining districts are seen to be more matter-of-fact, something that a vicar making his Ministry prefers.

Overall, I believe Bessie’s memoirs on her life at West Melton demonstrates the population’s passion for music and drinking but also their high regard for respecting other mining families and the desire to be self-sufficient and supportive in the community.

Bibliography:

J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982)

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