Bessie Wallis (b. 1904) Life and Labour part 1

“What do the working class want with education? They have only to work.”

For many of those who lived in West Melton, their destiny was already carved out for them with the majority of males in each family seeking employment in the coalpits directly after minimal education. “We were a mining community with three colleries in the area which provided work for nearly all of the male population.”

It wasn’t easy to get started however, as if a young boy wanted to get a position in the mines he “had to provide his own pick and shovel, his heavy boots and also pay the knocker-upper” which was the man whose job it was to wake miners who had early shifts, sometimes even starting as early as 1am.

To make things more difficult, these boys’ wages went towards the family rather to for his own keeping and out of a pound, 25d was required for the family home’s rent each week. Even so, “Family and friends expected them to work as soon as the law allowed, and they themselves looked forward eagerly to doing so.”

These realities of the working life did not pass without conflict however and, according to Bessie Wallis “My father and uncles regularly cursed the private owners for keeping them on starvation wages.” One of the most sore subjects was the fact that the land owners upon which the mines were placed “collected royalties for every ton of coal hewn under their land.” These men included aristocracy. Throughout Bessie’s memoir I noticed that she didn’t mention any particular occurrence of revolt or violence towards the land owners by the miners, despite this bitterness.

However she did mention how “There was a lot of trouble and uproar made in those days about the sweated labour in the cotton and spinning trades.” She made point to elaborate that “Sweated labour underground was worse.” I find it interesting how she relates the struggles of sweated labour in her village to other areas and vocations, implying that there was some awareness and talk about sweated labour as a whole in a village dominated mainly by mining.

While reading Johnathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, I discovered that in villages like West Melton during the beginning of the 20th century, evening classes and self-improvement lessons became more popular meaning “Coal-heavers could now be surprisingly knowledgeable about working conditions, wages, royalties, transport and trade unionism in the mining industry.” And so miners began to learn of the rights which they were entitled to.

In Bessie’s memoir I noticed there were many points linked to class division in the work force. For example,
“The railway men and their wives looked down on the miners. In turn the miners considered the railwaymen ‘cissies’.” Bessie who was “puzzled” by this conflict also recounted that her “father was a tradesman. He was the head rope-splicer but he still came under the loose term of miner.” This demonstrates that communities in the area were very much based on the primary occupation of the men and that the respect for a person could easily be based on what that person worked as. Essentially their occupation determined both their identity and social circle.

This strife did not stop with the workers themselves but trickled down to their immediate family, as Bessie elaborates “Scuffles often broke out between us children on the way to and from school. One child would jeer at another’s father’s job and there would be a juvenile explosion which never ended until home was reached.” This shows how important the breadwinner’s occupation was to those who weren’t even old enough to be in the workforce. It was a subject of family pride. Despite the fact that her father “did a very skilled job” Bessie describes how “My Uncle’s children looked down on me and Danny.” indicating that a child’s identity and worth was also based on something entirely out of the control – where their father worked.

I find that this defense of their father and his occupation by his children is interesting as it is due to this job that “these men spent comparatively little time at home or engaged in what we commonly recognize as ‘nurturing’ tasks.” towards their children, an experience which Bessie shares. However, “This was the cliché of working-class fathering: good men worked hard for their children.” and so the father’s worth was seemed very much based on whether they could provide for their children, a pressure which meant that his worth to his family and how society perceives him is based on his labour.

As my last point in this part of Bessie’s memoir in terms of life and labour I want to highlight that this area is something that my author did not partake in herself, being a young girl. Despite this, I feel the information given by Bessie has value since she is able to see this from an external view, without a bias such as what would come from a mine worker talking about those who worked on the rails. Despite being a victim of the cultural barriers that prevented her from contributing to this part of village life, Bessie still had a valid part in this discussion.

Bibliography:

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

Rose, J. (2001). The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes.

Strange, J. (2015). Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914

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