Habits, Culture and Belief
“I did wonder what I had to be grateful for”
– Florence Powell (p.15)
A fundamental value, habit and huge aspect of culture within the orphanage was religion. The description of the orphanage clearly states that attendees were to be educated in the principle of the Church of England, and this is an evident theme throughout Powell’s memoir.
Powell states, ‘Being a Church of England charity house, you can guess that religion did play a major part in our lives’. (p.15) Powell begins this reflection with an interesting description of the vicar, Mr Benson, noting that he was a ‘generous man’ who ‘thought of many ways to brighten our days’ (p.15). She goes on to say, ‘Although he stamped and shouted in the pulpit about the wrath of God and the rewards of a Godly life, he really was a jolly man’. (p.15) This indicates that Powell may not have had the strongest belief herself, as her choice of language to describe church services is far from positive, depicting religion as a harsh, cold and impersonal experience. The use of ‘stamped and shouted’ suggests that Powell didn’t feel at ease while watching Mr Benson, yet the juxtaposition of the phrase ‘he was a jolly man’ implies that Powell’s problem wasn’t with Mr Benson himself, it was firmly with her experience very structured experience of the Church of England throughout her time at the orphanage.
A strict structure
The strict nature of the orphanage is abundantly clear throughout Powell’s memoir, and church was no different. Perhaps one of the main problems for Powell was the strict routine she abided by. Powell points out that the girls were expected to go to church twice each Sunday, with the addition of Sunday-school in the afternoon. Evidently, the day in itself was based around religion, which left the girls with very little time for anything else on a Sunday.
A particularly striking part of the memoir is Powell’s honesty about her experience in church. She writes, ‘When I sat in church and looked around at the congregation, particularly the vicar’s daughter, who was beautifully dressed, I did wonder what I had to be grateful for’ (p.15). This confession of Powell’s feels significant, as despite the glimpses of optimism and joy within her memoir, it reminds readers that at the core she was very much aware of her misfortune in regards to social class and identity as an orphan. The memory of the vicar’s daughter’s clothing indicates not only admiration for the clothing, but an undertone of jealousy. However, this section of the memoir raises social class as an issue, forcing readers to empathise with the working-class, particularly orphans. It also raises questions surrounding religion, as Powell’s very personal reflection makes her feelings of doubt justifiable.
Later on in the memoir, Powell also raises similar frustrations with religion, writing:
‘The main punishment was being sent to bed, or not being spoken to read a chapter of the Bible. A chastisement from Miss Absolom was a main theme. Her topic would be, how fortunate we were, and how grateful we should be and know our place and proper station in life. I never did understand what this meant!’ (p.25)
It appears overwhelmingly unfair while reading Powell’s experiences of childhood and comparing them to those of a more privileged girl, that Powell was raised with the expectation to feel blessed and grateful for her circumstances.
Powell, Florence, ‘An Orphanage in the Thirties’, duplicated pamphlet, Illustrated. Brunel University Library