Labour is an overriding theme of Powell’s memoir, and evidently consumed the majority of her childhood.
Powell reflects on the hard labour she had to endure within the orphanage, describing the wash-house in particular detail. She writes, ‘This room I did not like at all. For one reason it was hard work feeding the massive copper, which had to be “well slacked up” as they say” (p.9). She goes on to explain, ‘I was nervous of the steam coming from the copper. It would envelop everyone and everything, in a constant atmosphere of damp.’ Powell helps readers to imagine the conditions she was expected to endure by expressing her anxiety within the workhouse, while the phrase ‘constant atmosphere of damp’ indicates the perpetual struggle of her day-to-day routine.
“All washing up was done here, so you can guess that it was in every week associated with hard work”
She vividly describes the different tools and machinery within the workhouse, including rows of wooden tubs and the mangles which were ‘difficult when putting the bedspreads through, it sometimes took two of us to manage that.’
Powell expresses the small acts of rebellion that the girls would make while completing their labour, reflecting:
“Sometimes we played ball in here when no one was around. No one ever found out why the washing sometimes had a mark on it. It was a well-kept secret. Fortunately the high wall did hide us for other reasons”
Powell’s confession of this creates the sense of a community amongst the girls. They were united by their experiences of hard labour and enjoyed their own secret rebellion together. On a larger scale, this echoes the admirable working-class work ethic throughout this time period and the bonds created between the masses due to the sharing of such poor conditions.
While reminiscing about the laundry room, Powell expresses more small moments of fun between the girls, she even admits that she loved the laundry room in particular, as it was always so warm and the girls would take it in turns to poke the fire with a large steel poker. It is these very clear moments conveyed by Powell throughout the memoir that give readers a real sense of her experiences. Her sentimentality about the rare scenes of happiness and escape from hard labour evoke both empathy for Powell and also admiration for her positivity.
Powell’s very honest and personal representation of working-class childhood are particularly important for historians. As summarised: ‘Many of the alleged weaknesses of memoirs are irrelevant when they are used not as eyewitness accounts of external events but as a source of information about their own author’s experience. Autobiographies are one of the few ways in which men and women recorded what happened to them or what they perceived happened to them’ (Humphries, 2010, p.6)
Humphries, Jane (2010) ‘Childhood and Child Labour’ Cambridge University Press
Powell, Florence, ‘An Orphanage in the Thirties’, duplicated pamphlet, Illustrated. Brunel University Library