Lilian Westall (born 1893): Habits, Culture and Belief

I rarely raised my hand because pride held me back from admitting poverty (4)

Lilian Westall  was born at the turn of the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th Century. Her adolescence and adult life are centred around the rise of urbanisation. At this time the working class were trying to make their own opinions on matters that previously they would not have a chance to make. Westall does not make many opinions in her memoir. Her writing is solely based on the activities and issues that she witnessed and contributed to. Her faith in God and her intense work ethic are her most discussed themes.

Westall talks about only one form of entertainment, The Magic Lantern Show. ‘From time to time a magic lantern show was given at Islington Hall to entertain the local children’ (2) Westall also discusses the events she is unable to attend because of her class.  These events are described as being ‘the big event…at Christmas when parties were held at Claremont Hall. Only a listed number of tickets were available.’ (2) Therefore, even in a working class area of London are the divide between the extremely poor and relatively poor made. Some working class families are able to attend the party, but others are not. This exploits how poor Lilian Westall’s family must have been at the time. Even her own class is segregated.

In terms of education, Westall attended a school that was for the working class. Again there is a clear segregation between the extremely poor and the relatively poor. Westall makes this statement, ‘At school, one of the ‘richer’ girls would occasionally bring three-pence for other children. The teacher would ask who were in need to raise their hands, and she would handout six halfpennies to be used in the soup kitchen.’ (4)  Westall never accepts the money because her pride is too strong. As a reader, this shows how the working class helped each other, but at the same time, managed to make the poorer feel incompatible.

Westall comments on her religion a lot in the memoir. ‘It seemed better to lie than offend the Sabbath’ (5). ‘My employers must have accepted religious need, for they let me have Sunday evening off, and I was able to go to church.’ (6) Religion was so important to Westall that she bought a pair of shoes for church that hurt her feet.

‘I had no shoes good enough to wear, and I remember having to make the hard decision of spending 1/11d. on a pair of shoes, only to find that they pinched my feet terribly, and I hobbled painfully to and from church.’ (6)

Fig. 1 A Catholic Church in Islington that I believe Lilian Westall attended.
Fig. 1 A Catholic Church in Islington that I believe Lilian Westall attended.


Westall was a young woman and her gender contributes to every aspect of her life. Westall is always in a domestic job. From housekeeping to a nanny. She is constantly doing jobs that were for women. During one of her housemaid jobs, she was sexually exploited, ‘I was even more worried by the nineteen-year-old son of the mistress, who thought me fair game and kept trying to corner me in the bedroom.’ (7) This shows how women were seen as weak and objects, with Westall describing herself as fair game. The domestic life was always a gender and class formed way of life. In the 20th century, being female and working class meant you would be domesticated and work in-house.

The working class led an ‘inward-looking’ life and that is true for Lilian Westall. A domestic servant, a strong Christian believer and a woman who worked all her life. No outside activities or hobbies. Just work. ‘at 71 I went into retirement. To tell you the truth I was beginning to feel tired. I felt I’d had enough.’ (10)


G. Stedman Jones, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832–1982 (Cambridge, 1983).

Westall, Lilian. ‘The Good Old Days’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:746

‘Westall, Lilian’, entry in The Autobiography of the British Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, ed by John Burnett, David Vincent, and David Mayall (Harvester, Brighton 1984), vol 1, no. 746



Fig. 1

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