The family and the home form the basis of Hilda Salusbury’s memoir. Her first chapter is titled ‘The Family and the Setting’, in which we learn that she lived in a ‘large old-fashioned house in a small seaside town’ (1) with her mother, father, Grannie and siblings. The house, she tells us, had been well maintained ‘in its day’ but by the time she was old enough to notice it ‘it had become sadly neglected’. (1)
It seems the house that had once been well maintained was now failing. This appears to mirror Hilda’s family life during her childhood. We see that it starts off very happily. Hilda and her siblings were very close and often went on adventures together around Gorleston-on-sea. Their mother, she describes as a ‘gay, restless, lovely creature, always laughing’ (21) and their father was a hard worker.
Things quickly began to change for Hilda’s family during the years of World War I. Although her father had not been called up, he worked non-stop night and day on the shipyard and ‘his family life was as shattered as if he had been in the trenches in France’ (21). The children seldom saw him and their mother ‘felt she was neglected and could not accept the situation’. (21) Hilda reflects on some of the comments that were made at the time and without directly telling the reader, and she implies that her mother was having an affair with a soldier during this time.
One day when the children came home from school in 1918 they found that their mother had gone. She left a letter for their father saying ‘I can’t stand it any longer. I am leaving you for good.’ (28) From this point on, Hilda’s home and family life changed drastically.
‘Grannie’ remained at the house with Hilda’s father and her siblings and helped as much as she could. In her memoir, Hilda describes her as ‘the most stable element in our lives’. (22) The relationship between the two of them was very close and they often shared secrets together as if they were two friends. As the months passed though, Grannie’s condition began to deteriorate and she was unable to help out with domestic duties in the way she had previously. The responsibility, therefore, fell on thirteen-year-old Hilda and the maid, Violet, that had been employed to help Hilda’s mother.
The new responsibility that Hilda had in her home meant that she missed out on the ‘saturday treat’ (42) of going to the matinee at the local cinema with her siblings. Her father considered her too old for this now and she began to feel left out. Violet left shortly after too, which meant that Hilda had to ‘take charge of everything’ (63) from then on. Unsurprisingly, she considered this to be a ‘heavy burden’ (64) especially considering she was still at school at the time.
When she turned fourteen, Hilda’s father sat her down and told her that she would have to leave school at the end of the term. Since she was the eldest daughter in the family she had very little choice. It was not uncommon for children to have to leave school to undertake domestic duties in the early 1900s. Jane McDermid explains that ‘girls were more likely than boys to be removed [from school] to help with domestic chores and childcare’, and she goes on to say that ‘where boys were kept from school for domestic reasons it was usually because there were no elder daughters’. (2013, 16) While Hilda’s father was able to continue his job, he did not undertake any domestic duties in the house which meant that she was the only other option. The prospect of leaving school devastated Hilda since she was planning to begin a teaching scholarship but she did not argue with her father and instead left school and began her full-time job at home.
McDermid, Jane. The Schooling of Girls in Britain and Ireland, 1800-1900. Routledge. 2013
Salusbury, Hilda Ann. ‘Only My Dreams: An English Girlhood’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, vol. 4
Featured Image: Shipyard:
Gorleston-on-sea high street, early 1900s: