‘We spent happy evenings around the piano in my early childhood, singing old favourites. My mother played and I was learning‘ (19)
Before the war began and her mother left, Hilda describes the fond memories she has of her childhood in Gorleston-on-Sea. She says that her town ‘had the best of two worlds: the seaside with lovely sandy beaches and towering cliffs and the countryside, with pretty winding lanes for rambles and picturesque Norfolk villages to explore’ (9).
Hilda had a good relationship with her three siblings and spent a lot of her childhood playing outside with them. She remembers times where they would go out ‘startling a rabbit, sending a nesting bird winging sky-wards, chasing butterflies in the warm sunshine […] paddling through streams, sometimes stopping to catch a tadpole in a jar, climbing trees’ (10). They weren’t always obedient children though, and sometimes the four of them thrived on doing things their parents had forbidden them to do, such as going near the fishing wharves.
Hilda reflects on a number of occasions when they had gotten themselves into trouble as children. She says that ‘there were times when our rambles got us into difficulties; in fact, we flirted with serious accidents or even death’ (10) but ‘these disastrous expeditions were not typical. Most of the time we led relatively placid lives, although life became more interesting in the summer when visitors from London and the Midlands thronged the beaches’ (16) Gorleston was extremely busy with tourists during the summer months, and this provided the children with endless entertainment. They spent their days sneaking into the circus or helping lost children get back to their parents on the beach.
In her memoir, Hilda briefly talks about class tensions and how in her town ‘the working class had no modern conveniences; for them living standards were universally low’. (3) This did not seem to impact much on her childhood though. She reminisces about her younger days and all of the happy times she had and doesn’t appear to be affected by what they didn’t have or couldn’t afford.
Although Hilda was born before the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, many people still held Victorian values and beliefs; her father included. She and her siblings, however, did not appear to share these values. Carol Dyhouse explains that ‘from early childhood girls were encouraged to suppress (or conceal) ambition, intellectual courage or initiative – any desire for power or independence’ (2013, 2). This was not the case for Hilda, who had ambition from a very early age and strove to challenge these ideals wherever possible.
When her mother left, Hilda’s childhood came to an abrupt and premature end. She was forced to become independent and had more responsibilities than she was ready for. We can see from her memoir that the tone changes at this point as she transitions from a happy child to a lonely teenager.
Dyhouse, Carol. Girls Growing up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, Routledge: New York. 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
Family around the piano: