Bessie Wallis (b. 1904): Home and Family

“The family had closed ranks. At last we were a tribe united against all else.”

Bessie Wallis’s account of her younger years in West Melton had a very particular focus on the function of the family within the community. As the only female child born in a destitute household, she has many experiences within the home, playing an important role as a domestic helper especially as she was not working like her older brother Danny who was a pony lad for the coal mine.

In the article Breadwinners and Dependants: Working-Class Young People in England, 1918-1955 Selina Todd discusses the importance of young family member’s wages to the family economy and states that “Juveniles themselves recognized that their entry to employment was necessitated by family need” Bessie’s anecdotes about her siblings reinforce this idea of providing for the family at a young age.

Bessie makes multiple points to include the dynamic of her parents from the view of her childhood self, such as the contrast in tasks and attitudes in each parent. While “raising the children was the task of the mother”, Bessie remarks that she and her siblings “would go long periods without seeing” her father. However, despite revealing this, she admits that her “tiny mother would put her 3 size foot down firmly and then Dad would be around the house for a bit.”

Additionally, she mentions how when her father got home and fell asleep intoxicated “Mother would sneak out of bed, upend his trousers and help herself to exactly half his money.” Which she kept at Bessie’s grandparents’ house. Her mother’s nature of being a good manager of money, even if it means lying to her husband, is repeated in this memoir. I find this interesting as it provides insight into the economic role of the mother in the household.

Another point regarding home and family is the pressure of the patriarch in these communities. Bessie recounts a miner “having dust on his lungs and he had not been able to work for months.” His family were suffering as a result and this led him to poaching rabbits off the land of the local Justice of Peace. This act to save his family from starvation led him to being punished in the court and ultimately dying through being sentenced to six month’s hard labour. His wife and children were moved to a workhouse.

In order to provide for their family, the miners had to endure such dangerous conditions that Bessie states that they “never knew whether our men would come home at the end of their working day.” This sort of sacrifice and toil, I imagine, would bring a family closer as they would never know when tragedy would strike.

My final observation of Bessie’s memoir on the topic of family and home is Bessie being forced to live with her affluent Auntie in the south as an unpaid skivvy, which was a domestic servant. She had contemplated the likelihood of this happening as, according to her, finishing school “usually meant leaving home to live in either Bradford or Leeds as a skivvy.”

This was normal for a girl, and yet her brothers could find work in the village mines and not have to leave home, instead continuing to support it since “the boys wages were a godsend to the families.” Bessie even states that she “knew her mother wanted her out” and that “Mother preferred her sons.” Asserting that there was a great deal of favouritism amongst the children regarding gender.

I found this section interesting because Bessie moves from her family and home in West Melton to live with different family for two years, in a place which is essentially her new home. This demonstrates that, although the author comes from an impoverished northern area, the lifestyle of her distant family is extremely varied and the entire family lineage is not fixated in one area or economic status.

Because she is essentially ripped from her immediate family and home, she realised when she finally managed to return that what was once normal to her “appalled her” for example, “how the mines dirtied everything” and although the accent was homely it was “so thick after the ‘genteel’ accents.” That she had listened to for two years.

This experience shows how easy it is to become estranged from your hometown and immediate family at a young age and how important it is to fight to return before you lose that sense of identity you once had, like Bessie Wallis in this case that of the rural Yorkshire village she grew up in.

Bibliography

Todd, S. 2007. Breadwinners and Dependants: Working-Class Young People in England, 19181955. International Review of Social History, 52(1), 57-87.

Burnett, J. 1982. Destiny Obscure : Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s.

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