‘One of my most treasured photographs of that lovely day is that of my dear grandmother, sitting at the wedding breakfast table, complete with lace bonnet, & a beaming, happy smile.’ (14).
While she has fond memories of her grandmother, Edith mentions her parents and her family only briefly in her memoir. They seem to serve purely as contextual background information in the opening sections of her writing. Her description of her father is that of a resourceful man determined to make the most of his skills as a miner. ‘Into this promising area, my father came from his home in Shropshire, to seek his fortune, as a young man, in the coal mines. He was one of many thousands who left the land, at a time when skilled men were being imported, & labour of all kinds was being urgently needed.’ (1) Her knowledge of this suggests that it was potentially a story that was frequently told out of pride in the home, as tales of the family so often were.
Family life for Edith in the town of Merthyr Tydfil becomes harder to deal with as she grew older: ‘…both my parents were disappointed and disillusioned with the conditions of life in a mining village. For my father the work underground was very hard, & wages had not increased since he first started underground.’ (5) With a large family to support, it is clear that Edith’s family was struggling to cope.
She describes the responsibility that was placed on her being the oldest child in the household: ‘there were now five boys & three girls, of whom I was the eldest, & a great deal of the responsibility fell on me for the caring of some of the younger children.’ (4) There was an expectation that she should be the one to look after her siblings from an early age. Lynne Wainwright’s Home and Family post on R.W Morris shares a similar tone about mining life with a large family.
These experiences of home and family that she describes are shaped by gender. Her mother was confined to domestic spaces, such as looking after the children at home and in church visits. Interestingly, when her father was not at work in the mines he too was involved in some domestic aspects of life. ‘After finishing his day’s work he had to cultivate his large garden to provide fresh vegetables & fruit for his large family. The prepayments of the loan for the house could only be met by keeping pigs & chickens…’ (5). Her father’s way of nurturing was to provide for his family by growing his own food to ensure that his family were fed, and to meet the cost of the house. Joanna Bourke is conscious of this link between men and domesticity in her own work. She finds similar things, men tending allotments, in her own investigations. (Bourke, 1994)
While Edith spends some part of her childhood resenting her mother for her insistence that she look after her siblings, she does describe a time after the war when she comes to appreciate her home. ‘The departure of my brothers left my parents disconsolate and unhappy. My sisters too were preparing to start their careers away from home, one into nursing in London, the other as a parlour maid. My parents were consoled to have me home, & I had learned to appreciate my home surroundings.’ (12). The roles appear to have reversed for her at this point, as she returns home from her work for the Prescott family to be with her parents, offering them her own form of nurturing through her company.
Unusually Edith describes her mother as ‘chancellor of our home exchequer, excellent though she was, would find it difficult to make ends meet.’ (5). This explains why the duty of looking after the children was given to Edith, as her mother was working to manage the family’s money.
She expresses her feelings that her crowded home and financial situation as a child had a negative effect on her schooling, but she is sympathetic to her mother in hindsight: ‘the constant bearing and rearing of children made her feel an old woman though she was still young. I was just twelve years of age when the eighth child was born, & she was little more than twenty years older than me. It was not to be wondered at when the time came for me to sit the exam for the Higher Education school that my parents felt they could not afford to let me go.’ (5).
Most of the focus on family for Edith is rooted in the description of her childhood. As Edith embarks on her life with Charles, it appears that they had no intention of having any children of their own. ‘The thoughts of starting a family of our own while the thousands of schoolchildren were stated to be suffering from malnutrition was unthinkable.’ (18) Her reference to Marie Stopes, (see my Introductory blog post) a pioneer in family planning, suggests that she chose to use methods of family planning with Charles.
Interestingly she omits an incident with her baby brother, ‘…previous unhappy relationships…my baby brother for example’ (11), which is never fully explained. Perhaps she felt shame from this situation and therefor did not elaborate in her memoir, and perhaps this was one of many reasons why she chose not to have her own children?
Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity London: Routledge, 1994.
Index entry in Burnett et al The Autobiography of the British Working Class: 832 WILLIAMS, Edith. A, ‘Untitled.’ TS, pp. 39 + 3pp. chapter summary (c. 11,700 words). Brunel University Library.
Wainwright, Lynne. ‘R.W Morris b. 1895: Home and Family.’ Writinglives.org. 21st February 2017. Web. Accessed 6th March 2018.
Image of Dowlais Iron works http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofWales/Merthyr-the-Welsh-Men-of-Steel/
Image of Marie Stopes birth control poster http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-1920s-uk-marie-stopes-birth-control-poster-85322099.html
Image of miner and his family https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/470415123550996583/