In the memoir of Edward S. Humphries family and home play a tremendous part. Nine out of eighteen chapters in his early memoir are on the topic. This, coupled with descriptions of his foster parents’ occupations and lengthy descriptions of areas within the home, provides an illuminating look into how his family lived. To understand Humphries’ early life we must first look towards his home in Bamflyde Street in Exeter with his foster mother and father.
Their home in Bamflyde Street consisted of a front room, where the family ran a greengrocers, a back room, where the family lived and slept, and a small yard and toilet. Humphries remembers this as:
a fairly large shop with an equally large room behind it; this, together with a small back yard and outdoor lavatory was the extent of our accommodation
Humphries adds that despite their seemingly small housing, and occupation, he believed his foster parents considered themselves to be lower middle class. Humphries describes the conditions in which he slept when he illustrates that his cot was positioned at the foot of his foster parents bed and also as they slept a nightlight was left burning on the table. However this nightlight did not prevent Humphries from having a nightmare that he describes as the most terrifying of his entire life. Here we are provided with an interesting description of the night terror and how he was after comforted by his family:
One night I wakened and on peering at the nightlight I saw a strange, sinister man with a devilish face seated at the table. I was terrified and breathless with a fear that compelled me to stare at him; even as I stared the man moved from the chair on the far side of the table to the chair on his right, closest to my cot.
Humphries then goes on to explain to us how he was overtaken by a constricting fear that lead to an eventual outburst as he screamed and awoke his foster parents. This then resulted in him receiving quick comfort from them. This emotional comforting that Humphries receives is a very rare occasion in a very masculine memoir. This indicates that Humphries did not wish to show a softer side when writing of his foster parents. This is the only memory written about this household, after this he writes about how they moved to a much bigger shop and household on Castle street, also in Exeter. From this information we can gather that business was good for the family as they had gained enough profits to move to a bigger home in a better location for their shop.
Humphries describes Castle Street as a long narrow road leading up to the castle grounds in Exeter, where the County Assize Court was located. This meant high footfall during the occasions that the judge, ‘in his elaborate robes’, would ride up in his coach to the court. In this section Humphries also describes how their shop would provide a healthy accompaniment to businessmen’s lunch as they would buy a tomato to go with their sandwich. He describes the tomatoes as being ‘often large, always English, and in a variety of crinkled shapes’ this is significant as it shows us that their produce was ‘always English’ at a time before imported vegetables arrived in Britain.
Whilst at Castle Street Humphries also describes a girl who he first had feelings for in a very masculine manner. The story begins as Humphries begins to describe the basement of the house, more specifically as he details the light source that illuminates the room, a small iron grate that provided a view of the street. Humphries explains:
Even at this young age I must have taken interest in the nether limbs and under garments of the opposite sex from a vantage point at the cellar door as I was able to assess the rival merits of the girls in the neighbourhood and came to the conclusion that the girl next door had the loveliest legs and the whitest underwear
The girl next door was three years older than Humphries and he then goes on to explain that it took him twenty five years to pluck up the courage to speak to her of his childhood infatuation.
The early sections of Humphries memoir contain very little mention of his foster father, however, he does explain how his mother was a very capable business woman. He explains how his mother ran a domestic servants office in the back room of their home on Castle street and how he believed that the profits of that were greater than that of the greengrocers that the family also ran. This leads me to believe, although it is not explicitly stated, that Humphries foster father was in charge of the greengrocers and foster mother took pride in her own endeavours. This separation of the domestic space is significant in that the family shared an equal amount of space between woman and man to capitalise up on their business interests.Humphries went on to have a son of his own who also became a military man. This hard forced ethic ran through the family all the way from Humphries’ real father as he was also involved in the military. I also understand this as the reasoning why he does not illustrate too much emotional attachment to his foster parents.
Family and home dominate the early life of Humphries in that he becomes very close to his mother and begins to speak harshly of his father. In the chapter ‘My Father’ he writes about the ‘disciplining’ that he received from his foster father when he stepped out of line. Humphries was once caught stealing tomatoes from his father’s greengrocery shop. This then resulted in Humphries being disciplined with his fathers belt. Humphries then agreed that his mother believed it to be in his own good interests that he was disciplined for his actions.
361 HUMPHRIES Edward S., ‘Childhood. An Autobiography of a Boy from 1889-1906’, TS, pp.63 (c.35,000 words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Useful Toil. Autobiographies of working people from the 1820s to the 1920s (AlIen Lane, London, 1974), pp.209-14. Brunel University Library.
Schlüter, Christina. Home and Family life in Victorian England. Auflage: 2008.
Bamflyde house – http://www.exetermemories.co.uk/em/bampfylde.php accessed 10/02/2017
Castle street – http://www.exetermemories.co.uk/em/_streets/castle.php accessed 10/02/2017