Elizabeth Rignall (B.1894): Home and Family

Mother, placid, imperturbable, accepting everything and turning immediately to cope with any disaster; Father “shot out of a gun end” as we say in the West Riding; up in the air over nothing, fiery, bitter and wounding of speech, but sunny and happy the outburst over-

David Vincent, in ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class’, states that relationships within the family are more clearly expressed in the absences than what the author has tried to articulate: ‘At first glance the most striking characteristic of the autobiographers’ treatment of their family experience is not what is said but rather what is not said’ (Vincent, 226). Whilst there are certainly brief instances of a guarded tone in All So Long Ago, such as her unexplained resignation from Broadwater Road School, ‘My reasons would make a long story and would prove of little interest to anyone but myself’ (Rignall, 116), Elizabeth does not come across as inhibited when discussing her family.

The Black Bull pub in Haworth
The Black Bull pub in Haworth

This frankness is best represented in Elizabeth’s depiction of her family, warts and all. She openly recounts their flaws, such as her father’s ‘short temper and impatience’ (Rignall, 63) and her relative’s alcoholism: ‘Of course I knew all about drunkenness! Who better? Since I had suffered from it’s consequences from birth, and on both sides of the family- Grandad Rignall having degraded himself and his family so completely’(Rignall, 81). Yet, regardless of their shortcomings, she is also fiercely loyal and proud of her family. This is demonstrated in Elizabeth’s affectionate recollections of her parents, remaining her father’s ‘“Little Sunshine”’ (Rignall, 2) and warmly recalling her strong, protective mother: ‘Injustice, unkindness to herself she would shrug off and forget, but let anyone offer the same to any of her loved ones and she was a tigress’ (Rignall, 65).

Joanna Bourke claims that ‘increased prosperity of working-class households from the late nineteenth century was created not only by higher wages, but also by improved housewifery’ (Bourke, 65). This is certainly reflected in the meticulous domestic duties carried out by Elizabeth’s mother, with Elizabeth’s account throwing light on the sense of respectability that came with a well-run household: ‘Like all housewives it was a labour of love. Intense scorn was heaped on the head of the wife who sanded her stone floors instead of scrubbing them till they were as white as the table- tops’ (Rignall, 4). However, working-class families may not have been as confined to society’s established gender roles as the upper classes, as demonstrated by Elizabeth’s claim that ‘all this modern talk about the husband giving a helping hand with the housework is quite “old hat” in the textile north’ (Rignall, 7). Elizabeth acknowledges that her father pulled his weight inside the house as well as outside and shared the domestic responsibilities with her mother: ‘Often on Sunday mornings Father would don an apron and proceed to prepare and cook the midday meal, releasing Mother and Auntie to attend morning service’ (Rignall, 17).

Picture hats, 1890s
Picture hats, 1890s

Clothes can arguably be seen as a significant outward indicator of class, as stated by Sarah Levitt in Fashion in Photographs: 1880-1900: ‘The rigid class system was nowhere more apparent than in clothing, through which power, wealth, and status were expressed…Vulgarity, inferior workmanship, and shoddy materials distinguished the less well-bred, while a poor person’s situation was instantly apparent’ (Levitt, 1991,13). However, Elizabeth’s mother would blur the class boundaries, as well as further economize their income, by making their clothes with high quality, discounted materials: ‘Poor though we were, Jack and I were always the best dressed children in the district…she made practically all our clothes herself, thus saving dressmaking costs’ (Rignall, 17). Her memoir shows a mindfulness of the sacrifices her mother made for them as children as she remembers the difference in her mother’s old clothes compared to her glamorous aunt’s: ‘Auntie’s wardrobe was a very different proposition from Mother’s, and I would watch her departure with a mixture of envy and awe’ (Rignall, 18). Madeleine Ginsburg claims that, by the end of the nineteenth century, clothes could no longer define class to such a stark degree, as fashions became more widespread: ‘visible distinction between classes slowly begins to become less apparent in the last two decades of the century’ (Ginsburg, 1982, 175). This idea of fashion becoming more accessible and easier to emulate is conveyed in All So Long Ago, as Elizabeth states that her aunt kept up with the current hat trend: ‘At that time picture hats were very much the vogue, and Auntie had a real selection’ (Rignall, 18).

Battersea Borough Prize Band, 1908.
Battersea Borough Prize Band, 1908.

Elizabeth does not tend to paint herself as a victim of poverty, but simply tries to convey how financial pressures were a part of everyday life for her working-class family, especially leading up to Christmas: ‘Now with my father being so often out of work and needing to support his family as best he could he was always very worried about how we should fare at Christmas’ (Rignall, 27). Her father, being a member of the Battersea Borough Prize Band, would utilize his talent and busk every evening for about a fortnight before Christmas, ensuring that ‘we never went short on anything on that day’ (Rignall, 27). From an early age, Elizabeth seems to have been instilled with the idea of the importance of saving. The ‘small sums of money’ (Rignall, 26) that she had stored all year would then be used to buy her main present for Christmas: ‘china dolls that would go to sleep and doll’s prams would be obtained only by a whole year of saving by ourselves’ (Rignall, 26). This agonizingly long process of waiting and saving for her toys gave Elizabeth a sense of pride in her belongings, which she never took for granted: ‘In consequence I never broke a doll in all my life, nor did Jack lose a lead soldier’(Rignall, 26).

References:

Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity London: Routledge, 1994

Ginsburg, Madeleine, Victorian Dress in Photographs, Batsford, 1982

Levitt, Sarah, Fashion in Photographs: 1880-1900, Batsford, 1991

Rignall, Elizabeth, All So Long Ago, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:586

Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Ninteenth-Century Working Class’, Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247

Image References:

The Black Bull pub (Accessed: 01/12/2015)

Picture Hats (Accessed: 01/12/2015)

Battersea Borough Prize Band (Accessed: 01/12/2015)

 

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