Ellen Cooper (b. 1921-2000) Home and Family: Part 1

     ‘A whole house, all to ourselves, rented of course. It was wonderful’. (pg. 1)’

As indicated in the title of Ellen’s memoir ‘The House Where I Grew Up’, she writes with the aim of describing her family home and family dynamics. Ellen’s family home is undoubtedly the most interesting aspect of her memoir. Ellen had a complex relationship with housing as she recalls the memory of living in and out of seven homes throughout her life. Ellen’s birth home was in Hounslow, part of the London borough. This is where Ellen and her family spent most of World War II.

In Ellen’s early life her first memory of home was that her family ‘seemed to live in other people’s houses’ (pg. 1). Living in other people’s houses was known as furnished rooms, where families would co-habit with other families and rent rooms. The next house Ellen remembers her sister being born there but dying soon after. ‘In of those houses I can remember a sister being born, but the baby died soon afterward’. (pg. 1). Anna Davin explored how working- class families often experienced ‘the death of a brother or sister in infancy due to poor living standards and medical reasons.’ (Davin; 1996, 16). Better living standards and appropriate housing ultimately provided families a better chance of survival in post war Britain.

Ellen mentions ‘another house’ (pg. 1) where her family lived in Hounslow. What is notable is that Ellen does not complain about repeatedly moving houses as it was common practice for families of this period. Davin argues that ‘variations in family income or household composition’ (Davin; 1996, pg. 34) were reasons for families having to move.

Ellen’s family moved to ‘a better place’ (pg. 1). This was a rented house in Southend on Sea, Essex. This rented house became Ellen’s much beloved long standing family home. Benson states how the cost of renting in Britain declined considerably between 1850 and 1939 (Benson; 1989, 18). Perhaps this decrease in price explains how the family could afford to rent the house.


Table showing working-class accommodation 1850-1939

Ellen recalls how thrilled she and her family were to have their own home. Ellen focuses on certain features of the household. She writes ‘It had a gas stove, gas lighting, and one cold water tap’ (pg. 1). We take these kinds of amenities for granted today in the 21st century but running cold water was a triumph for Ellen’s family as it was only in 1914 that nearly ‘every house in the country had its own supply of piped water’ (Benson; 1989, 76). The simple features of a water tap, front door and back garden ‘with a real clothes line’ (pg. 1) provided a sense of pride and achievement for Ellen’s family.

Ellen’s family shaped their domestic space to make it personal by adding furniture ‘from time to time’ (pg. 2). There was now carpet on the stairs, washing on the line and pictures on the wall. Ellen recalls, ‘It was not a house anymore it was a home’. (pg. 2). From this, we learn that Ellen considers a home to be a space that a family creates by adding furniture, family possessions, creating a sense of comfort and indeed memories. 

Ellen recalls the memory of going to Covent Garden market with her father to choose flowers for the front living room. She recalls the room being perfumed with narcissus, daffodils, jonquils and violets. Ellen still remembers the smell of the room when spring arrives and it fills her with ‘nostalgia’ (pg.2). Nostalgia is a key emotion in working-class autobiographies and Ellen’s sweet memory reminds us how important domestic spaces are for the recollection of memories.

Covent Garden Flower Market, London, 1925.

The family home was a terrace house with neighbours at both sides and children of the same age. The streets were ‘lined with trees and no cars in those days’ (pg. 2). The streets provided Ellen and her siblings the chance to indulge in the freedom of play with the neighbourhood children. Their occupancy in the home also provided an outdoor space for Ellen and her siblings to play together.

The most comforting description of the family home is when Ellen recalls ‘I felt very safe’ (pg. 2). Given the instability of Britain in the 1930s-1950s, it is clear that the family home and domestic surroundings could offer a working-class child comfort and security.

Bibliography:

Mrs. E. Cooper ‘The house where I grew up’, unpublished memoir, 1993, 8pp, Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Special Collections Library, Brunel UniversityAugust, A. (2007) The British Working Class 1832-1940. Pearson education limited

Benson, John. The Working Class in Britain 1850-1939. Longman house. 1989.

Davin, Anna. Growing up Poor: Home, School and Street in London 1870-1914. Cambridge: Polity Press, London: Rivers Oram Press. 1996.

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