Emily Gertrude Lea (1902- 1976): Home & Family

A small family, consisting of just of herself, her elder brother and their parents, Lea portrays an image of a close knit family.  Lea never goes into much detail regarding her parents, refusing to give us their name or occupation and we can only assume this is an attempt to respect their privacy. Despite this we can learn a lot about working class families home life through Lea’s childhood memories and the development of her own family when she marries later on.

Traditionally working class families were extremely large, as were infant mortality rates so it was not uncommon for  women to have over 10 children. However throughout the 20th century family sizes began to shrink and by the 1950s the average had fallen to 2.19 children per woman. Despite this, for the time Lea was growing up her family was still unusually small, which may explain why Lea enjoyed such a pleasant childhood and relished spending time with her family. When talking about Christmas and other holidays Lea states “Of course the holidays were always welcome. What a thrill they were… It all seemed wonderful” (6). Regardless of Lea’s smaller family, even as a child it was apparent to Lea that they were not as rich as others noting “…they seemed better off than we were”(9).

Working class family.

Image: Traditional working class family in the 1900s.

Whilst smaller than most, Lea’s family embodied a conventional 20th century family. Lea’s mother took on the domesticated role like most married women, choosing to be a house wife who cooked, cleaned and took care of the children whilst Lea’s father worked and provided for the family financially. Whilst Lea enjoyed a close relationship with her mother as she grew older, it becomes apparent that when they were younger it was Lea’s mother who took on the more stricter and disciplinary role; “Tears cut no ice with mother” (1). Lea describes her as “rather conservative” with traditional views (9). By contrast, Lea’s father is depicted as the more light-hearted and fun parent;”Our big treat however was clambering into bed with dad…Here we played wonderful games and romps” (1).

Although Lea never goes into detail of any struggles or mentions wanting for anything, both Lea and her older brother, Albert, like many working class children, were pulled out of school early so they could be sent out to work and thus provide more income for their family.  Unlike many other girls her age, with no younger siblings to help look after, Lea wasn’t required to stay at home and assist with the running of the household and was instead sent to work in a toy shop to help provide for the family financially. In spite of having their own jobs it is clear that both Lea and her brother were still treated as children with their wages going straight to the family and only being accessible through the amount of pocket money their mother deemed suitable; “Another of my grievances at this time was my own pocket-money…I only received three-half pence”.(9)

As Lea grows older we see the effect growing up in a working class family has had. Marrying later than most of her friends, it is apparent that Lea, like more and more women later in the 20th century, was in no rush to settle down enjoying a wider variety of options available to women than previously. When Lea eventually decides to marry she admits “I surprised everyone (and myself) by getting engaged” (19). Like her mother before her, Lea takes the stereotypical role of housewife, leaving her job soon after she was engaged. Only giving birth to the one child, Diane, Lea’s family life mirrors that of when she was growing up and she seems perfectly happy with this setup. Speaking of motherhood, Lea’s enjoyment of the role is clear; “The months slipped by quicker than ever, I never seemed to have a minute but I loved the bath time and feeding in the morning and sang as I went through the daily routine of making my infant clean and comfortable”.(24)

The theme of loss and absence in Lea’s memoir is what most epitomizes the closeness of Lea’s family. When Lea’s older brother decides to leave for Canada for work at only sixteen, it is seen as a more emotional loss than a financial worry, being described as “ quite a blow to us”(10), Lea herself admitting “it made things very dull at home for me, for one thing I had no ally…”(10). The contrasting joy upon his return is overwhelmingly evident; “we had one of our biggest surprises, Albert walked in early one morning after eight years absence. As he arrived without warning we were too overcome to say much and just stood and looked at each other…”(14). Unlike her elder brother, Lea never ventured far from the family home for too long with her longest absence spanning only six months and describes her elation and her first visit back after this time.

The loss of her parents greatly saddens Lea, in particular her mother’s; “… I took one look at mum’s empty chair, and felt like running straight out again…I was glad for her to be at rest, but I realised the friend I’d lost. No one else took the same interest and affection…”(26). This reemphasizes the close bond between the family and its importance to Lea. During her father’s last few years, Lea took upon herself to travel and see her father everyday to accompany and look after him in his old age. Taking on the task with much enthusiasm, Lea makes it clear that helping family was never a chore to her “but one which I really enjoyed as long as it lasted” (30). With women’s life expectancy in the 1970’s approximately 6 years longer than that of men’s, Lea is left alone as Fred dies in 1966, leaving her “like thousands of widows,I sit alone” (30) until 1976 when Lea also passes.

Hospital birmingham

Image: Queen Elizabeth Birmingham Hospital, where Lea and her husband passes.

1)      Home and Family available: http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/theme/home-family http Last accessed 27th October 2013

2)      Women in 1900 available: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/women_in_1900.htm Last accessed 27th October 2013

3)      Everyday Life in the 20th century available: http://www.localhistories.org/20thcent.html Last accessed 27th October 2013

4)    Lea, Emily Gertrude. ‘Reflections In the setting sun…I Remember after fifty years’Burnett Archive of Working Class autobiography, University of Brunel Library, 2-469

5) Male and female life expectancy 1950s available: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/graph/26951/male-and-female-life-expectancy-1950-2007 Last accessed 2nd Novemeber 2013

Images

1) Working Class Family: http://www.1900s.org.uk/1900s-family.htm

2) Old Queen Elizabeth Hospital 1955 http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/the-old-queen-elizabeth-hospital-birmingham-circa-1955-news-photo/147538850

 

 

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