Florence Anne Cooter (1912-2004): Home and Family

Home and Family is certainly the main focus in life for Florence Anne Cooter. Throughout her memoir she speaks of life at home as the ‘seventh child’, her admiration and the relationship with her father as well as reflecting upon life with her own husband and children. With no clear agenda for her memoir, Florence’s writing is filled with a passion and gratitude presenting itself to its readers as a simple recollection of unconditional love for her family and home.

The home can often be identified as one of the most important ways of demonstrating respectability. As Joanna Bourke has argues in her work Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity : ‘The great symbol was the parlour where the relationship between the housewife and her family, as well as between the family and the wider community, were symbolized and structured in subtle yet distinctive ways’ (Bourke, 1994, 66). Upon reading Joanna Bourke’s argument I immediately thought of Florence and her memoir, specifically her description of her Granny’s house which she fondly recalled visiting: “my mother telling me when I use to talk about Granny’s white wood, that my granny used to scrub it each day, how they must have worked in those days.” (2)

The association with women and domestic authority is something which Florence reflects on later as she describes her younger brother Wally’s wife Theresa coming to stay with Florence, her husband and their children in the hope that she may be educated regarding domesticity. In speaking to her sons they were able to tell me that (Theresa Chang Wye Chu) was one of the daughters of  Marshal Chang Hsueh Liang,  a protagonist in the Sian Rebellion 1936. Theresa, along with the numerous female sibilings (her father had more than one wife) were looked after by servants and rarely saw their father which explains her lack of domestic skills.

Florence tells us how all her life Theresa had been “waited on, she was unable to do anything regarding house-wives jobs” (50). It is at this point in the memoir that Florence’s attitude towards home and family life is reinforced as she describes dealing with Theresa who is not used to asking for things but rather having things done for her:

“I told her I did not have servants, she said who does all the washing, and looking after John and the boy, when I told her I did she threw her arms above her head and said ‘Good God’, then she asked me to teach her how to do things then she could help me.  I felt so sorry for her…”(52)

Florence’s son Jonathan recalls having a memory of ‘getting out of the taxi from Worcester Park railway station, Theresa walked straight in to the house,  looked in each room downstairs and up then turned to my parents and said “Yes, this places is alright, I will stay).  She expected to be waited on hand and foot,  which seeing as she had no idea about anything,  became a sort of “default” situation’.

The Kingston Empire Theatre before its adjustments in 1930 where Florence describes her earliest memory of watching her Father sing.

Florence’s love and respect for her Father is a theme which runs the length of her memoir from start to finish. Beginning with her earliest memories of her father performing on the stage of the Kingston Empire theatre, followed by his absence during the war and then his later years spent caring for his family, Florence describes her Father as “a handsome man with warm brown eyes, a heart of gold but very strict” (12). The admiration Florence obtained for her Father is shown throughout the memoir, particularly as she finds herself working at Hampton Court Palace during the war, following in the footsteps of her Father who used his clever hands to make and repair parts of the Palace in his forge for many years. One clear indication of the father-daughter relationship Florence cherished is described early on in the memoir as she remembers getting into trouble for innocently mistaking money left by her mother on the side as her pocket money. She goes on to describe how she was sent to bed with no supper but worst of all

“my punishment was my father came up stairs into my bedroom and smacked my bottom I could bear the pain but not the fact of being smacked by my dad. I was the only one in the family that he had ever smacked and I have never forgotten it” (13).

The fact that at the age of 65 Florence still recalls this moment in her childhood simply reinforces the role of Florence’s father in her life.

After reading Florence’s memories of her Father, I turned my attention to Julie Marie Strange’s book Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914 which looks at what having a father meant to working class people like Florence, whose father features so heavily in her memoir. Julie Marie Strange proposes the idea that ‘Despite historians’ discovery of Victorian bourgeois men as fathers, the working-class man remained out of favour: he was rarely associated with home, still less with his children and located overwhelmingly in work, the pub or club, his allotment or with his pigeons. When historians and contemporaries talked about family, they overwhelmingly meant mothers and children’ (2015,1). Although Florence’s father was located overwhelmingly in work, the idea that working-class fathers existed but working-class fatherhood remained uncertain is certainly dismissed in Florence’s case.

In managing to contact Florence’s sons they were able to give me a better insight into their Mother’s relationship with her Father: “Mum worshiped her father,  this became a pathological obsession in later years and made very interesting listening when hearing about him from our uncles – (mum’s brothers) – you’d think two totally different people were being described”.

In her marriage to John Cooter in 1938, Florence watched homes being destroyed around her as a direct affect of the bombings during World War Two. However, a set back such as this would not stop Florence from maintaining her home, and some years later both Florence and John welcomed two sons into the world. Now with a family of her own, Florence emphasises the importance of home and family to her own immediate and future generations of family. Florence’s reflection of happy childhood memories, result from her birth into a loving and family orientated household, is something in which she expresses in her memoir when talking about her own children and grandchildren. At the very end of the memoir, Florence reveals to us

“as I see the young children around me I feel so sad how some of them behave – no fault of their own I am sure it all starts with the home life. It’s a pity because to me there are no naughty children, it’s the naughty parents” (69-70).

 

 

Works Cited:

181 COOTER, Florence Anne, ‘Seventh Child’, MS, pp.71 (c.71,000 words). Brunel University Library found in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989)

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

Strange, Julie-Marie. Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

 

 

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