Fred Baxter (1908-1997): Home and Family

“I have always told my children, marriage is not just the day when you are looking beautiful in your wedding gown and the husband with his top hat and tails, happiness is when a couple can stick together when things go wrong, take the rough with the smooth” (p. 35).

Fred’s childhood began in an unconventional way. He writes, “Who my father was I do not know, I grew up thinking my grandmother was my mother and my aunt my sister” (p.1).  The concealment of Fred’s true parentage was possibly due to his mother’s “trouble”, as she was involved with a “man whose family would not allow a marriage” (p.1). In his memoirs, the omission of Fred’s biological father reflects the limited knowledge Fred had of him; he was told his father was a “rich business man” (p.39), who planned to wed Fred’s mother, before his family protested and prevented the marriage from going ahead. As a result, Fred’s mother was unmarried when she gave birth to him. In the 20th Century, societal expectations were that women would marry before having a child and those who did not conform faced being rejected by society. It is possible that Fred’s grandmother took over the maternal role to protect the reputation of the family, as during the 1930s and 40s, social surveys and oral histories reveal “many unmarried mothers and their children vanished from the official record through absorption into the mother’s own family” (Thane, 2011, p.15).

Fred was born at 20 Church Walks, Bury St. Edmund but soon after this, he moved to 20 Churchgate Street. This was the first of many moves Fred would make throughout both his childhood and adult life; he rarely remained at one address for more than a few years. One house, which Fred lived in, was situated on the Prior Estate, where there was a strong sense of community. Known locally as “Hill Sixty or the Earwig Valley” (p.14), Fred recalls how the people on the estate “were rough and ready but they were really very good neighbours who would help one another” (p.14). Although it has been noted that these communities were “notoriously characterised by extraordinary mutuality they were also marked by backbiting, gossip and a jockeying for social superiority” (McKibbin, 1990, 11).

In his memoir, Fred places more emphasis on family life during adulthood than family life during childhood, possibly because his childhood memories were not as happy. When Fred was just three years old, his mother married Albert Edward Meacham on 11th September 1911, at St. Mary’s Church. Fred explained how he felt like the “mongrel in the family” (p.39), without ever knowing “love and affection” (p.39) from his brothers and sisters. In the early 20th century, “it was not unknown for a new husband to reject another man’s child”, and children of unmarried mothers “were less visible, especially if the mother was young” (Thane, 2011, p.15). When recounting his childhood, a sense of conflict in the family dynamic becomes apparent. In his memoir, Fred recalls times when his mother seemed “nervous of” his stepfather, after she had done the “little things” for Fred which were “unbeknown” (p.39) to her husband. The implication being that his mother had to do things for him in secret, which possibly reveals why he felt “in a different class” (p.40) to his half-brothers and half-sisters.

Despite feeling rejected as a child, home and family life meant a great deal to Fred and many important life decisions were made with his family’s welfare at heart. He once left a job, which he had considered a great “opportunity” (p.7), as he was worried about the financial impact it was having on his parents. Fred recalls how he had to be “well dressed” for his job at Boby’s Engineers, situated on Kings Road. One night he overheard his parents say he was “keeping them poorly off” (p.8), as clothing was very expensive at the time. Therefore, as not to burden them with the cost, he left the job and “applied for an office job at the Bury Sugar Factory” (p.8).

Fred also worked at Messrs Brahams, where unknown to him at the time, he met his future “beloved wife”. Fred explained how she initially “hated” (p.7) him, as he was responsible for the clocking in system and consequently the amount of money deducted from her wages, if she was ever late. Years later, they met again, “got friendly, engaged and later married” (p.13), on the 10th December 1932, at St. Mary’s Church; the same place where his mother and stepfather had previously wed. Fred described his wife on their wedding day as a “most beautiful bride just like a queen” and the “best ever seen” (p.13), which reveals how much love he had for her. Both Fred and his wife, Ivy Hetty, continued to work throughout their married life. Fred constantly changed job roles, referring to himself as a “Jack-of-all-Trades” (p.39). This was often the case “as working people struggled to secure their livelihoods” and found themselves “constrained by shifting forms of employment” (p.1) and in “competition with one another for scarce jobs” (Rose, 1993, p.1). Fred provided the main source of income, whereas Ivy periodically worked, during times of financial difficulty. She worked at places such as “Elite Café” (p.31), and worked two days a week at “Millets’ Clothing” (p.26), in order to support the family when necessary. Fred and Ivy would go on to have a large family; they had “9 children, 24 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren” (p.40).

Throughout the memoir, Fred’s love for his wife is very clear. He explains how “happiness is when a couple can still stick together when things go wrong, take the rough with the smooth”, attributing this as the reason they “enjoyed 57 years together” (p.35). When remembering his wife’s passing, Fred delicately recounts how he was “able to lie beside her” as she lay dying (p.38), and how he “hugged and kissed” her “until the last breath” (p.39). In the years which followed, Fred lived a “very lonely life” (p.38) but still pays respect to his wife when he jokes about how he could do his “own cooking” as she had been a “very good teacher” (p.38). His love for her and the respect he feels still visible after her death.

It is clear that Fred and his wife experienced many happy years together raising their family, which clearly compensated for the family life Fred experienced as a child.

Bibliography

Work Cited:

Baxter, Fred, ‘Cemetery Side of 83 years; the life story of a Bury St. Edmunds man’, Booklet. 43pp. 1993, Burnett Collection of Working-Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library.

Rose, Sonya. Limited Livelihoods: Class and Gender in Nineteenth Century England. Berkeley: California UP, 1993.

Thane, Patricia. Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth-Century England. Women’s History Review: Lone Mothers. 2011.

McKibbin, Ross. 1990. The Ideologies Of Class. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Images Used:

Image 1- St. Mary’s Church, Bury St. Edmunds, 1929. Retrieved from: https://www.francisfrith.com/bury-st-edmunds/bury-st-edmunds-st-mary-s-church-1929_81952

Image 2- 20 Church Walks, Bury St. Edmunds. Retrieved from Google Earth.

Image 3- The Staff of Boby’s in 1923. Retrieved from: http://www.stedmundsburychronicle.co.uk/bobys/bobystory.htm

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