Hymie Fagan (1903-1988): Home & Family

1911 Census for Fagan's family
1911 Census for Fagan’s family

The importance of the Home and Family in a working-class environment was crucial to financial stability and survival. Essentially, the male breadwinner, usually the head of the household would earn the family’s wage, upon which the mother and children were dependent. The role of the woman was often based around the domestic sphere. Preparation and maintenance of the household were also dependent upon the mother’s duty. The running of the home was therefore crucial to a woman’s daily routine, in which case, death of the breadwinner could disrupt the orderly structure of the family and home. Losing Fagan’s father had dramatic changes to the family. The unfortunate loss of his father meant gender roles changed in the Fagan household, with his mother adopting the position of the breadwinner.

Fagan’s memory of his father is fragmentary and detached. The death of his father is one of the first memories he recounts when writing his autobiography. Losing his father at such an early age, Fagan rarely mentions this relationship. Fagan relies upon the stories his mother tells of his father, in order to conceive a happy and healthy image of him, as opposed to the memory of his fragile days spent at the infirmary.

http://www.workhouses.org.uk/BethnalGreen/
Benthal Green Infirmary

He expresses a very stoic attitude to his father’s death, claiming: “Little boys have no feelings” (13). Fagan recounts many incidents with an expression of sorrow. He narrates a story about a Jewish ritual named, the Passover of Seder. In telling the story, Fagan finds himself conducting the service alone without the help of his father, who should be instructing Fagan. Re-telling the story triggers Fagan to question why his father was not there, and how he would conduct the service without him. In the end, Fagan finds himself playing the role of the father and son. The impact of losing his father made him envious of other Jewish children who would attend the synagogue “clutching the hands of their fathers” (11).  In losing his father, it created a strong bond with his mother. Equally, E. Robinson in his autobiography ‘I Remember’ re-tells of the strong relationship he had with his mother due to his father working away. This displays the significance of the relationship between mothers and sons in working-class families, as the son emulated the father’s position.

http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/maps/
A map of Romford, where the Fagan family escaped the slums of London

As a ‘respectable Jewish house-wife’ (14) Fagan’s mother fought against all their hardships to maintain a strong family. “She was too self-sacrificing…a wonderful woman who never surrendered to poverty” (52). Living in the slums of London meant Fagan and his siblings, Bessy and Rosy, were vulnerable to illnesses. To overcome losing her children to an orphanage, Fagan’s mother moved the family outside of the city, to a small town in Romford, where Fagan and his sisters became, ‘country children’ (24).  Although she received an income from the Jewish Board of Guardians, it was insufficient and she found herself work as a daily help to a wealthy Jewish family. Fagan describes his mother as independent and courageous. Fagan tells stories of her defending him in Hebrew classes when he was reduced to tears, or moving him from schools due to conflicts with non-Jewish children. She was their ‘shield’ (52) and for that reason, Fagan talks of his mother with admiration.

The relationship with his mother was valued by Fagan, although he appeared sympathetic towards her, keeping his religious values because it was “her deep faith in God that kept her going” (12). As the male of the household, Fagan became involved in the domestic sphere. Where religion was concerned, Judaism was practiced at the home because it was a daily asset to their lives. Fagan was forced to keep up his prayers by his mother, whereas, it was not so much required for his sisters.

Fagan’s two elder sisters “who were the real bread-winners” (54) challenged the conventional idea of the male wage earner as they withdrew from the home. The status of the male breadwinner placed enormous pressure on Fagan to find a suitable job. Fagan’s duty to his family became harder to maintain because of his career in the Communist Party. He had turned down career prospects as a solicitor which would have relieved his mother from the state of poverty she was bound in. His priority became the party, not his family.

In his later years, Fagan married his wife Marion. His relationship and marriage with Marion is omitted from the autobiography. In fact, the latter part of his autobiography, beginning from adulthood, focuses on his work and career. This is not to say Fagan was an egotistical character, but he overlooks the importance of his own home and family. Whether this aspect was deemed irrelevant because he was no longer living a working-class life, it certainly pertains to the middle-class interpretation of the home and family as part of the private sphere.

Bibliography

Fagan, Hymie, ‘An Autobiography’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:261

Strange, Julie-Marie. ‘“She Cried a Very Little”: Death, Grief and Mourning in Working-Class Culture, c. 1880-1914’, Social History, 27 2, 2002, 143-61.

1911 England and Wales Census http://www.ancestry.co.uk/

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