‘For me those were happy years. My little ego basked contentedly in the sunshine of general approval. I felt a person of consequence in the real world and in my private world of fantasy. My teachers petted me; my family spoiled me’ (46)
Kathleen Betterton writes with great affection when reflecting about her family life. She was raised in a working-class neighbourhood of Fulham, London in a small rented flat. Her family were poor but not poverty stricken. Their home in the twenties cost ‘twelve shillings a week’ (3). The space they lived in was cramped and old fashioned but Kathleen and her family ‘found it cosy and comfortable’ (4). Her family struggled at times but it was through her ‘father’s grim determination and my mother’s hard work’ (10) that they survived. Her mother was very house proud she ‘kept up appearances’ (10) at all times. Before marriage her family name was Baron.
Family member’s always remained central in her life. It was the area she lived; her class she began to despise. Her time away from home meant that she socialised with those above her class and she started to feel ashamed by her root’s: ‘I hated more than ever the ugly working-class district to which I belonged, and I even began to hate the people in it- the woman with their hair in curlers and bulging string bags, the stall holders shouting raucously in the street-market, the grubby babies left to howl in their prams outside the pub. After Oxford everything was so ugly.’ (167).
Her childhood was that of a happy time, she reflects upon how her family were decent people, intelligent individuals with great morals. At home there was her father, her mother and her older brother Stan. Her mother had a lot of little saying’s which annoyed Kathleen at times, but it is these saying’s that she later on in life treasured, “Never mind- a blind man would be glad to see it” (10). Her mother was consistent with her morality ‘honesty was the best policy’ (10). She brought her children up with what the working-class thought of as a very ‘middle-class’ ideology. Her father was a family man, all he earned was invested back into his family. She remembers how he liked to have his friends around him, and the only time he would drink was at Christmas. He put his family first and she remembers how he was a ‘hard-working, intelligent, polite, and painfully conscientious; for all his virtues he never earned more than £3 a week’ (10). His job as a liftman on the London tube gave them just enough to ‘make ends meet’. Stan her older brother was her idol. She reminisces on their childhood and how he would look after her for he was seven years older than her. Kathleen writes with humour, remembering times when he had been shopping ‘and returned without her’ (15), or how Stan would use her pram as a scooter resulting in her being ‘shot out’ (10), but placed back without any harm.
Unlike a lot of other working-class memoirs, Betterton’s father does spend his leisure time at home with his family. He takes Kathleen on train days out. Their home was filled with a lot of laughter. She reflects on comical times, she remembers a time when her father got caught up in their folding bed, ‘father’s waving legs for the rest of him was involved in the bedding’ (6) her mother ‘laughed immoderately’ (6). Her mother’s cooking was a big part of her childhood, Kathleen writes of how her mother’s dishes were ‘temperamental’ , she says how her father once found the screw of the mincer in his shepherd’s pie in which her mother replied, “but how lucky, dear! I couldn’t find it anywhere’ (12). It was common for the working-class to write about food nostalgically, ‘remembering Mama’s delicious home cooking’ (Turner, 250). Cooking was not seen as labour, instead it was often related to fond memories.
Kathleen never mentions anywhere in her memoir about whether or not she carried out chores. It seems that all the domestic work was left to her mother. Joanna Bourke argues that working-class housewives were “manipulated consumers” who practiced “self -denial” for the sake of their families’(Bourke 170). Her mother did not go out to work but she worked at home as a dress-maker for neighbours. Kathleen does not mention her mother as being exploited or unhappy. She had worked prior to becoming a wife and a mother.
Her memoir focuses on her family and home life of when she was a child to adolescents. It is common amongst working-class autobiographies for the writer to reflect on their childhood rather than their adult life. In contrast to this, Kathleen does mention a fair amount about her adult family life. She talks about how she married Richard and they had two boys and two girls but how, devastatingly, they lost her two sons. Her second son Michael passed away in babyhood and John was killed in a flying accident. She also mentions briefly that she became a grandmother.
Betterton. K. (1975)’ White Pinnies, Black Aprons….. ‘Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library: Special Collection. 2:71
Bourdieu, Pierre (2010). ‘Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste’. Oxon: Routledge.
Bourke, Joanna. ‘Past and Present’. Oxford University Press, Vol. 143 (May. 1994): pp.170-190.
‘Kathleen Betterton’, in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Brighton: Harvester. 2:0071
Turner, Katherine Leonard. Good Food for Little Money: Food and Cooking Among Urban Working-class Americans 1875-1930. (Spring, 2008),pp. 250
Burnett, John. Plenty and Want: A Social History of Food in England from 1815 to the Present Day. London: Routledge, 1989.