‘If he was late – midnight, or after, he would be drunk’ (1)
The family and the home, for Westall, are expressed through the means of social issues including alcohol. This is not something out of the ordinary for the early 20th century, especially in a working-class family. According to contemporary news reports the psychological issues that fell among the working class lead to the leader of the family, mainly the man, to find alcohol as a way of running from problems.
It is clear that Westall had a lot of problems with her father’s addiction, in fact the whole family did. So much so that Westall’s mother packed up and tried to escape with her children. This was something Westall describes very matter-of-fact, as if there was no escaping this world of poverty.
‘None of our relatives could afford another family…and after a few days we returned home.’ (2).
Figure 1 Poster for Popular English Ale ‘Young’s’ in the 1900s
This is how many families would have felt. Every working-class family lived among their own class. Friends and family were in the same situation and there was no option to run away. Anyone that managed to, did not last long without a roof over their head. The narrative voice Westall brings to this situation is so unemotional, it hurts even more. It reads like a normal incident, and it renders the deep troubles of poverty in London, 1900s. Rather than child exploitation and child mortality, alcoholism and marital abuse being seen as social issues needing intervention, Greenway argues they were more often viewed as ‘moral issue[s] for the individual conscience’ (2).
Along with alcoholism followed violence. Westall paints a haunting picture of her father’s violent nature that is both interesting and upsetting to read. ‘He believed that he could force the boy to speak normally, by threatening him’. (2) The question of whether her father loved and hated his family was something I felt as I read Westall’s memoir. I believe Westall never truly found the answer either: drink ‘certainly brought out a curious hate for his wife and children.’ (2)
FIgure 2 The Town of Islington in 1907
Religion was a staple part of Westall’s home life. Especially when trying to understand the issues within her family. Westall’s alcoholic father made her question religion. At this time, religion was being questioned by science, ‘a single main focus of interaction – conflict and cooperation are the two most common …. how science…has dealt with the religious traditions it encounters’ (Bowler, 6). For many, Christian belief was questioned in the home and family. Darwin had executed his thoughts on evolution and people began to wonder whether God existed at all.
Westall’s mother uses religion to justify her father’s actions: ‘My mother used to say that when in drink he was ‘possessed of the devil’ (2). This religious connotation only furthers the conflict between religion and science, as though Westall’s mother only uses religion to cover up her husband’s basic instinct to be violent. How could God allow these people to suffer so? For the working class family, faith concealed their worries and woes of daily life. If there was no religion, the working class would have nothing to keep them going. Westall writes, ‘It seemed better to lie than offend the Sabbath’. (5)
Even with the conflict of science and religion, many working class families had no option but to keep their faith. Some were not educated in a way that allowed them to look at the world in a different light, which may be why Westall continues her faith throughout her life and in turn makes note of it, as something she must keep.
If these issues of alcoholism, violence, education and religion had been looked at, would Westall have found solace in her home? Would she have had a freer childhood? Could her life have been open to more opportunities? To find out, read Part 2 of Lilian Westall’s Home and Family.
Bowler, Peter J. Reconciling science and religion: The debate in early-twentieth-century Britain. University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Greenaway, John Robert. Drink and British politics since 1830: A study in policy-making. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Westall, Lilian. ‘The Good Old Days’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:746
‘Westall, Lilian’, entry in The Autobiography of the British Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, ed by John Burnett, David Vincent, and David Mayall (Harvester, Brighton 1984), vol 1, no. 746