“My father I will sum up in a very few words. I had been given to understand that he was an experienced bricklayer by trade, but was a drunkard and a brute”
The concept of the home is one that Lucy battles with throughout her whole life, from starting her life in the workhouse, her years in service to finally settling in her own home. Lucy’s experience of home was of frequent homelessness and having to start over again. Her memoir recalls how she was left to board with some of the harshest of Victorians and also some of the kindest.
The disruption of her home life began when Lucy was aged just 3 years old, when her father William Marshall abandoned his family. Lucy gives an insight into the short but equally damaging impact Mr. Marshall had on the home life of the Marshalls: “I had been given to understand he was an experienced bricklayer by trade, but was a drunk and a brute. After bringing his wife and children into poverty and starvation he deserted them and left my mother to face the world alone (1).” Although Lucy is too young to remember her life with her father, it is clear that her father’s behaviour is relayed to Lucy as “I had been given to understood” indicates. Lucy’s inability to remember her father shows just how young she was when her family became fragmented.
With her father gone and poverty knocking at the door of the Marshalls, Lucy’s mother Harriet took Lucy along with her older sister, brother and her younger brother to the local parish for relief. It was not unusual for single Victorian mothers to seek out help from the parish, due to their inability to be the sole provider for their families. However, this form of outdoor relief was not always on offer to deserted women. As Pat Thane has shown, some “deserted families were refused relief, or were only granted it in the workhouse (Thane,1978,32).” This is something that strongly resonates with Lucy’s childhood: “what could my mother do but apply to the parish? – which she did, and the answer they gave her was, You must go to the workhouse, and the Guardians will find your husband (but they never did). There was nothing else for my mother but to go there (2).” Lucy’s memoir highlights the lack of care for deserted women throughout the New Poor Law years, with one of the victims being Harriet Marshall and her children.
Lucy’s memory of the moments before they entered the Berkhampstead workhouse shows the impact it had on her family, particularly her mother, who will have known that once inside she would be separated from her children: “my mother sat down on the steps with one of us on each side of her, and one in her arms crying bitterly over us before she took us into the Union (2).” This bleak memory is one of the few that Lucy recalls from her childhood. The fact she recalls it so clearly, without hesitancy or haziness, suggests just how traumatic the experience was for Lucy as a young child. It is however, surprising that Lucy does not discuss how she felt watching her mother cry over her family entering into the workhouse. Perhaps this reflects Lucy’s tough, unwavering attitude towards the instability of life that she carries throughout her life. However, David Vincent seeks to explain why this is true of many working class autobiographies: “When… the autobiographers were faced with the challenge of writing about the more intense and private incidents in their emotional lives, their command of language frequently proved inadequate (Vincent, 1980,227).” This could explain why Lucy’s writing of such a traumatic event may appear to be lack emotion, due to her limited time in education.
The family’s entry into the workhouse would have seen each member split off into their own specific class that was based on age, sex and disability, as shown in this list of the classification of inmates in workhouses. This splitting of the family into specific classes is something that Lucy describes as happening to her own family: “my sister was ill a long time, and was obliged to keep to her bed. Sometimes ladies would visit the Infirmary and give her dolls…after a time (I don’ t know how long) she passed away…time passed on, and my brother might have been nine years old (not any more). I know he was sent back to Tring, with another lad…There were two of us left in the Union then with my mother, I was sent to school (2,3).” Lucy’s time in the workhouse shows the impact that this classification system had on the Marshall family, as Lucy only knows small details surrounding what happened to her family after the workhouse.
For Lucy’s siblings we are only given a minor detail as to what became of her brother: “my brother might have been nine years old (not any more). I know he was sent back to Tring, with another lad, to work in the silk-mills (3).”This is the last we here of any of Lucy’s siblings in her memoir. However, Lucy’s brother that was sent to the mills was later recorded in the Census as Joseph Marshall, who became a mill sawyer and married Charlotte a seamstress. Lucy’s younger brother George Marshall became a labourer, who married and went on to have 3 children. Lucy’s lack of detail in her memoir over what had happened to her siblings reflects how her family unit became fragmented as a result of her father’s abandonment and the separation of families by the workhouse system.
This part of Lucy’s family life with her own family concludes when she leaves for the silk mills to start her working life. The only mention of her own family in the memoir after this period is when her mother passes away. Lucy’s home and family during her childhood formative years is one that is disrupted from the outset
456 LUCK, Lucy, ‘A Little of My Life’, edited by J. C. Squire, London Mercury, Vol. xiii, No.76, Nov 1925-Apr 1926, pp.354-73. Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Useful Toil. Autobiographies of working people from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1974), pp.68-77.
Thane, Pat. Women and the Poor Law in Victorian and Edwardian England. History Workshop. No.6, (1978): 29-51.
Vincent, David. Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working-Class. Social History, 5.2 (1980):223-247.
Information on Lucy’s siblings. Tring Lucy Luck Straw Plait Worker. Hertfordshire Genealogy, Guide To Old Hertfordshire. (2021)
Image of Workhouse Classification. Classification and Segregation. The Workhouse Story of an Institution (2021)
Image of Berkhampstead Workhouse site, 1925. The Workhouse in Berkhampstead. The Workhouse Story of an Institution (2021).