‘I also can look back & I think to me that was the highlight of my youth….’ (11).
Mary’s memoir is predominantly a family story. Most of her autobiographical letters, in fact, mention elements of her childhood and family. The first instance is right at the beginning as Mary speaks about her Grandfather, David Sutton. Mary writes a lot about her grandfather within her first letter, detailing his antics which saw him gamble, drink and run away from the family home at a young age. Mary notes he was labelled as the ‘black sheep of the family’ (1). Through this tale we see Mary’s humour but also see an admiration for her grandfather despite his mischievous ways. As Mary talks of her grandfather first, this suggested to me that she had a close relationship with him. This is further shown as in Mary’s says, ‘we as children loved both grandma & grandfather & to us he was a fine old gentleman’ (26). As Mary shows a loving relationship with her grandparents, in particular her grandfather, this reflects a strong family bond, showing the importance of family within Mary’s life.
Mary also talks a lot about her parents and siblings who she lived and grew up with. It is evident she had a close relationship with her family, in particular her parents who she regards as ‘firm but loving and kind’ (12). Mary fondly reminisces over times with her family, in particular the trips they went on: ‘when we were young, a day’s outing to Nottingham was a real treat, the open market & the shops were a big draw and then down to Trent bridge & often a ride on a boat to Caldbeck park’ (6). Mary also talks about family trips to Tewksbury and London: ‘I remember when I was about 18 years old having a holiday in Tewksbury’ (1). The fact that Mary’s family went on trips also suggests that her family were in a comfortable position to do so. As Charles Walter Masters notes, ‘The man who could afford to take his family away for a week (perhaps to stay with relatives) was still quite a fortunate individual even in 1914’ (Masters, 2010, 220). Mary’s childhood then, reflects comfort and enjoyment as she was able to attend social events and enjoy holidays with her family. What is most touching about Mary’s writing is how grateful and humble she remains for every opportunity she received in her childhood, allowing her to reminisce over it fondly in her adult years.
Heanor is where most of her Mary’s childhood life was spent, living with her mother, father and 5 siblings. She talks of living on ‘Park Street’ (8), where she lived until her twenties. With a little help from the Heanor Local History Society, I was able to locate two censuses showing who lived in Mary’s family home in the years of 1891 and 1911. In the 1891 census for Park Street, there were seven people recorded in the household. These people included Mary’s father, mother, 4 sisters and brother, William.
In 1911 however, not only had the family moved house but a lot of the children had moved out, leaving behind her parents, Mary and her two sisters. What I found strange looking at this census, is that both Mary and her sister Florence were recorded as ‘single’ at the ages of 22 and 26. As Jose Harris notes however, there was a ‘…very widespread practice of adult, unmarried, working children living with their parents’ (Harris, 1993, n.pag). Whilst Mary was not technically a child at the age of 22, the fact that she was single and still living at home proved the difference in both generations of her family and in previous eras. As Mary talks of her father in the beginning of her memoir she writes, ‘Later Father decided he must leave home’ (3). Like her father, in the previous generations many left home young, either to marry or find work. Mary was working as a hosiery mender, as was her younger sister Ada, also described as a hosiery machinist. Florence, aged 26, probably still worked at home as she was described as the ‘housekeeper’ in 1901. As Mary remained at home up until her early twenties, this could show that perhaps many women were marrying later.
However, John Bancroft challenges this as he writes, ‘Around that time there were other factors encouraging early marriage, particularly amongst the poor. Relief for the poor discriminated against single men and women and employment was easier to obtain for the married or co-habitating couple’ (Bancroft, 1983, n.pag). This suggests both a difference in generations of Mary’s family, as her grandfather and father left home at such young ages, but also suggests a change in domestic dynamic within the time period.
Whilst Mary did not marry until she was around 23, as a child she was brought up with the mind set of becoming a good wife, one who could perform domestic duties expected of women at the time. It is clear through Mary’s memoir that domestic duties held prominence within her household, with her father being the traditional bread winner whilst her mother took on the conventional domestic role. Mary talks about her mother’s role in the home as she says, ‘I never remember any of us being late as mother always had the food on the table’ (10). This ideal of becoming domestic was so important that Mary notes how her mother kept them back from work in order to learn domestic rituals. She writes, ‘At the age of 12 we could go to work. But mother felt we should have 1 year at home to learn how to cook & generally do house work, so I can say with pride we all made good wives when we married’ (8-9). Through this, we are able to see the importance of domesticity for the women in Mary’s family, particularly as Mary’s only brother went to work at the time they stayed back to learn to cook and clean. This also shows the gendered nature of domestic tasks within the working class household within the 19th century, and the importance of this to become good wives.
Mary’s childhood is noted as very different to the one her previous generations experienced. For example, she describes her father’s youth as rather unpleasant: ‘At the age of 4 years he went to work in a brick yard to turn the bricks as they dried before they were fired. He went bare foot & very little clothing, but at the age of 10 years he was sent down a coal mine’ (2). Mary, unlike her father, went to school at the age of 3 up until ‘At the age of 12 we could go to work’ (8). Here we can see changes in working conditions and laws which enabled children to become protected from early child labour. As Pamela Horn finds, ‘By the 1880s (the decade Mary was born) interest in the welfare of children had spread beyond their earlier preoccupation with working hours, school provision and penal reform to cover a wide range of issues’ (Horn, 1994, 68). As children’s conditions were improving throughout Mary’s childhood, she was able to benefit from these changes, allowing her to enjoy a longer childhood before entering the workplace. As Mary was able to partake in social activities alongside her work, she is able to remember her childhood with fond memories, as opposed to the hard and gruelling childhood many working class people endured. As we can see a generational change in the working conditions and welfare of children within Mary’s family, we can also see how different working class eras were progressing, with children now becoming able to go to school and be protected from certain types of work.
Mary’s early home and family life appeared to be mixture of both happy memories and trying times. Throughout her memoir however, Mary remains grateful and humble of her youthful experiences and the relationship she had with her family. I really enjoyed reading about Mary’s early childhood and it made me realise that although she had very little, the way in which this topic dominates her memoir shows the great fondness of this time within her life.
Bancroft, John. Human Sexuality and Its Problems. London: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 1983.
Benson, John. The Working Class in Britain 1850-1939. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2003.
Harris, Jose. Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Horn, Pamela. Children’s Work and Welfare 1780-1890. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Masters, Charles Walter. The Respectability of Late Victorian Workers: A Case Study of York, 1867-1914. Newcastle upon Thyme: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.
1: 719 TRIGGLE, Mary Laura, Series of autobiographical letters, MS, pp.25 (c.4,000 words). BruneI University Library.
Nottingham Trent Bridge: www.nottshistory.org.uk/monographs/nottingham1927/nottingham4.htm
Both census’s: findmypast.co.uk
Family supper: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/family-supper-229803/view_as/grid/search/keyword:family-supper/page/1