‘We were a family of five, but sadly did not live together as a family for very long because of our financial circumstances’HART, Mary. A Welsh Childhood. Memories of Aberfan: Through the Eyes of Mary Norreen Hart (nee Jones).
One thing that springs to mind when looking at Mary’s home and family is the unusual housing dynamic. Her memoir starts in her childhood home of 42 Bryntaff Aberfan where ‘Mama and Dada made their home’ (4), and she makes a point of noting that the family rented ‘rooms’ (7). Drawing on this, it would have been difficult for the family as this didn’t enable them to live a completely private and self-sustaining life as a family. This also indicates the family’s social status as it shows their lack of money during the interwar period. Later in Mary’s life, the family moved down the street to 48 Bryntaff with her mother’s sister. Whether this was due to further financial struggles or to be closer to the family, I am not aware, though I hope it was for the latter.
Despite what seems like a close family dynamic, Mary says that they ‘did not live together as a family for very long’ (5). Due to financial issues, her eldest sister had to become a domestic servant at the age of fourteen, which left Mary ‘heartbroken’ (6). Therefore it is clear that lack of money had greatly impacted their experience as a family.
How poverty separates the family
‘Norreen from a song my father liked to sing when he was drunk – and that was frequently’ (4).
Mary’s father was a complex figure. The quote above is from her discussion about her middle name. Although this seems like a passing comment, later on in the memoir we are aware of her father’s alcoholism. Therefore, this comment may seem innocent, but we do become increasingly aware that alcoholism was a problem in the family home.
The effect of unemployment
By putting this in the beginning, however, it shows the further story-like tone of Mary’s memoir, as she gives snippets of information before disclosing the whole story. Mary hints that her father’s drinking was due to the combination of serving in the war and unemployment as ‘his homecoming [from the war] was filled with the despair of knowing he had little prospect of earning and living for his family (7) and so he drank ‘frequently’ (4) to suppress this. Unemployment often affects mental health (McKibbin, 1990, 231) and for Mary’s family, this impacted them financially as well as mentally.
This must have been difficult for Mary as knowing the underlying originality of her name, and therefore this dark aspect of her past is something she cannot escape. If we looked at the memoir as a novel, her father would be the antagonist; ‘my father’s drinking was a constant cloud over our family life’ (8). Although she does not detail any resentment towards him, she suggests that his drinking further increased their financial struggles and negativity in the family home.
Despite the help of parish money, money was still sparse. After the First World War around one-third of women were employed (Bourke, 1994, 62). Mary’s mother, like most ‘womenfolk’ (8), did not work. She is however described as having ‘many skills and was well thought of by the local community’ (8). When Mary writes about her mother, there is the sense that she was a strong and maternal presence.
Looking back on her early family life, aged 85, Mary recognises the sacrifices made by both her parents; ‘I am sure Mama and Dada often denied themselves so that Ron and I could eat’ (18). This shows the difficulties many members of the working class faced in the interwar years.
Bourke, Joanna. Working Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity (London: Routledge, 1994).
HART, Mary Norreen, ‘A Welsh Childhood: Memories of Aberfan 1928-1945 through the eyes of Mary Norreen Hart (nee Jones).’ (privately printed, 2011), pp.63. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel University Library. Special Collections, Vol.4.
McKibbin, Ross. The Ideologies of Class: Social Relations in Britain 1880-1950. (London: OUP Oxford, 1990).