Mary’s family life is a main theme covered in her memoir. She divides her home and family into two sections: her earlier life with her own family and her later life with her husband’s family.
Mary begins in a chronological order, first describing her early family life. She is the second of four children and appears to enjoy a happy childhood living with her father William Riley and mother Mary Riley and siblings Jim, Sally and Bill. Mary’s family was rather unconventional in the fact that her family may be classified as rather small. During the early 1900’s it was not uncommon for families to have up to 10 or 11 children, due to the high infant mortality rate and with only 4 children in the family, Mary appears to enjoy a small but happy home: “They were loving parents who idolised each other and their children.”
She mentions her father working as an “..ostler for the railways..” being away from home a lot, working alternate day and night shifts. Her father, like many working class families, appears to be the bread winner for the family. The Great War therefore, has a dramatic effect on her family: “Dad was in the terriers, so among first to be called up in 1914”. We see Mary’s mother take up full time work at Smarts Cotton waste, situated in Collyhurst, to make money to support the family whilst her father is away, not uncommon of the time.
Alongside the absence of her beloved father, Mary suffers a further devastating blow in March 1915, after her mother is involved in an accident at the factory and breaks her neck. She dies a short time later whilst her father is still away in France fighting in the war: “His birthday 28 years was on 26 March. Mother died on the 22nd so it was on his birthday he got her birthday card, also a cable telling him of her death.” Mary is only 7 years old at the time of her mother’s death.
She and her siblings are sent to live with her paternal Grandmother; however she chooses to omit any details of her time away from her parents within her memoir.
After the war, Mary’s once happy family life continues to take a downward spiral. Her father, the strong hardworking man she once relied upon, is now a man she no longer recognises. It is clear to us, as an adult reflecting back on life, she forgives him somewhat, as she understands the troubles he has had to endure: “..the loss of his beloved wife floored him, & from being a kind father he became horrible, drinking to excess..” At the hand of her drunken father she suffers beatings and hardship: “..I couldn’t sit down for days, the belting he gave me.” Although the experiences of Mary are undoubtedly very sad and disheartening, Mary speaks of difficulties in a very matter of fact kind of way: “..and my mother, slim as a wand, her neck was broken, 26 years old, with 4 children & her husband abroad.” Sadness is just another part of her life, as is happiness; it is nothing out of the ordinary for Mary.
Image: Women undertaking work in a factory
Fortunately Mary gets an escape at the age of 17, as she marries Dennis Stewart, a 20 year old working class man. It was not out of the ordinary for Mary to be married at such a young age. A women’s role was in the domestic sphere, to settle down, start a family and look after the children. This unfortunately does not the spell the end of Mary’s troubled childhood and adolescence: “…but I was only married a few months when my dad, 41 years old, took his own life..”
Mary does briefly discuss her own children in a single paragraph, stating facts about their names and age rather than individual traits or characteristics. She states in her memoir she had “..5 boys & five girls.” It is possible after having such an unbalanced and sad childhood she wished to surround herself with a large and loving family. Again, Mary’s happy family life is tainted with sadness as she explains: “buried one baby 9 days old, what they call a cot death these days. Buried Patricia 7 years old wi heart trouble, 1942 & in 1968 lost my daughter Kathleen age 36 with cancer.” [sic] It is evident in this short paragraph just how caring and nurturing a mother Mary must have been to each of her children, as each child is as important as the rest even in such a large family.
In the second half of Mary’s memoir, she shares with us a little bit of information about her husbands family.
Similarly to Mary’s own family, her husband Denis is left in a similar situation; a widowed mother after the loss of his father whilst fighting in World War One. It is unusual that Denis also has a very small family, with only one sibling; possibly Mary and Denis had feelings on having a smaller family they were able to share, choosing to have a larger family of their own. “She was a widow from 1st world war, had 2 sons, my Husband Denis & his brother John.” [sic]
Denis’s mother was sadly a victim of loss due to the high infant mortality rate in the early 20th century. Although infant mortality rate was slowly on the decline it was still a huge issue in the early 1900’s, with many causes of death not being understood by parent or medical practitioner. “…she had 3 lovely babies before Denis, good and healthy…her first started with Croup…& choked to death just 3 weeks later. The same thing happened to 2nd child, & the third.”[sic] Infant mortality was not unusual and was often the reason families were much larger.
The table below shows the rate of infant mortality in the 20th century. As we can see, in 1900 there were 140 deaths to every 1,000 births recorded across Britain.
Therefore, Mary’s family life seems to have many ups and downs, with a sense of turmoil and loss tainting the overall tone of her writing.
- Image One: http://www.1900s.org.uk/1900s-victorian-terraces.htm
- Image Two: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/everywoman-1910-no-vote-poor-20628
- Image Three (table) http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp99/rp99-111.pdf
- Exploring 20th century London: Marriage and Divorce –http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/marriage-and-divorce (last accessed 4th January 2013)
- Stewart, Mary. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, 2-741