Mrs W.E. Palmer (b.1908): Home and Family

On the front of the farmhouse, above the front door and below a little round window was a coat of arms, a lion and a tiger holding up a crown and shield between them’  (6)

Modern image of Mrs W.E. Palmer’s childhood home – ‘Harting Coombe Farm’, Sussex. The contemporary brickwork on the left of the property signifies a modern extension to the building.

Home and family life lies at the core of Mrs W.E. Palmer’s memoir. Detailing her childhood years spent living at Harting Coombe Farm, Sussex, Winifred talks freely and openly about her joyful memories of young, family life. Although Winifred recollects her siblings and Father, it is Mrs W.E. Palmer’s mother that is the predominant focus of her writing. A dressmaker and member of the Women’s Institute, born in Brighton in 1875, Winifred’s mother Flo was a hard-working woman whom the children adored.

Another red letter day for Flo was when she went as a delegate, with the Women’s Institute President, and Secretary to a W.I. conference in London chaired by Lady Denman (31)

Talking mostly of her fondness and admiration for her mother, Mrs W.E. Palmer’s memoir appears to reinforce the popular historical belief that ‘working-class fathers existed…but working-class fatherhood remained uncertain’ (Strange, 2014, 1).  We are quick to learn of Flo’s greatest achievements and life prior to the birth of Winifred, but are met with statements that disclose little, if anything, about the life of her father Will. Signifying sentimental detachment, Winifred reveals that Will ‘never told the children much about his childhood…all their father really told them about his childhood was that he went to boarding school near Cheam in Surrey, and what a rotten time he had there’ (5). With little to suggest that Winifred shared a close bond with him, it is tempting to label Will as an absent father.

Francesca was eleven when she heard her mother reading out the bankruptcy lists in the Daily Mail, and it seemed that nearly all the bankrupts were farmers. In spite of all the hardships and poverty, (Flo used to say “Never mind about church mice, we must be church worms”) life was well worth living (7)

Father and daughter work in the fields – 1910

It is important to note that Mrs W.E. Palmer recognises the crippling pressures through which her father lived. Life as a tenant farmer was exceedingly difficult, and for Will, the threat of losing work was ever present. Alun Howkins acknowledges this in his discussion of ‘the three great interests connected with agriculture – the landlord, the tenant and the labourer’ (2003, 8). Howkins reveals that, ‘the industry in which these worked or drew profit from was still, in the early 1900’s, in a period of mixed fortunes, and nobody felt this mix more than the farmers’ (2003, 8). Sadly, threat turned into reality in 1925, as Will was left bankrupt and faced no choice but to leave Harting Coombe Farm with his family.

their father served the village with milk, but could not afford to pay anyone to deliver for him, so the children had to do what they called a milk round (11)

Still, the Beaven family were not alone in their struggles. Mrs W.E. Palmer makes it clear that everybody ‘of the hamlet’ (10) was affected by poverty, claiming that ‘there were not more than twenty families all told, and nobody had to keep up with the Jones’s, they were all as poor as one another, and had come to terms with poverty’ (10). The matter-of-fact way in which ‘Francesca’ talks about the hardships of working-class life, illustrates her belief that poverty was simply their way of life, and not something to dwell on. Retaining this mentality through to her adult years, Mrs W.E. Palmer reflects on the negative implications of affluence rather than poverty. ‘In after years Francesca sometimes thought that austerity was not a bad thing, you could laugh at it because there was so little to lose. Affluence was no laughing matter, it brought its own problems, like having to own a better car than the Moss’s across the road, or to be the first to rent a colour T.V. and show it off to the neighbours’ (10). ‘This view of “class” reflected a world divided into minute distinctions based on status indicators’ (Bourke, 1994, 2). Yet, Winifred is eager to express her distaste at such a world, by emphasising the triviality of upper-class ‘problems’.

Farmer Father and Daughter Painting by Vicki Wade

It can easily be said that Palmer’s outlook on life is inspirational. Significantly, this is a quality that her father also possessed. He tells young Winifred and her siblings that, ‘in spite of everything he and Flo still believed in farming. He would tell the children, that farming was a very important way of life, and a country should never neglect its agriculture’ (40). Mrs W.E. Palmer discloses little of her father’s involvement in the home, but makes sure to write about his work ethic whilst highlighting their shared personality traits. Consequently, Mrs W.E. Palmer suggests that the admiration she expresses for her mother, was also felt for her father.

Despite an upbringing clouded by the hardships of poverty, Mrs W.E. Palmer’s joyful childhood comes flooding back to her as loving Memories of Long Ago.

 

Works Cited:

Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity. London: Routledge, 1994.

Howkins, Alun. The Death of Rural England: A Social History of the Countryside Since 1900. London: Routledge, 2003.

582 PALMER, Mrs W.E., ‘Memories of Long Ago’, TS, pp.34 (c.12,200 words). Brunel University Library.

‘Mrs W.E. Palmer’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:582.

Strange, Julie Marie. Fatherhood and the British Working Class 1865-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Images:

Modern image of Palmer’s childhood home – Accessed (27/02/17)

Father and daughter work the fields 1910 – Accessed (27/02/17)

Farmer Dad and daughter painting by Vickie Wade – Accessed (27/02/17)

 

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