Nora Isabel Adnams: Home and Family

‘The first thing I thought when we went into our OWN door was how small and how crowded, when we were all once inside, but it was HOME and that was everything.’ (25)

Barnardo's children and their House Mother
Barnardo’s children and their House Mother

Nora Isabel Adnams’ memoir allows for an interesting and complicated view of home and family. Not only is this piece written for her own family (the effect of which is discussed in this Audience and Purpose blog post), it also recounts Nora being separated from her parents at a very early age. Nora was taken into the care of Barnardo’s Barkingside Village for Girls at the age of three, as her parents were too poor to care for their seven children. Several images of family can be seen throughout her writing, but it is Nora’s description of the Barnardo’s children’s home that offers a unique perspective on the home and family life of many working class children.

This autobiography can be seen as an alternative to traditional family life in the 1900’s, as Nora explains her experiences in a residential home away from her parents and some of her siblings. Nora first leaves home after her father deserts the family, leaving them with almost nothing. It is interesting to see that ‘[her] father left, with [her] Mother’s consent’ (1) as this highlights that the desertion is used as a strategy to keep their children from harm. Roy Parker’s Away From Home reveals how struggling mothers could voluntarily place their children in care and how ‘the admission of their children to the care of a voluntary society provided an answer’ (20) to poverty, as well as giving hope that ‘when things improved they [the parents] could have their children back’ (20). This is accepted by Nora, and she and her sisters begin their stay at Daisy cottage.

New Girl
Welcome Sign at Barnardo’s Barkingside Village for Girls

Within the memoir, Nora details how the Brazier sisters lived in a cottage with several other girls under the care of a House Mother. Nora is keen to emphasise “Mother” with speech marks, and it is very apparent that she does not see these women as worthy motherly figures. The girls experience strict punishment from their “mother’s” and Nora expresses how vindictive they could be. One particular “Mother”, Miss Raggett, is more severe than the rest, and her treatment of the children is at times shocking to read. Nora faces her wrath on several occasions, with one particular incident leaving her locked in the bathroom all night after Miss Raggett forgets she has placed her there. Nora also describes how she escaped the ‘torture’ of having to ‘lie naked under a bed’ because she was so ‘delicate looking’ (21), although the other girls were subjected to it regularly as punishment. These examples show the sinister nature of the “Mother’s” and how they often used their powers in a very ‘spiteful’ (21) way.

Although the girls face many adversaries, they always try to remain positive, and it is the family bond between Nora, her siblings and fellow Daisy Cottage residents that make the piece a very heart-warming read. The tone is often defiant, and Nora is keen to note that ‘we ‘Brazier’s’ were well known for our spirit,  which though they tried, they could not break’ (8). It is this cheeky spirit that helps the Brazier’s to remain cheerful throughout what was surely a trying time. An example of this can be seen when Ellen (Nora’s sister) is denied a cherry from Miss Raggett as punishment, and instead eats a ‘huge Spanish onion … with apparent relish’ at which ‘”Mother” just had to laugh’ (20). This not only demonstrates Nora’s point that ‘we were independent little devils, but heaven knows what over’ (20), but also shows an instance in which the power dynamics are broken in the cottage, and the girls appear to win one over on their “Mother”. Overall, the piece is defiant against the mothers, and the girls’ mischievous spirit and family bond is what keeps them going through their time at Barnardo’s.

Barnardo's Canadian Headquarters Toronto
Barnardo’s Canadian Headquarters Toronto

The Brazier children are in the care of Barnardo’s for almost ten years, and Nora discusses some options the female siblings try in order to return to a normal family environment. Firstly, Nora discusses how she is put forward for an adoption, but feels she was sabotaged by Miss Raggett, who placed her in a ‘sulky’ (22) mood before visiting the prospective parents. Secondly, the girls apply to emigrate to Canada, something that many Barnardo’s children did during the 1900’s. Nora explains how ‘of course, we none of us really wanted to go’ (22) and how happy they were when their parents ‘wouldn’t allow it’ (23). Gail H. Corbett’s Nation Builders provides a fascinating look at Barnardo’s children in Canada, and explains how to be chosen for the ‘Great Canadian Adventure’ you had to be the ‘Flower of the Flock’ (31). This suggests that Nora and her sisters must have been bright to be chosen for interview, as only the finest candidates were selected.

Although Nora and her sisters apply to emigrate to Canada, it is clear that her heart always remains with the rest of her family. An example of this can be found in Nora’s description of an incident on Christmas day in which she is sent a new pinafore from her mother. Nora describes her joy upon receiving the gift, and how it is destroyed when a house mother insists she gives the pinafore away to a younger child. Nora is distressed by this, and notes ‘could the woman not realise. ‘My own dear Mother’ had given it to me.’ (14) A similar incident occurs further into the memoir and Nora states ‘of all the mean, horrible things to do to a child. I worshipped my own Mother, and then to have the few treasures she had sent me destroyed, I cried for days’ (20). These occurrences show how young Nora tried to stay connected with her mother throughout their time apart, and demonstrate her longing for her family life to be restored.

Nora does eventually return home at the age of ten, and it is interesting to note the effect Barnardo’s has had on her life and upbringing. Not only does she struggle to adjust to everyday routine and the presence of men at home – ‘I had never been in a shop, or spent money, had tea with anyone, been in another house, spoken to a boy or a man‘ (10) – it is also apparent that the girls in Barnardo’s have lived a sheltered life in several other ways. Nora remembers how ‘liar and feeble’ (25) were the only curse words used at Barnardo’s, so is shocked to discover there are much worse profanities used in the outside world. She also notes the embarrassment she caused asking her mother’s permission to play outside, as rules were much less strict outside of Barkingside Village. This comments not only on Nora’s individual experience of home and family, but also demonstrates some of the stigma that surrounded Dr Barnardo’s homes and those who lived there.

Census
Brazier 1911 England Census

To finish, Nora notes ‘how small and how crowded’ her family home was – ‘but it was HOME, and that was everything’ (25). This heartwarming end to the piece suggests a happily ever after for the Brazier’s, something that can be supported by the 1911 census which reveals the dwellings of the Braziers. The house was indeed small, consisting of only three rooms, but it is touching to see the happiness this brings Nora, and the pride she obviously feels at being reunited with her family.

Nora Isabel Adnams’, ‘MY MEMOIRS OF DR. BARNARDO’S HOME, BARKINGSIDE, ESSEX’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection: 2:859

Corbett, Gail H. Nation Builders. Canada: Dundurn Press. 1997.

Parker, Roy. Away From Home. London: Barnardos. 1990.

Several Images – http://www.goldonian.org/barkingside/ – Accessed: 2nd October 2014

Brazier 1911 Census – http://www.ancestry.co.uk – Accessed: 24th November 2014

Barnardos Canadian Headquarters – http://www.childrenshomes.org.uk – Accessed: 29th November 2014

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