‘Terry is painting a picture of the old house, so there will be a permanent memorial of an era of gas lamps, lantern slides, of horses & silent films, crystal sets and candles, and of one family who lived and loved, and found a lot of joy in just belonging to each other’ (73)
Following on from my last post which focused on Norah Fearon Knight’s beloved family, we now turn our attention to the house she grew up in and which she paints such a vivid image of in her writing: number four Grosvenor Square, in Seacombe, Wirral, or contradicting her account, number two as listed on the 1911 census. Unfortunately the road no longer exists today, however I was able to use the 1911 Ordnance Survey map alongside Norah’s descriptions, to see exactly where the square was.
In ‘Nostalgia’, which you can read fully transcribed by myself here, Norah takes time to describe both the exterior and interior of the home she spent her childhood in, even drawing a diagram to show the layout of the road itself. She describes how it was ‘a pleasant little cul-de-sac off the main road’ and ‘consisted of five houses’ all of which ‘had huge front gardens’, suggesting it was a quiet and attractive place to live (13). She tells of how ‘the trees, plus the hedges & shrubs & flowers & lawns, made our little corner of the world, the envy of the people who lived in the streets on the other side of the main road.’ (14) Emily Cuming explains that it is not just the contents of houses which can be revealing but ‘how they are seen, perceived and framed by the onlooker or narrator’ and in this way, Norah’s perception of her childhood house and her perception of how she believes others see it, tells us about the area she grew up in – that she was likely fortunate enough to inhabit some of the better housing – and about her potential social standing – that perhaps her family were better off than many others she knew locally (2016, 14).
In terms of the layout of Norah’s childhood home, there were five rooms downstairs: ‘two parlours’, ‘a big, roomy kitchen’, ‘a scullery, a back kitchen as we called it’ and ‘a living room’, and four rooms upstairs, ‘two large bedrooms, at the front, & a bathroom & another bedroom at the back’ (14). Whilst it would be easy to assume from this description of a large, spacious house that Norah experienced a comfortable, middle-class upbringing, it is worth remembering that she was from a family of 13 and at one point, she was living in that 3 bedroom house alongside all of her 10 siblings. She also explains that her brother Frank, ‘married & lived in the little parlour’ with his wife and two children (27). With this in mind then, it is safe to say that whilst Norah did not grow up in the extreme poverty and deprivation of slum tenements, workhouses or boarding houses, she certainly experienced a very working class upbringing, living in a crowded although happy home.
In Round about a Pound a Week, Maud Pember Reeves explains how during the 1910’s, many working class families would find themselves not just sharing bedrooms but sharing actual beds: ‘supposing the family to consist of eight persons, most people would be inclined to prescribe four beds’ (1979, np). This is reflected in the living arrangements that Norah talks of in ‘Nostalgia’, explaining how ‘Kathleen & I slept together’ (16). She also tells how when visitors were staying, ‘Kathleen & I would sleep in the bathroom!’ anchoring how her family did not have the luxury of a spare “guest room” and instead had to make use of every bit of space they had, further assisting our understanding of working class living arrangements and housing during the early 20th century (16).
And the crowded living arrangements did not stop at family. The 1911 Census reveals that when Norah was just a few months old, the Fearon family also housed a “boarder” called Margaret Mcgrady, likely as a way to earn some extra money, whilst in some additional autobiographical writing of Norah’s, kindly shared with me by her son Gordon, Norah explains how after her father’s passing, her mother took in a lodger – Mr Keenan. This was of course, the John William Keenan who eventually became Norah’s step-father, his two youngest children also moving into the house. Pember Reeves explains that for working class families during the period, renting out a room or even just a bed was common and that for single and widowed women with children ‘becoming a landlady’ was often the only way to ‘manage’ and get by (1979, np). When considering that Norah’s father passed away when she was just 13, this helps make sense of how her mother Amy continued to support the large family as a single parent.
Whilst ‘Nostalgia’ does primarily focus on Norah’s childhood and the years she spent living with her family, she explains that she ‘married a lad from Bristol! Of all places’ and that she has ‘two sons, John & Gordon’ (8). The lad from Bristol she married was Edmund George Flook Knight, in 1933 when she was 22 years old, and it was in Bristol that they set up their own home and started their own family. I have been fortunate enough to make contact with Norah’s youngest son, Gordon and he has been so kind and helpful, providing me with photographs of Norah and some additional writings of hers. Norah lived a long and happy life in Bristol before sadly passing away on 26th July 2000, just 3 weeks before her 90th birthday and I feel very privileged to be able to continue her legacy through the Writing Lives project, by sharing her writing and story with the world.
To keep up to date with all things Norah and my latest blog posts, you can follow my Twitter @AnnieTaylorLJMU
Fearon, Norah. Nostalgia. (1964) Unpublished Memoir: Brunel University Special Collection.
2:457 KNIGHT, Norah Fearon, ‘Nostalgia’, MS, pp.73 (c. 10,000 words). BruneI University Library.
Cuming, Emily. (2016) Housing, Class and Gender in Modern British Writing, 1880–2012. New York NY: Cambridge University Press. Online via ProQuest Ebook Central.
Pember Reeves, Maud. (1979) Round about a Pound a Week. London: Virago. Online via Kindle Books.
(From top to bottom)
Image 1: Ordance Survey 1911 Map of Cheshire VII.15 (Birkenhead St Mary; Wallasey) showing where Norah’s house was, next to the Irving Theatre. Retrieved from National Library of Scotland Maps Online.
Image 2: Diagram of Norah’s childhood road Grosvenor Square, Seacombe, Wirral. Handdrawn by Norah and taken from ‘Nostalgia’
Image 3: Portrait of Norah as a teen, aged 15 or 16. Courtesy of Norah’s son Gordon Knight
Image 4: 1911 Census of England Wales showing the Fearon household make up. Retrieved from Ancestry.co.uk