Meals were a preoccupation of most miner’s wives…few miner’s families went hungry. Everything else might have to wait its turn in the economy queue, but food was a priority in most homes. I can well remember the struggle my parents had, but…we never went hungry (67).
R.W. Morris was brought up in a close knit mining community in County Durham. Despite this, family are spoken of somewhat sporadically. He mentions early on that his mother’s family were called Pace, and as can be seen on the census, there are two “boarders” by that name living with them. Richard seems reluctant to give specific information, and names are omitted completely. He, most likely, felt it unnecessary to focus on personal aspects of life, as the purpose of his memoir was as a historical account (for more information please see my post – Purpose and Audience). He actively picks and chooses between memories he feels are necessary, including the people contained within those recollections. Julie-Marie Strange suggests that the ‘reflective’ style of life-writing allows authors to ‘renegotiate the dynamics or relationships past and present’ (2015, 37), accounting for the sporadic nature of memories.
Richard was the eldest of ten children, but he rarely mentions his siblings. He explains that his two sisters went into domestic service in London and settled there (76); whilst his brothers, (like himself), went into the mines like their father. He says that being from such a large family may be the reason why he chose not to have a family of his own. He does not elaborate on this, other than to say, in reference to his sisters being sent away, that, ‘It does pose the question…of the right of any individual being selfish enough to place such a burden on his offspring’ (76). This indicates that he was expected to earn his keep, participating in the running of the household. His omission of specific details may be due to being part of a large family, and resentment at having to go without. This is speculative as Richard does not reveal his feelings about such matters.
Richard mentions, several times, that his father believed having a large family meant he would never be out of work. He writes,
It would seem that no sooner did they [his parents] get settled into a house of their own…than my father set about getting a large family. Why this fable about a man with a large family being able to get a job anywhere should have become accepted as fact, we shall never know, but believe it they did (4).
There is a bitter edge to this recollection, and follows this notion up with, ‘I have never been able to understand why these men burdened themselves with large families when the job they did was so hazardous, the monetary rewards so meagre, and their home life so precarious’ (4). It is important to note that Richard would have matured during the early part of the sexual revolution. Family sizes experienced a ‘radical shift’. Conscious decisions were being made to reduce the amount of children born within family units, especially within the 20th century, which may have been due to ‘individuals’ expectations of the future, [and] hopes for their lives’ (Fisher, 2006, 2). Richard would have had very different ideas about children and his future prospects compared to those of his parents.
Richard does not talk extensively about his father, although he mentions that they went walking around the local area, usually on Sunday mornings. He recalls aspects of him in relation to working in the mines, ‘Nineteenth and mid-twentieth-century conceptions of fatherhood rooted paternity in financial provision, the framework for family security, self-identity and children’s access to opportunity’ (Strange, 2015, 25). This seems particularly true of Richard’s memories. He tells the story of his father’s mining injury: he was approximately three years old when his father ‘received a badly crushed foot [and was] brought home in the usual coal cart’ (76). With no doctor available his foot was tended to by a neighbour, who used leeches to bring the swelling down. The accident put his father ‘out of work for several weeks, and we were soon in very serious financial difficulty’ (77). At the next payday Richard recalls his father’s work mate (or “Marra”) taking him ‘cap in hand, to collect halfpennies and pennies from his workmates’ (77). This must have been a harrowing memory, to remain with him so clearly at such a young age. It is effective in highlighting the demands of the ‘bread winner’, and the anxiety surrounding working-class family life.
Richard speaks most often of his mother. She tried desperately to keep him from the mines ‘[t]o her eternal credit, bless her, she did not want me to go down the pit’ (11). His mother got him his first job in a draper’s shop and later insisted on him applying for a job at Beamish Hall, after seeing an advertisement in the Chester-Le-Street Chronicle (101). However, Richard preferred work as a blacksmith’s apprentice at the pit.
He talks in depth about his mother’s efforts around the home: ‘Monday was always washing day…In the winter months…there always seemed to be wet clothes hanging about…we had no garden in which to hang them out, so they had to be hung on a rope line in the street’ (64-5). Richard says that living ‘within about twenty yards of the railway line on one side, and a couple hundred yards of the pit on the other’ (65) made it a wonder anything was ever clean. This demonstrates just one of the many recurring chores his mother had to undertake each week.
He recalls his mother as being constantly busy, ‘the weekly bake ran to about a dozen white loaves, a dozen brown loaves, two dozen current tea cakes, some “stotty-cake”, and, if she could afford it, a what she called a “out and come gain” fruit cake’ (68). Julie-Marie Strange says, ‘children’s effusive regard for…mothers demonstrated how the practices of motherhood could operate as a language of love. Maternal identities were rooted in working hard for children (2015, 24). A mother’s busy schedule and constant chores highlighted her main role. “Where’s me Mother?” (68) were the first words of her children when coming home, ‘knowing consciously, or subconsciously that she had always been there’ (68).
Whilst his mother carried out most daily chores, Richard’s father mended his boots, ‘until he could no longer nail the soles to the uppers…when it was time to throw them away…some of the leather was used for hinges on hen crees, and anywhere else where hinges were required’ (67). This indicates that his father took on the masculine domestic duties of mending and tending as suggested by Joanna Bourke, ‘[n]ot all the ‘freed’ time…was invested in leisure: some was invested in masculine forms of housework (1994, 81).
This is just a small snapshot of what home and family was like for Richard. There are some very specific details of how the home was set-up and the efforts of women like his mother. However, many of these accounts are recorded in general terms rather than personal ones, maintaining the purpose of his memoir as an historical record.
Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity. London: Routledge, 1994.
Fisher, Kate. Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960. Oxford: Oxford U.P, 2006.
MORRIS, R. W., ‘Autobiography of R. W. Morris’, TS, c.350pp. (c.140,000 words). Extracts published as ‘A Boy goes down the pit’, Bulletin of the Durham County Local History Society, No. 20, Oct 1977, pp. 4-12 (edited by G. Patterson). BruneI University Library.
‘R.W. Morris’ 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): 1:520.
Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. Milton Keynes: Pelican, 2015.
Strange, Julie-Marie. Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P, 2015.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class’. Social History, 5:2 (May) 1980: 223-247.
1901 Census – Ancestry.co.uk.
1911 Census – Ancestry.co.uk.
Dolly tub and peg – Owlcation.com.
“Mending Boots” – 1900s.org.uk.