“These writings would not be complete if I did not something about the family. We are a united family, not only by our relationship to one another, but by a bond of loyalty and affection that is found in every member. That could be said for many families, I agree, we might be no exception, but the spirit that is present within our family fills my wife and I with pride. The problem of one member is a problem for us all, the illness of one concerns us all. The spirit of love and affection is the dominant note. Two hundred miles may divide one part of the family from another, but distance is no object. The Post or telephone surmounts that barrier…” (P89)
With regards to his early life at home and the information he gives about his family, Thomas doesn’t divulge too much detail. There may be many reasons for this. Perhaps it is simply memory. Writing at the age of 88 years old, and with such a full life, it is hardly surprising that memories of his childhood may have surpassed him. He does write in the prologue to his memoir; “What you read in the next following pages may not be in the correct chronological order, but I have tried my best as far as my memory would let me”. (p1)
Perhaps there are deeper reasons that we, as readers, can only assume to know. Like many mining families in the north of England at that time, Thomas’s family were very poor. His father, like himself, was a miner, although this is unsurprising news. In a small mining town, a large proportion of the men working would have been associated with mining by some means or another. He does not, however, mention his mother working so we can assume that, like many women of the lower classes, she was a working housewife. It seems like life was a struggle but one that had to be endured. From his memoir, interestingly, Thomas does not go into detail about his siblings, although he was one of five children. He writes “Food was simple, but sometimes sparse, even though it was cheap. We only saw butter on Sunday’s, the rest of the week was dripping and bread. In those far off days, life was very grim. There were many mouths to fill, but we struggled on…” (p1)
Interestingly, Thomas does go into significant detail about his house and the conditions he lived in as a child. He mentions the fact the houses were stone buildings, as brick houses in the area were not built until much later, as well as going into intricate detail about the inside of the house: “Inside there was just one big room with very thick walls and very small kitchen which had been built onto the outer walls. This room was not five feet wide and all you could get in there was a table and that had not to be too big. There would also be two chairs and a huge open fire place. The kitchen was used as a dining room, on cold days, a bathroom and a washing room.” (P1). Whilst reading this passage, and the rest of the memoir detailing the house he grew up in as a child, we get the impression that, like most families, adapting to hard situations in order to make the most of resources was fundamental, and in turn, not only defined Thomas’s childhood, but defined an era for many working-class families in the late nineteenth century. Where space was sparse, utilising the resources available to you was the only way to remain with your heads above water.
It is interesting to note that Thomas details far more of his family life in the later stages of his life, rather that family life as a child. Memories of this earlier life are not quite as fond as you
might expect. 19th century memoirs similar to Thomas’s tend to write fondly of their earlier life and spend a great deal of time detailing vividly the ‘in’s and outs’ of their childhood as well as their parents and siblings. However, Thomas does not seem to do this. He accounts for the later stages of his family with far fonder detail. Perhaps Thomas attached fonder memories with regards to family life as a husband and a father, than as a son and a brother. Perhaps, from an aspirational point of view,
Thomas attached a great deal of importance in breaking from his own family unit, whose expectations for him were like every other lad born into a mining family. He writes “I was born into and environment that gave me and many other only one choice and the only choice of work for me was the coal mine…” (P71)
With regards to his later family life, we know that he married his wife Polly just after the First World War which was to signify the beginning of a “very happy life together”. They proceeded to have two children, Dorothy (Doris) and Robert (Bob). In one of the latter chapters of Thomas’s memoir he writes, “We are a united family”. I think this signifies how much family was important to Thomas, particularly as an older man. He includes a family tree, beginning with himself and Polly and continuing through to his great grandchildren, while also stating the achievements and pride he held for his children and grandchildren. He epitomises what the family should mean to everyone lucky enough to have their loved ones around them.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363
Mike Savage, Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican)
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47-70
McLaughlin, Thomas, The Life of an Ordinary Man, 1979, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.475