‘We had so little, yet were so happy’ (18)
Violet Austin was born to parents George and Margaret Allen and was the youngest of four children. According to the 1911 census her mother had given birth to six children but only Violet, her sister Margaret and her brothers George and Percy survived infancy.
Margaret was born in Newcastle but moved to London where her father had found employment as the caretaker of the local church. George was born in Kensington, London. The couple met at church, where George was a singer in the Church Minstrel Troupe. Whilst they were ‘courting’ George would often buy Margaret her favourite flowers, which were violets, this may have been the inspiration for my author’s name.
Austin’s father, George had a job working as a railway blind roller maker and at that time it was not required for firms to provide protective clothing. As a consequence, he suffered an eye injury from a rogue piece of steel and unfortunately ‘the doctors could not save his sight’ (16). As a result her father was offered a job for life which he took because he was worried it would be hard to find other work.
The firm moved to Slough and George and Margaret followed, jumping at the chance to ‘breathe clearer air’ (17). Margaret was a housewife, a profession which had become popular in recent years and has sparked an increase in the ‘quality of domestic tasks [taught] through education in… general housewifery’[i]
Other family mentioned in her autobiography include Margaret’s father who was a ‘darling happy man’ (20). She also mentions her Aunt and Uncle who lived near Lewisham, whom she stayed with during the war and it was here that she saw ‘a German Zeppelin caught in the glare of the searchlights’ (7). The children would often stay with their Aunt and Uncle, but only one at a time as ‘[t]hey were not used to children’ (20). These three were the ‘only relatives close to [the] family’ (20)
In the summer the family would pick blackberries in Black Park, ‘off [they] went with walking sticks (to pull down the higher branches)’ (9) They also owned an allotment where they grew their own vegetables, and as Violet explains there was always ‘enough to last us well into winter’(17). The family even kept chickens in their garden for fresh eggs.
Allotments were common amongst working class families as a money saving measure. Another way to save money was to attend auction sales, which Austin says her mother was very fond of and often ‘did get some bargains, once, a pair of fur rugs’ (19)
The family lived in a five roomed house that had three bedrooms, two livings rooms and a kitchen, in the centre of Slough. The house was near the main railway line that ran to the West Country and Austin remembers that ‘on wet days, my sister and I would position ourselves by the bedroom window… and write down the names and numbers of the engines’ (3).
Prior to gas being laid in the road, Austin’s mother cooked on a coal fire. They used gas for lighting and a cooker. The floors of the house were mainly linoleum except for the front room which had carpet. The family helped Margaret with the housework on Saturdays, Violet was given the task of polishing the brass rods and door knobs.
In the evenings the family spent time together and George would often sing to them and he could also ‘dance a wonderful soft shoe shuffle’ (18) Despite there being a twelve year age gap between Violet and her eldest brother she remembers ‘feeling very proud when [he]… came home on leave’ (20).
Friday nights in the house were bath nights and all the children hated having their hair washed. However they were allowed to read their comics after as a reward. Saturdays mornings, after the chores were done, the children received their pocket money and went to the shop to spend it. Summer afternoons were spent playing in the field at the end of their road. During the winter, Saturday afternoons were spent at the public hall watching films. On Sundays Austin attended Sunday school with her sister and after tea ‘would go for walks with [her] parents’ (8).
During the First World War ‘food became scarce and rationing was introduced’ (7). Unlike the second world war, families did not have to register with a butcher and grocers, instead they would have to queue ‘only to find when our turn came supplies had run out, and [they] had to try somewhere else’ (7)
The family begun saving on New Years Day for the following Christmas and preparations began early with mother buying the ingredients for the pudding and cake. Austin and her sister were given the ‘sticky’ task of stoning the raisins ‘made more bearable by being allowed to eat some’ (10). On Christmas eve the family shopped ‘in the High Street for [their] Christmas fare’ (10) they also bought supplies for the Christmas dinner. The children hand made presents for their parents ‘perhaps a book-mark for Dad, a pin cushion… for Mum’ (10)
One Christmas eve, Austin’s sister saw their father ‘dressed in Mothers red dressing gown’ (11). Violet wished her sister had not told her this as she ‘wanted to go on believing in Father Christmas’ (11). Christmas morning, the children woke up early, ‘before it was light’ and each of them received ‘an orange, apple and nuts’ in their stockings as well as ‘other small packages’ and one large present ‘usually a book or a game’(11).
Other special occasions in the Austin household included birthdays, where they received ‘cards and small presents from [their] parents’ (11). Annual events such as, the marathon that was run from Windsor to Hyde Park was important as the family would stand and cheer the runners on. There was also boat race day and Founders day at Eton College in June. If it fell on a Friday their parents allowed the children to stay up for the ‘fireworks display which ended the days events’ (12)
Throughout her life Austin and her sister remained close and her sister remained living in Slough and Austin explains ‘to her I am still the little sister, to be spoiled occasionally’ (34) Austin met her husband, Harry and in June 1935 the couple married. They had one daughter.
Austin’s reflection on her home and family life is a happy one and she seems to place a lot of importance on her family members.
i. Bourke, J, Working Class Cultures in Britain: 1890-1960, 1994, London, Routledge, p. 178
Austin, Violet, ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:22
Census Record found: http://goo.gl/uETn7F
Marriage Registry found: http://goo.gl/HXVnrg