Walter’s memoirs focus on his life up until the Armistice of The Great War, when he was 28. Readers are therefore given great insight into Walter’s early life. Upon reading Walter’s memoirs, which were written in 1970, the reader experiences a sense of nostalgia for his younger years growing up in rural England. Alun Howkin explains how the ‘1901 census revealed that in England…77 per cent of the population…lived in urban areas’ However, Walter and his family were like the other ’23 per cent [who] lived in rural districts’. Through Walter’s recollection of events from his younger years, readers learn a lot about Walter’s family and home life growing up in rural England, in the Sussex village of Little Common.
David Vincent suggests ‘that the most striking characteristic of the autobiographers’ treatment of their family experience is not what is said but rather what is not said’ (226). This is something that I feel is demonstrated in Walter’s memoirs. We rarely see Walter express any deep emotions about his family, and he remains factual in his retelling of stories. Thus, as a reader we are not introduced to Walter’s true feelings and emotions towards his family. However, Walter does allow the reader insight into events and aspects of his family life, whereby we are able to sense the pride and love Walter had for his family. I found the beginning of his memoirs to be very insightful when considering his family life. Walter begins his memoirs by briefly talking about his birth. He says that it ‘might well have been announced in the local Newspaper – The Bexhill Observer’ (1). This I felt was significant as it demonstrates the pride felt by the family to have another child. It also hints to the reader the proximity of the family and how loved each member was.
Through Walter’s memoirs we begin to learn about some of his relationships with different members of his family. He spends a significant amount of time talking about his father, his Aunt Marm and his Uncle Bob. Thus, it is clear to see that these three figures played a huge part in Walter’s childhood. In Fatherhood and the British Working Class, J.M Strange says that ‘Autobiographers tend not to express their feelings directly’ and for Walter this appears to be true. When talking about his father, Walter lists the things that he was a part of. He says that ‘On Sundays we all went to Chapel…Pa practically ran the lot. He played Harmonium was Superintendent of the Sunday School and was the Leader of the Temperance Guide’ (3) .This I felt was significant as it seems by Walter listing the positions his father held, he appears to demonstrate the pride he felt for his father, about the way he was so involved in the church and their community.
Alongside this, Walter recalls the ‘annual Sunday School outing Pa usually took [them] on’ (3). He tells the reader how they would play ‘cricket and various games’ (3). This aspect of their relationship was clearly important to Walter as following this he says that ‘Pa was hit on his foot by the cricket ball’ (3) and that ‘this was the beginning of the end for poor Pa, he had endless trouble later on during his lifetime’ (3). Through Walter’s recollection of this event in his childhood, the reader is given an understanding of how much this time spent with his father meant to him. This is because through the detailed recollection of the event the reader understands the disappointment Walter felt for his father hurting his foot, as this would mean the games they played would have reduced, or even stopped altogether. Thus, as a reader we are given insight into the close relationship Walter could have had with his father.
Walter’s Aunt Marm ‘ran the Sub Post Office’ (6) which was attached to the ‘GROCER ELLIOTT DRAPER’ (5) store that the family owned. Again, like his father, Walter speaks of Marm’s position in the village. He says that ‘customers liked to talk and joke with her’ (6) and that ‘it was said she was the first and only Post Master in the Country’ (6). Therefore, once again, we are given a sense of affection being expressed through Walter’s pride in what his family did, rather than Walter explicitly saying how much a person meant to him. Aunt Marm played a big part in Walter’s life, as he explains that he ‘could mention lots of things about [her]’ (8). The reader therefore understands that Walter remembers a lot about growing up around Aunt Marm, thus highlighting the important role she played in his life. There is, however, one story that Walter recollects for readers in detail. He explains how, his brother, ‘Ted found a big fat toad in the garden’ (7) and how it was put into the post box at the family shop. Walter remembers how Aunt Marm ‘unlocked the Post box…put her arm down into the aperture…then drew it back again a bit sharpish’ (7) and told Ted to remove what he had put into the post box. He continues to say that ‘Ted grinned…for he had been waiting weeks and weeks for Aunt Marm to let him take the letters out but she had always said “No you are not allowed to touch her Majesty’s mail”’ (7). Through this anecdote, the reader is given the sense of the fun and laughter the children must have had at the expense of their aunt. This is clearly a fond memory that Walter recalls as he speaks about the event in detail, emphasising the impact that his interactions with Aunt Marm must have had on his life.
Walter’s Uncle Bob is also a significant character in his youth. Just like his father and his aunt, Walter speaks of his Uncle’s contributions to the community. Walter begins by stating that ‘Uncle Bob was the Village Baker’ (10). He also tells us that his Uncle ‘had a new house built on the site of the Village Hall called The Room’ (10) and that ‘The Village Band practised’ (10) there. Therefore, again, the reader is introduced to how involved the members of the Elliott family were in the community. Following this, we learn that Uncle Bob oversaw the Telegram service when it was installed in the post office. This lead to Walter’s first introductions to working life, as ‘uncle Bob got [Walter] to deliver the messages on Saturdays and after school hours’ (10). As a working-class man this was clearly a significant part of Walter’s life, as it was his first introduction to his life as a hard-working individual. Reading Walter’s memoirs about this time of his life, it is clear to see that he was proud to be entrusted with the telegrams for the village of Little Common.
The Elliott family’s involvement in the community is clearly something that Walter was proud of. However, because of this continuous association with Walter’s family and their involvement in the community, we rarely glimpse the private interactions in his family. Therefore, it is difficult to distinguish what a working-class family life was like behind closed doors through Walter’s memoirs. Although, because of this, the reader understands that involvement in the community was a big part of the Elliott family life.
Elliott, Walter J.E. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:227, available at: http//bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9520
Howkin, A. 2003. The Death of Rural England: A Social History of the Countryside Since 1900, London: Routledge, eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost, viewed April 2017
JM Strange. Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class’ Social History Vol. 5, no. 2 (May, 1980), pp 223-247
Walter J.E Elliott 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): 1:227
Image 1: http://www.littlecommoncooden.co.uk/community/history/#
Image 2: http://saxon.sussexchurches.co.uk/ford_sac_1900.htm
Image 3: http://www.littlecommoncooden.co.uk/community/history/#
Image 4: http://www.214squadron.org.uk/Personnel_T_M.htm