Wilfred Middlebrook (b.1899): Home and Family

Wilfred Middlebrook opens up the story of his life by introducing us to his father, Rufus. His father was born in 1878 and spent his childhood years in the countryside at Langho, near Blackburn. Wilfred recalls how with three new additions into his father’s life– ‘a younger brother and two sisters’ (p.1)– the family had to move to the larger town of Blackburn to ‘join the large army of “poverty knockers” or textile slaves’ (p.1). By addressing his father,–as well as his mother and her upbringing, in the following chapter– Wilfred focuses his writing on family life. He writes about his experiences at home; growing up in various parts of Lancashire and later, in the second part of his memoir, we meet Wilfred’s wife, Margaret, and their two children. David Vincent notes that working class autobiographers often felt ‘unable or felt it improper… to write at length’ about aspects of their family life, stating that language became a problem for many and themes of ‘love’ or ‘grief’ were complicated topics to dedicate writing space to (Vincent, 1980, p.227). By contrast, whilst reading Wilfred’s memoir, we see an emotional and vulnerable side. This is demonstrated through Wilfred’s dedication of chapters to not only his mother and father’s upbringing, but their deaths also.

Wilfred was the first surviving child of Rufus and Agnes, his mother and father. Wilfred states that by the ripe age of twenty one, ‘Rufus was a dad for the third time’ (p.16). The couple’s first child had been a daughter named Bertha, who lived an exceedingly short life indeed and then, they had their second born child–a baby boy, named Frank who was voted the ‘loveliest baby boy in the neighbourhood (p.16). Speaking of Frank, Wilfred states how ‘many an old crone would stop Agnes in the street and say, “he’s a reight bonny lad, but you’ll never rear ‘im- he’s too bonny to live”‘ (p.16). Then, Agnes and Rufus had their third child–Wilfred. Born a ‘puny mite’ (p.16), Wilfred crossed paths with his older brother Frank for a brief period. Wilfred describes his baby self as a ‘weakling’ and recalls how when his brother Frank passed away, many in the neighbourhood thought it was in fact Wilfred, instead. He reflects on neighbours reactions, noting that they said ‘little Wilfred has gone at last…he were just too weak to live, that one’ (p.16). Before many months passed, the little family packed their bags and headed to the ‘new and growing town of Nelson’ for a ‘fresh start in life’ (p.17).

Wilfred, as a small child, with both his parents

With both of his parents working, Wilfred was nursed by a Mrs. Thompson (who lived a few doors down on his street) until the age of three, when he began school. Living with Mrs. Thompson were a few young butchers who ‘delighted in thrilling’ (p.18) young Wilfred with fearsome tricks, such as ‘making a thumb disappear by waving a hand in front of it’ or, even more disturbing, pretending ‘to cut out their tongues, doubling them back in their mouths so that only a horrible looking stump remained (p.18). However, as a child, Wilfred’s fascination with butchers only grew. Speaking of the local slaughterhouse, that backed onto his home, Wilfred details the various methods used to kill the animals and what would happen if things were to go wrong: ‘sometimes the man with the pole-axe made a faulty strike, just missing the vital point on the broad forehead which meant instant insensibility for the terrified beast’ (p.20). Whilst reminiscing about the slaughterhouse, Wilfred does comment that the sight of blood in later years would have ‘bowled’ him over completely, but not as a small child, ‘not yet going to school’ (p.18).

Newly digested images from the British Film Institute’s Archives: workers leaving the cotton mills–among them, would have been the likes of Rufus and Agnes

‘This love of home was passed on to me’ (p.36)

As a child, Wilfred’s father was not a prominent figure in the household. Managing two jobs resulted in Rufus rarely being at home. He worked, as Wilfred notes, ‘as a tackler or weaving overlooker’ in the cotton mills from ‘six in the morning to five-thirty in the evening’ (p.47) and would then rush home for tea before ‘proceeding to the theatre to play his cornet in the orchestra’ (p.47). As Julie-Marie Strange notes ‘the tasks of parenting…feeding, nurturing and training, fell to women…father practises were grounded in earning sufficient wages to support the family economy (Strange, 2012, p.1008). For Wilfred’s father, who had known little of ‘the comforts of a happy home’ (p.36), the security of a home was essential to him. In this way, Wilfred emphasised that his father worked relentlessly for his family, to ensure they never went without.

Wilfred as a young boy

In his memoir, Wilfred speaks of other family members that he went to visit, often. He speaks of his great aunt– Mary Martha Middlebrook– who lived with him and his parents for sometime during the early days on Norfolk Street. This ‘white haired lady’ (as Wilfred refers to her) owned a sweet shop, a shop Wilfred chiefly remembers for its ‘wooden blue-paper lined boxes of plain chocolate that sold for a penny a bar in those days’ (p.21). In reference to his great aunt, Wilfred claims ‘old people’ (p.20) were his friends. He states that alongside Mary Martha Middlebrook, both his neighbours Mrs Thornton–‘once a lady’s maid’ (p.21)– and Miss Sarah Jane Longstaffe– a ‘winder in the cotton mills’ (p.21)– were companions of his. He remembers bringing a ‘loaf and a couple of oven-bottomed cakes’, from his mother, to Miss Longstaffe and can still recall the ‘pungent smell of tallow candles’ (p.21) that she used. Rather than using these candles, Wilfred claimed his family were more advanced by using ‘flickering fish-tail gas burners’ that came in handy, especially, for ‘warming a baby’s milk if it needed a feed during the night’ (p.21)– an act Wilfred witnessed his father do many times when he had a baby brother a few years later.

John Benson reflects on the economic disparity in early-twentieth century Britain, stating ‘although many working people did eventually become better off, a small minority remained….on the poverty line’ (Benson, 1989, p.103). Perhaps then, we can speculate that the Middlebrook family were better off compared to their fellow class comrades.

A modernised Norfolk Street: a place Wilfred spent many of his childhood days. I wonder what changes have been made to the street, since Wilfred lived here

I think its rather apparent that Wilfred’s family were of great significance to him, as they make up such a large proportion of his memoir. Despite his mother’s strictness, Wilfred assures that she ‘never ceased to care’ (p.37) for him or his siblings. Moreover, Wilfred’s father never ceased to care or provide for his family. For a short while, Wilfred recalls his father working three jobs, ‘as though a double job was not enough to keep his wife, and now, three children, my father decided to buy a grocery and confectionary business’ (p.50). In this way, his father acted a driving force, ensuring that his children had a good, satisfied life and a childhood filled with love, unlike himself. The importance of family and home then, seems to be imperative to the Middlebrook family.

In the second part of his memoir, Wilfred dedicates two complete chapters to the death of both his mother and father. In a touching statement, Wilfred recalls how his mother fell gravely ill after his father’s passing, finding her in a ‘pitiable condition, her face smaller and pathetically childish as she slept in a bed downstairs…as I leaned over her…she whispered “we are still parted”‘ (p.50). Wilfred claims the doctor was puzzled by his mother’s case, with ‘no will to live and a refusal of food’ but Wilfred states he knew all his mother longed for was to ‘join dad’ (p.50). This demonstrates how close-knit the Middlebrook family were with one another.

Additionally, the intimacy and affection between Agnes and Rufus is clearly embedded in Wilfred and his wife, Margaret. Whilst Wilfred reflects on his and Margaret’s older years, he recalls taking care of her as she grew ill and how he desperately tried to get a wheelchair for Margaret so she could continue ‘going out of doors’ and enjoy it (p.166).

Although Wilfred never explicitly reveals too much about his emotions, I think it’s quite clear from reading his memoir that he had a positive and loving experience in regards to his home life and this was something that he carried through all his ages, and when he had his own family eventually.

Bibliography

Benson, John. The Working Class in Britain 1850-1939. London: Langman, 1989.

Middlebrook, Wilfred. Trumpet Voluntary, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographers, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:0527

Strange, Julie Marie. ‘Providing, fatherhood and technologies of attachment, 1870-1914. Historical Journal 55.4 (2012), pp 1007-1027

Vincent, David. Love and Death and the Nineteenth Century Working Class. Social History, 5.2 (1980) pp. 223-247

Images

[1] Wilfred with his parents, Agnes and Rufus. Accessed 05.03.21.

[2] The Lancashire Telegraph. Accessed 05.03.21. Available here: https://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/news/13395764.rare-footage-blackburn-early-1900s-makes-debut-online/

[3] Wilfred as a young boy. Accessed 29.04.21. Available here: https://hes32-ctp.trendmicro.com/wis/clicktime/v1/query?url=https%3a%2f%2fucf0a3dbb63ee0d66ab3e982f964.previews.dropboxusercontent.com%2fp%2fthumb%2fABICrFpdO147tXiTs2NaWsfOTYjvw9Wyin%5f1hef3omlGQDK9EW%2dDbXMjOyQ5jc8EKYRm0WgINzLyZrgPyLTEMBb8B1B7gpG7iCISDitY3At0FOM72I0uWPstv7xMGYm1W4Q2EK%2dIuhD1JiBFCjm0W8%5fGNk0Ncm9F1VVdIswMR%5fXglIhTPALBuLYGt41VKXMfacQJpJgh%2dY2EXgxNagzKBIDGQH1A1v%5fDxSwmEHPgtOi4YC39XjN0BCFl9SJvNIeZVCCqq5mYhfKoV3BZ8xEGRFu3xvJUraL62dcoTwAqCmlAyGeNQF0Avi25dVQYjtcCH0lcLM%2dJyOYxDGNIyNQc4Q7fQYewyLPx4XaPyx7%5fltH%5fmQ%2fp.jpeg%3ffv%5fcontent%3dtrue%26size%5fmode%3d5&umid=ee611b70-65cf-4fa5-be7f-e058516b0385&auth=0137b66311891b738f469deb958acc8896db9ff6-7dace54ef1973e88edc0fe0aeb2cdab9f663eeb9

[4] Zoopla (Accessed 05.03.21) Available here: https://www.zoopla.co.uk/for-sale/details/57166595

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