Wilhelmina Tobias: Home and Family

When Wilhelmina talks about her memories of home and the family it is often in the form of recollections of rituals and events. These occasions, such as ironing day and washing day, appear to have been not only family, but community pursuits. She very rarely mentions her mother or father and declines to mention how many siblings she had. Despite this, she leaves little clues as to her relationship with each of the elder members of her family.


When reading the memoir closely, evidence of some friction can be inferred between a young Wilhelmina and her grandmother. She notes that on one occasion she was ‘soundly scolded by Granny’ whilst on another occasion, when telling of the day her family received news of her father’s death, that her grandmother’s voice took on an ‘unusual gentle (for her) voice’. Wilhelmina tells the story of her grandmother poring over the death announcements in the paper and attending funerals before coming home ‘primed with enough gossip to last weeks.’ All of these mentions could be seen in a negative light whilst the inclusions of her mother and father are always positive.

poss stick
A Poss Stick used for washing clothes

As well as citing examples of family, Wilhelmina always includes a community oriented viewpoint. Examples of community and family being intertwined for her are evident when Wilhelmina describes washing day. Every ‘Monday, wet or fine, the whole street reverberated from end to end with the steady thump thump of “poss-sticks” […] “in poss-tubs” filled with last week’s dirty clothes and soapy suds’ followed by a boil in a ‘set pot’ before being passed through the mangle. Tuesday was ‘universal ironing day’ and the ‘mountainous pile of clothes’ were already dampened and starched before ironing.

An example of some flat irons

Wilhelmina witnessed her mother undertaking these activities weekly during her everyday life, and it was the same for every other mother up and down the street. Wilhelmina’s statement that ‘in all our working class neighbourhood I never knew one mother who went out to work.’ backs up a statement that suggests she believes this to be advantageous for children when giving forth her opinion about the youth of today by stating ‘We may have been short on material things […] but one great advantage we did have was a happy innocent childhood alas so sadly denied to children of today, with our mother’s always there when we needed them’


The lack of personal reference in the memoir often results in Wilhelmina’s memories and recollections of family life being triggered by outside stimuli within the household, for instance, she often associates sounds and smells from the home with memories. This Proustian like style of using smells and sounds to recall specific memories is consistent with results obtained by Marieke B. J. Toffolo et al in a study proposing that distinctive smells have more power than any other sense in helping us recall distant memories.


Their theory is named after the French writer Marcel Proust, who in his novel À la recherche du temps perdu (1913) describes a character vividly recalling long-forgotten memories from his childhood after smelling a tea-soaked madeleine biscuit. In Wilhelmina’s case it is not the smell of tea soaked madelineines but freshly baked bread on baking days that evokes hers memories from that time, even stating ‘People didn’t try to disguise or abolish cooking smells…delicious aromas that made our young mouths water when we came home from school’.


Sounds, as well as smells, are used by Wilhelmina to remember family rituals and events. The sound of her mother scraping yesterday’s grease from the iron frying pan each morning was ‘Among the more lovely sounds of her childhood.’ Also included in amongst the more pleasant sounds of her childhood in the home are the sound of ‘knives being sharpened on scores of window sills and stone doorsteps in preparation for Sunday joints,’ and little girls practicing piano.


Works Cited

Proust, M. (1913) ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’, first published in English as ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff In the Chatto and Windus Uniform Edition [1941] cited by

Marieke B. J. Toffolo et al (2012) ‘Proust revisited: Odours as triggers of aversive memories’ Cognition and Emotion 26 (1):83-92

Tobias, Wilhelmina, ‘Childhood Memories’, MS pp.22 (c, 5,000 words). Brunel University Library.



Fig 1. http://www.1900s.org.uk/life-times-images/dolly.jpg

Fig 2. http://www.1900s.org.uk/life-times-images/flat-irons.jpg

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