One regular occurrence I have noticed when reading working-class memoirs is the frequent occurrence of a death of a parent, mostly a mother, causing a family to adopt a relative, e.g a niece/nephew. This is the case in Winifred’s memoir when Alice’s mother dies. Alice is Winifred’s cousin related to her on her mother’s side of the family. Alice’s mother leaves behind a husband and four children, one of which is a small infant, Alice. Winifred’s Uncle Jesse who was left widowed with four children looked to his sisters for help, like many working class families did. Winifred’s mother took Alice in as an addition to their family despite her being a small child who would consume a lot of her time with nursing. This would have been a significant burden on Alice’s mother as Winifred describes her mother’s role in keeping the household in order as very tough already without the added burden of a ‘sickly baby’ (p8).
One of the most heart-warming things about Winifred’s memoir as I have previously mentioned is the sense of respect, love and admiration Winifred felt for her parents. This is particularly true in the case of their adopting Alice. The early 20th century was notoriously a hard period for working-class families as Winifred highlights in her memoir. Her father had to work extremely long and hard hours to keep their family afloat, and her mother had to work extremely hard in the home to keep the household, and to be industrious with their money. Taking in another child will have been a very daunting thing for Winifred’s parents to do, as the additional cost of keeping a child would have caused them to need be even more industrious than before with their money, as they had one more mouth to feed: ‘Life would not have been so hard on my parents had they not taken on an additional burden when I was between four and five years old’ (p8). However despite the risks of taking in Alice Winifred’s parents did so and worked extremely hard to give both of the girls a happy upbringing, as Alice never returned to live with her father.
‘The tenuous balance of the family economy would be threatened by a loss of income if any of the wage-earners were affected directly, or indirectly if work had to be given up to take the place of a sick mother, and by a drain on resources caused by expenditure on medicine, medical fees and extra food’ (p238).
This quotation comes from David Vincent’s ‘Love and Death and the 19th century working-class’ and really gives you the sense of threat any changes to family life had for a working-class family at this time. Yet despite this Winifred’s parents took Alice in; ‘my mother brought the poor sickly baby Alice back with her to London. It took all her time and nursing skills to bring the little mite back to life and this she did. Alice thrived and grew into a bonny looking girl with lovely blue eyes and masses of fair hair’ (p8). Winifred’s description of her mother’s treatment of Alice really gives you the sense that Winifred’s mother was a kind and caring mother, who she learned from. Winifred’s parent’s struggle was also intensified by Alice’s rickets as a child, as this would have caused an additional burden of medical fees for the family.
Winifred’s family are not the only working-class family to have taken on the additional burden of another child through their sense of responsibility, there are many other examples in the archive of working class memoirs. One other example of this occurrence is in Frank Goss’s memoir. Frank’s parents adopted his cousin Bill when his whole family died of consumption. They did so despite struggling to get by very much already, like Winifred’s parents through their sense of responsibility: ‘their sense of responsibly for the last of this family must have outweighed the very strong material considerations of the addition of an extra child’ (p97). Frank’s description of his parents decision to take in another child is very much like Winifred’s. Both recognise the sense of burden that came along with taking in another child, yet the admiration they felt for their parents in doing so anyway.
Alice’s story is one of the most heart-warming stories of her childhood Winifred tells as it really highlights her parent’s sense of responsibility and duty of care for their family. The fact that this occurrence of adopting family members in need was a common one amongst the working-classes despite all its disadvantages and risks, highlights something about the sense of community and responsibility amongst working-class families that should be admired.
2-0763- TILL, Winifred, ‘The Early Years of a Victorian Grandmother’, TS, pp.39(c.13,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247