‘We kept body and soul together, and we were happy together.’ (Pg. 3).
On the 24th May 1921 Ellen Cooper was born in Worcester. Ellen came from a working-class background. She lived with her mother, father and younger brother and sister in their home in Southend on Sea, Essex. At the beginning of her memoir, Ellen tells of her memory of another sister being born ‘but the baby died soon afterward’. (pg. 1). Ellen led a loving life which she talks about throughout her memoir.
In 1955, when Ellen was 34 years old, she married her boyfriend John and gained the surname ‘Cooper.’ Ellen’s maiden name was ‘Golding.’ The Golding family were close and enjoyed spending time together playing Ludo and draughts in the evenings. Ellen’s father learned to play draughts during the First World War and although Ellen and her family tried hard to beat him, they did not have much success.
Ellen’s mother’s job was unpaid domestic duties. Ellen often tells of her mother’s caring nature. When Ellen was young, she had St Vitus Dance (Sydenham’s chorea), and her siblings had the measles but ‘with care and compassion Mother made us well again, and needless to say, we all survived.’ (pg. 1). Ellen tells of how her father had a hard-working nature; he worked hard for a ‘pittance’ (pg. 3). ‘Earning crust’ (Pg. 1) was his expression. Although Ellen was born into a working-class family with little money, they did not let this stop them from being a happy and united family.
Ellen wrote her memoir in 1993 at the age of 72. I recently discovered that Ellen passed away 7 years after writing her memoir in 2000 at age 79. Her memoir is hand-written and short in comparison to other autobiographies from the Burnett collection – only 8 pages. Her reflective, engaging and direct writing style makes it easy for readers to gain a sense of the person Ellen was and the life she led.
Ellen addresses herself to the themes of the family home, art and crafts, labour and the life of a young woman growing up in 1920s Britain. John Burnett states that ‘writers generally address themselves to a specific set of major themes’ (Burnett, 1982; pg. 3). In each of these themes Ellen writes of important events in her life, moments of happiness and sadness, which shaped her as a person.
Equal to most of us, Ellen’s experiences in life were good and bad. She tells of ‘the first blow’ (pg. 6) she experienced in life when her brother was called for the army in the Medical Court. She tells of the misery this caused her family. ‘Fate stuck again’ (pg. 6) for Ellen and her family when her father had a stroke and became very unwell. After her brother returned from war, Ellen’s father passed away: ‘We were bereft but he at least saw his son again before he died’ (pg. 6).
Ellen attended a local secondary school and she was ‘very happy there’ (pg. 4). This is where she learned to draw which became an interest of Ellen’s. ‘During the early nineteenth century, as Britain industrialised, working class people came to be aware of their class identity, which led them to campaign for their interests’ (Savage; 2015, pg. 152). In campaigning for their interests, working class people founded a new freedom where they could inspire to achieve the jobs they wanted.
Ellen won a scholarship for the Arts and Crafts school in Southend. At this school she changed her name from Nellie back to Ellen. Interestingly, at home she was called Pidge: ‘All my family still call me aunty Pidge’ (pg. 4).
I was intrigued by Ellen’s warm and inviting narrative tone. In a way, Ellen, as a writer, is quite mysterious. She does not provide the name of the secondary school she attended, the dates of important events, and the names of her family members. However, this is why I love Ellen’s memoir. I have so many questions about Ellen’s life and there is so much information to research. The title of Ellen’s memoir reflects her mysterious writing style. The memoir is titled ‘The House Where I Grew Up.’ I was immediately drawn to her memoir by the title, as I wanted to discover what the house she grew up in was like. A house provides families a space in which to be happy and comfortable and this is evident through Ellen’s description and memories of the house where she grew up.
Mrs. E. Cooper ‘The house where I grew up’, unpublished memoir, 1993, 8pp, Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Special Collections Library, Brunel University. Childhood in 1920s, 1930s, in Southend on Sea, Essex. Descriptions of family home. Art and craft school in Southend. Memories of World War 11 in Southend, London and Hounslow. Family in post-war years.
Burnett, John. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood. Allen Lane. 1982.
Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. Pelican. 2015.