Rosa Bell (b.1902): An Introduction

Rosa Bell, born in 1902 as the youngest of seven children to Joseph and Elizabeth Holliday, lived a long and, unfortunately, not always happy life. Born and raised in Cumberland, she later moved to Doncaster, after her marriage to her husband, Ken, for better job prospects in the inter-war years. She was an apprentice dressmaker, a housemaid, a nanny, a religious believer, a Sunday School teacher, a wife, an educated woman and, most significantly, a writer. By exploring Rosa Bell’s carefully composed memoir, I hope to learn more about her life and the lives of those around her in both the good and bad times of her personal history.

R.M. Remembers is the memoir of Rosa Bell, handwritten by her in approximately 1981 to 1982 between the months of September and March. Written when Rosa was nearing the age of eighty years old, the memoir is a nostalgic account, not solely of her own life, but the lives of the people who influenced and surrounded her – from the elderly couple who used to run a grocery store to her close relationship with her father. Each ‘chapter’ of the memoir begins with a unique title, the name of a person that Rosa held dear to her, that in her later years she is attempting to remember (thus rendering the title R.M. Remembers quite apt) through fond stories and anecdotes of that person from her earlier years. For example, one of Rosa’s initial chapters entitled ‘About Jane’ (Jane appears to be her aunt, based on an examination of Rosa Bell’s family tree) is a beautiful account of a hardworking and caring woman, who even in the direst of times, always had a space at her table for a hungry mouth or to help a person in need: “Jane looked after me – I can picture her still even now I am nearly 80 years of age, standing at my bedside with a bag of cakes and a doll for me. She brought up a wonderful family who made their way so well even in those days when opportunities were so few.” (p.17)


Rosa Bell’s Family Tree: Including her Aunt Jane and Siblings [1]

A recurring theme which is apparent from my examination of the memoir, is Rosa Bell’s unwavering and dedicated faith in the inherent goodness of other people. As is always the case, no one’s life is without struggle and Rosa lived through the depression of the 1930s, unemployment, struggling on the dole, financial troubles, mining accidents, deaths and unfortunately many more tragic events. However, Rosa’s voice and trust in the goodness of people never wavers throughout her memoir. The sense of community and unity in hardship is very strong in this memoir, which is what I find most interesting about it, as the various people Rosa remembers fondly never seem to waver in their generosity and care for one another. I look forward to continuing my examination of her memoir and hope that her positive attitude and faith in other people remains throughout. Overall Rosa’s voice is powerful and overwhelmingly positive, no matter what hardships befell her in life. As Rosa said herself: “I wonder so often now why people seem to be so discontent, when those I have mentioned travelled a very hard road, but kept on smiling…” (p.49)


1939: Jobseekers. [2]

“I remember watching for my husband in a queue in Cumberland almost 1/2 a mile long all of them good honest men really wanting work.” (p.29)

In terms of writing style, my first impression of Rosa’s memoir is that it is rather jumbled as her memories do not adhere to a linear timeline and the individual chapters read more like stories than a focused or structured memoir. Rosa herself even identifies this fact halfway through her memoir when she, for the first time, acknowledges her reader (the intended recipient of Rosa’s memoir is unknown, although I suspect it may be John Burnett): “So I hope you well enjoy reading this even though it is a bit muddled. Rmb 1982.” (p.41) Despite this, her writing style is quite beautiful and unique. Her stories of the individual characters of her past are vivid and the tiny details she remembers, from odd phrases spoken to her as a child, to remembering the prices of food and rent in particular times, stand out in helping Rosa to paint a picture of her life.

What I most look forward to in Rosa’s memoir is learning about how even in the hardest periods of her life, it was the people around her who managed to help her keep a positive and thankful attitude for what they did have, and not sadness over what they didn’t. As Rosa said in her own words: “We did get by – we neither stole or robbed anyone & as I said before the closeness of each other and all the friendly feeling carried us along and we still had some happy days…” (p.41)

Memoir:

Bell, Rosa. “R.M. Remembers.” Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collections, 2:59, available at: http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10895

Citations:

[1] Bell, Rosa. “R.M. Remembers.” Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:59, available at: http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10895

[2] Bell, Rosa. Family Tree, Figure 2. “R.M Remembers.” Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:59. Page 85.

[3] MacBride, Elizabeth. 2013. “Suicide and The Economy.” Washington D.C: The Atlantic Magazine. Available at: theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/09/suicide-and-the-economy/279961/

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