‘Looking Over My Shoulder to Childhood Days and Later’ – Alice Pidgeon (born c.1898)
Alice Pidgeon’s memoir tells a story of sadness and loss, and readers cannot fail to sympathise with her and feel a strong liking for her character. The many terrible events that occurred in her younger years could have led to a bitter and troubled young woman, but the good standard of care she received in the orphanage after her parents died, created a hard-working and spirited young woman.
With good humour and naivety Alice Pidgeon merrily describes her experiences of childhood and young adult life. Born in Bradford, she spent her early years here, before moving to Streatham in London at around the age of four when her father got a job as a newspaper reporter for the Daily Chronicle.
Despite the many hardships encountered, her wit and light-hearted style make it less of a dismal read and more of an enjoyable and eye-opening read.
Alice’s personality intrigues me and encourages me to read on through her memoir. Death, illness and tough times are themes present throughout her writing, interlinked with happiness, friendship and ambition. This combination creates a very authentic piece of writing, which can be visualised and experienced as the story unfolds.
At the age of six, Alice’s suffered the loss of both of her parents, who died within weeks of each other. A happy family life preceded this unfortunate turn of events, and Alice lovingly describes memories of her hard-working and very caring mother and father; her father a newspaper reporter, her mother a high-class dress maker.
The family appear to have been quite sickly. Alice’s younger sister, Doris, was struck with a terrible illness in infanthood that meant that at the age of two she was temporarily left unable to walk and talk, and not until the age of three and a half was she able to learn to do so again. Their father also had ‘combustion’ problems, of which Alice mentions quite a lot. This was a problem to his work, as he would plough on through illness, after only a few days rest, so as to hold down his job, sacrificing his health. Her mother died only weeks after the horrific miscarriage of her third baby; a result of an accident in which she fell down a flight of stairs in their home during pregnancy. Her father died shortly after her mother from a ‘broken heart’ as the doctor diagnosed it. As a result of this ill-fate, the girls suffered a dramatic change of lifestyle and went from living in a family home of comfort and security, to being taken to live in a girls orphanage.
Alice resided in St. John Groom’s Home for Little Girls, in London, until the age of seventeen. Her experience, as she describes it, is one of happiness and care, punctured, however, by the sad truth of her past and the longing to see her parents again. She created good friendships within the orphanage and speaks highly of the girls she lived with. Not overly strict, the orphanage, where they were mercifully not required to wear a uniform but wore normal clothes so as to blend in with other local girls, proved a good home for Alice and her sister.
Many people come and go in Alice’s life. In her younger years, before her parents’ death, Alice recalls her grannie being an important presence in her life. Her grannie, although blind, was a friendly figure and spent her time knitting and offering sweets and other confectionaries to Alice and Doris. Alice cared greatly for her, and was saddened to leave her when the time came for her to go to the orphanage.
Alice’s nurturing disposition is something she would carry over into her career as a nanny, caring for children, as well as eventually her own children in later life. She recalls looking after her younger sister once she had recovered from her strenuous illness and this gentle character was a trait she kept through her time in the orphanage and in later years. Her desire was to look after young children and babies, and she travelled great distances around the country to find her ideal position. She encountered the horrid bullying figure of the nurse in one of her jobs, and for the first time we read of meanness and cruelty. She risks her health, too, to find herself a good position as nanny. Already flu-ridden, she traipses across Manchester and neighbouring places to go for her interview.
Alice mentions her naivety frequently in her writing, and this helps highlight another frequent class distiction. Many of the employers offering work as a nanny in their home, take her lack of knowledge light-heartedly, while some show definite signs of snobbery towards the young, innocent woman.
Readers of Alice’s memoir will never lose interest, as her story twists and turns so much that it creates a highly stimulating read. Those with interest in early 20th century England, particularly Bolton, Streatham or indeed those with knowledge of John Groom, would find this a highly useful insight, as it covers many areas of the country, not just specifically on one. Those who are interested in learning about the orphanages and the different lifestyles and class systems of the era will also learn much from reading Alice Pidgeon’s memoir.