Bessie Wallis (b. 1904): An Introduction.

My YESTERDAYS were an equal mixture of good and bad… Life was what we made it when I was a child in Yorkshire before the First World War’ (1, a)

 

Born in 1904, Bessie Wallis grew up in the Yorkshire mining village of West Melton. Bessie was the daughter of a head rope-splicer in the local mine up until the First World War. Sadly her father contracted Tuberculosis and could not return to his previous position in the mines. Bessie states she went to school with her eldest brother but fails to mention how many other siblings she had.

Lawson Frank. Old Bricks- history at your feet: West Melton.
Lawson Frank. Old Bricks- history at your feet: West Melton.

Although she does regularly mention her family when referring to moments in her life, she does not introduce them as individuals. Bessie began her memoir during her seventies, which she appropriately names Yesterdays as it is a series of events from her earlier life. Bessie mentions that she was ‘half –blind and disabled’ (6, 31) which could give reason to writing her memoir. Bessie’s memoir takes us on her adventure of life within a family of miners and growing up as a young woman in the twentieth century.

Bessie describes the family dynamics of her household as ‘the raising of the children was always the task of the mother in those days’ (1, b). She recalls how her father and brother worked in the mine which she describes as ‘cruelly dangerous’ (2, 3). Although her mother worked hard for her family women were not paid to look after their offspring, Bessie tells us the tale of how her mother would ‘help herself to exactly half of his money’ (1, h), which is kept a secret from her father as the children were bought treats.

Bessie talks of how her mother would give the money to her grandmother which later was the money used to fund a poultry farm. Her father ran the farm to earn an income as the work was not strenuous, so he was still able to take home and income when suffering with TB. She reveals that after her dad contracted Tuberculosis life became a constant battle as their income was very limited. Money issues brought Bessie’s education to a stop; after winning a County Scholarship to attend high school no petty cash resulted in being unable to purchases books which ended her education. Although being asked to ‘stay on as a pupil teacher’ (4, 17), Bessie’s parents turned this offer down and she was made to take a place in service like many other ordinary working class young women.

After briefly helping out in her grandparent’s shop studying their accounts, Bessie was chosen by a rich family member to become their servant. Bessie’s report of this time was described as ‘a human nightmare’ (5, 21).

After returning to West Melton and telling her parents she would not be a Skivvy, Bessie quickly moves on to finish her memoir. Bessie tells how she went with her brother’s best friend’s girlfriend to Leicester and attended night school. This then lead her to move to London where Bessie met her husband Ernie who she was married to for forty eight years. Although Bessie does not give a large amount of information about her husband, she does tell how they travelled together to France and Australia where she worked as a cashier and Post Office relief worker but returned to London after the Second World War before Ernie died.

Vision of Britain. West Melton.
Vision of Britain. West Melton.

 

Although Bessie’s memoir focuses mainly on the area of West Melton and the mines, it gives a close account of what it was like to grow up as a working class child during the early twentieth century. Bessie ends her memoir with reference to her feelings towards her Yesterdays:

 

‘Which were the best? Who can say? They all made my life but there was indeed something about those early Yorkshire days when the century was young; when coal mine dominated all our lives’ (6, 31)

 

 

 

 

References

 

Wallis, Bessie. Yesterdays, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:0794

 

Image References

 

Vision of Britain. West Melton. Accessed 19/10/2015

 

Lawson Frank. Old Bricks- history at your feet: West Melton. Accessed 19/10/2015

 

 

 

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