‘It is said “Life is what you make it”. I disagree. Life is what other people, and events, make it for you.’
– Charles Sanderson.
In ‘Half a Lifetime in the 20th Century’, Charles Whiten Sanderson recounts his childhood and life in his compelling memoir. Written in 1979-1980, the chapters focus on the different and memorable aspects in Charles’s life. He reflects on his childhood, family life, war and the changes in society throughout his adolescence.
Son of Rebecca Sanderson, her third child, he was born on December 23rd, 1906 in 1 Coburn Street, Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire. Unfortunately, his father Jonathan had been unemployed six months prior to his birth and, having two older siblings to provide for, the autobiographer describes himself as a ‘rather unwelcome Christmas present’ (pg.1) bestowed upon his family! After two more siblings, the first one who sadly died at two months of age and a second healthy, the family was complete. Although Charles describes his family as poor, like many working-class families in his town, he nostalgically praises his mother and father for his childhood and ‘being blessed with splendid parents’ (pg.1).
Growing up in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Charles describes the area as a ‘truly rural scene’ (pg.4), depicting milkmaids with their pails and carts being pulled by horses. The town featured in Charles’ memoir is simple and picturesque. Briefly mentioning the aftermath of Victorianism and the industrial revolution, Charles refers to the building of factories and terraced houses, which ‘suffocated’ the rural towns he grew up in as they became ‘blackened by the smoke’ (pg.4).
Charles touches on the fashion that young girls and boys wore in early 1900s. The girls dressed in long dresses but ,he playfully claims, that this was so girls did not ‘corrupt the wide eyed gaze of little boys’ (pg.3). The boys, dressed like their fathers with stockings well above their knees. Charles gives a vivid insight into the style and dress sense of the age. Childhood and education are focused on in-depth as well as debates over intelligence. Learning to play the reed organ and the piano, he reflects fondly, as he says they ‘greatly enriched my life’ (pg.29). He uses his memoir to remember songs that he was taught in school alongside the ‘three Rs’ (pg.17). Leaving school at the age of 13 and finishing his education in a ‘Higher Grade School’ (pg.52) he was proud to relate his educational achievements.
When the First World War broke out, Charles Sanderson was just approaching eight years old yet the events of war registered in his mind firmly: ‘World shaking events register indelibly, even in the mind of a child.’ (pg. 46). He clearly recalls memories of seeing soldiers parading in the streets and trains departing filled with loved one. In 1916 after conscription and rationing were introduced, his cousins were called up and Charles writes about the loss his family experienced due to the war. Yet he also mentions other changes war enabled such as the end of ‘Victorianism’ and the start of Edwardian fashion.
In the summer of 1929, Charles met his wife. Working together for the same firm and after relentless pursuing (on his behalf!), they began to court. Marrying in Easter 1933, they had a very good marriage together. Living on Mabel Avenue in 1938, Charles’s wife gave birth to a baby girl, after sadly losing the first baby at birth a couple of years prior. Whilst on holiday with his wife, Charles comments on the brewing fear of war in society. Recounting his experience during the Second World War, Charles explains everything from warning sirens in his home, to joining the L.D.V and the Air Force in 1942. Reflecting on his time in the Air Force and his tour in India, Charles finally began his journey home on April 7th, 1946 and arrived safely back on the 24th. He and his wife went on to have two more children.
Towards the end of his memoir, Charles reflects on his relationship with God, claiming God blessed him with an ‘active mind and an appreciation of beauty, a leaning towards artistic things and a deep love of nature’ (pg. 111). Charles Sanderson consistently creates warm nostalgia for his life experience in the 20th Century, giving insight into a working-class life and education and childhood for a child pre-1914. I am excited and honoured to undergo the journey to retell the life of Charles in my future blog posts.
2:688 SANDERSON, Charles Whiten, ‘Half a Lifetime in the 20th Century: A Book of Memoirs’, TS, pp.115 (c.78,000 words). Extracts published in Mansfield and North Nottinghamshire Chronicle Advertiser (Chad), 13 March – 31 July 1980 (Sutton-in-Ashfield Library). Brunel University Library.
Sanderson, Charles Whiten. ‘Half a Lifetime in the 20th Century’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. University of Brunel Library. Special Collections. 2:688.
Map of Sutton-in-Ashfield.- www.visionofbritain.org.uk.
1911 Census for the Sanderson family.- https://www.ancestry.co.uk.