Choosing my author, Dorothy “Daisy” Cowper, was initially a tough decision to make. There were two Cowper sisters in the Burnett Collection of Working Class Authors; Daisy and Agnes. Both have substantial, well written autobiographies, which very interestingly and helpfully overlap in some common areas. But it was ultimately Daisy who won me over, purely due to her whimsical and light hearted writing style, in contrast to Agnes’ more studious and comprehensive, though equally as enjoyable to read account.
Daisy, like her sister, was born in the Toxteth area of Liverpool in the February of 1890, and it is the Liverpool setting which initially drew me to the Cowpers, as it is also my home city. I was keen to pick a Liverpool author so that I can discover more about the city during the era Daisy writes of, which mostly covers her birth until 1916 when, she married Charles Fraser. This does unfortunately leave 52 years unaccounted for up to the year of her autobiography, which was written at age 74. The 55,000 or so words written of the years she does account for are humorous, fascinating and recalled with vivid detail and joy.
Daisy begins her autobiography by setting out her reason for writing – her ‘loving children’ – and states her intention to do no ‘gilding of the truth’. Her chosen title of De Nobis is particularly fitting, as this translates from Latin as ‘About Us’. Throughout her autobiography, Daisy makes it quite clear that her family is incredibly precious to her, describing their personalities in clear and affectionate detail, and doting particularly on memories of her mother, also named Agnes.
The Cowpers lived in the now demolished Hodges Mount, off Park Road in Toxteth. Daisy was born in the house, along with her 8 siblings – 1 sister, Agnes, and 7 brothers: Willie, Jack, Frederick, Charles, Ernest, Henry (curiously referred to as “Timmy”) and Herbert. Daisy was only 5 years old when her father, Matthew, died at sea. Their lives were sadly already turbulent before this event, due to her father’s alcoholism and wild temper, which caused friction within his varying roles as a seafarer leading to his loss of status of a captain. The family were often in poverty, and save an amusing anecdote which Daisy recalls about finding 38 gold sovereigns down a grid, this was mostly the case throughout her childhood.
Regardless of her and her family’s financial and domestic situation, she describes her childhood in a startlingly positive light, talking about each of her siblings with great fondness, and even describing her only remaining memory of her father feeding her jam and bread with humour. It is her mother for whom Daisy reserves the greatest affection. She describes her mother as ‘patience itself, completely unselfish, never nagged and rarely scolded’, as well as being humorous, quick witted, and sharing Daisy’s infallible memory.
Daisy attended various schools, starting with a Church of England School around age 5, eventually moving through a boarding school and a pupil-teacher centre, before ending up at the ‘shabby’ Edge Hill Training College in 1908, where she stayed until 1910 and trained to become a teacher. In her later life, she marries age 26, has 4 children and moves to Higher Bebington, near Port Sunlight, where Agnes later settles and works. We can see therefore that despite both moving from the Toxteth area of Liverpool, both sisters remained in close proximity throughout their lives.
Daisy’s fascinating autobiography features recurring themes of family, seafaring, poverty, working-class life and education. Her work is sure to be enjoyable to anyone thanks to Daisy’s wonderful ability to inject humour into the most mundane subjects.
Cowper, Daisy, (1890 – 1985), ‘De Nobis’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:182
Ordnance Survey map of Toxteth, Liverpool, 1906.