‘I have never subscribed to the belief that there is not much one can do about life but endure whatever it may to do one. Neither by nature or nurture do I accept passive resignation in a difficult situation.’ (38)
Edith Williams was born in November 1899 in the mining community of Merthyr Tydfil. She was the eldest child, and one of eight siblings. It is not clear exactly when Edith writes her memoir, but I speculate that it is written in the 1970’s because of her reference to housing in the decade towards the end of her memoir, ‘shortly afterwards, in 1971-73’ (39) Her memoir is untitled, but is split into chapters with relevant headings such as ‘childhood’. Edith cites many influences for her writing including her ‘unusual life, so wide spanning, & interestingly related to recent turning points in our history’ (Introduction)
Edith was inquisitive and eager to learn from a very young age. She expresses her excitement in being one of the first pupils to walk through the doors of the new school in Pantglas. ‘I was one of the first pupils to enter its majestic portals’ (2). Edith loved her days at school, and ‘bitterly resented the occasions when my mother would keep me at home to look after some of the younger children.’ (3) This passion for learning and yearning for knowledge is something that followed Edith for the rest of her life.
Her achievements in school led her to want to become a teacher, but her mother felt that she could not afford to send Edith to Cyfarthfa Castle School. Edith’s luck turns when the headmistress, Miss Thomas, visits Edith’s home. She insists that Edith continues with her schooling, ‘she was willing to give me coaching lessons at her home so that I could sit with the other girls who has been at her school a few weeks ahead of me’ (6).
Sadly Edith was forced to cut short her education at the school as she could not afford the textbooks. She expresses profound sadness at this saying, ‘For me it was the end of a young dream. I was heartbroken and bitter. & my sense of deprivation was so great that I nursed this grievance for many years afterwards.’ (7) Edith’s account of this gives us an insight of the difficulties for working class children at the turn of the century within the education system.
Edith has a variety of different job roles throughout her life. As an adolescent, 1914-1918, Edith worked as an apprentice dressmaker. Shortly afterwards she was ‘sent away to a post in Radnorshire as second nurse to a little girl of eighteen months’ (8). It is at this point in her life when Edith begins to branch out into her connections with the upper classes. Later in life, Edith is afforded great opportunities from these connections.
She goes on to work for the Prescott family in their mansion near Tenbury Wells. While there she realises her passion for music during the First World War. ‘I was invited to join them in the organising of concerts & other charitable efforts to raise money for ‘comforts’ for the troops.’ (10) Unfortunately this arrangement comes to an abrupt end when Edith’s employers are unable to pay her due to the war. Edith turns down the opportunity to be governess to a young Earl as she feels that she lacks a decent education.
Edith describes the difficulties faced by coal miners in her village and the impact of the war on her brothers. During this time of struggle, she meets her old friend Charles Williams. They share opinions on parenthood and married life and read the writings of Marie Stopes. They marry in autumn 1923. Edith and Charles spend their married life together being active in their involvement with political and local affairs. Edith becomes a member of the Labour Party after studying Psychology at a local education centre.
Edith remembers the period after the war as bringing relative comfort, yet was aware of the difficulties many others experienced during the 1930’s. ‘Our own lives seemed directed towards acceptance of the deepening economic depression…Charles was fortunate in being a railwayman, as his wage was almost double that of miners’ (18)
Edith enrols on a course in ‘Public Administration’ (24) at Oxford University in her thirties. She describes her time at Oxford as challenging, ‘competing with the chosen elite to meet the standards set by this august university.’ (24). She uses her knowledge gained from her Oxford education to get involved with the Civil Service, and changes later on to social work. ‘I preferred to take up Social Welfare work…for which I felt I had a greater aptitude.’ (29)
Charles dies around 1960 at age 60 which is deeply unsettling for Edith. She describes after his death a time of ‘deep & bitter grief and sorrow’ (3 Skeleton Outline of autobiography). The section in which I think she discusses his death is omitted from her memoir, pages 31-34.
She settles eventually in Solihull where she writes her memoir from. She closes with, ‘and here I remain, of intent to make this my abiding place.’ (39)
Index entry in Burnett et al The Autobiography pf the British Working Class: 832 WILLIAMS, Edith. A, ‘Untitled.’ TS, pp. 39 + 3pp. chapter summary (c. 11,700 words). Brunel University Library.
Map of Merthyr Tydfil 1940 from A Vision of Britain Through Time http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/maps
Edith and Charles on the England & Wales Civil Registration Marriage Index at Ancestry.co.uk