Henrietta Burkin (1904): An Introduction

“Our pleasures were simple; there were plenty of parties”

Henrietta Burkin enjoys the simple pleasures in life of Sunday dresses, travelling by steamboat, admiring fine china and singing with an orchestra; an optimist despite experiencing the struggles of war.

The front page of Henrietta Burkin memoir.
The front page of Henrietta Burkin’s memoir.


Born in 1904 to a widow, Henrietta Burkin produced a 50,000 word typed memoir and recollects her memories from various towns in the suburbs of London. Henrietta does not document the traditional working-class memoir of poverty and suffering, but instead she is nostalgic about her childhood and celebrates aspects of her adult life. This working class author’s inseparable bond with her mother is powerfully highlighted throughout, as Henrietta admires her mother’s fondness of music (1.2), her need to help others and the loving marriage she preserved to Henrietta’s step-father. Her step father (known as ‘father’ to Burkin), unquestionably idolises her and his hard graft allows for more of the simple pleasures (1.12), that Henrietta loves. I have high regard for the relationships Henrietta created and her ambition for a better future for her family, despite often facing poverty.

Henrietta’s joyous and upbeat yet honest narrative celebrates her strong bonds with own daughter Elaine, husband Harry, copious family friends and her father. It is evident that family was an important aspect of her life and regardless of her class, she portrays her memories of life in a very positive light. Her memoir is an interesting read and I am particularly intrigued by her capability to cope and act as a single mother whilst Harry was at war. Frequently throughout her autobiography, Henrietta states she was lonely and expresses her love by pouring out her emotion;

“Marrying Harry was the best thing that could have happened to me: even today, more than forty years later, he still assures me there is nothing in life to worry about; he’s absolutely fearless and dependable…” (3.1).

As well as relationships, religion, war and irregularity of food are other key themes in this personal account. The ongoing conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism is at the forefront of her education. Hugh McLeod argues that ‘prejudice against Catholics and dislike of the Catholic Church continued to be widespread in the nineteenth century’ (McLeod, 54, 1999) and this conflict was certainly apparent among the religious families in the community. The outbreak of the First World War caused an unstable home life, rationing of food and living in fear of the next raid. Henrietta states it was ‘a totally different life’ (3.19) and she was forced to move around London in order to secure safety.

Although Henrietta was forced to move, she highlights the close knit relationship of many working-class families. She indicates that families were ‘brought up to be very patriotic’ (1.20) and she remembers the communal competitions, family events at the town hall and the continuous flow of visitors who were always welcomed into their home (2.5). Henrietta displays a strong passion for helping others and surrounds herself with those who need help or simply require company.

This first-hand account provides a social and historical insight into the life of a working-class family in the 20th century. Henrietta strives to provide the best for her family and her down-to-earth narration allows the reader to engage with the author to understand the highs and lows of her life. Henrietta’s most heartfelt statement, “I shall have had a wonderful life, much love, some sadness, but oh, so very much laughter” (5.7), entices me to study further into the specifics of her wonderful life.

Henrietta was born in Stepney and spent in early years growing up here. This map displays the forms of communications around London's East End.
Henrietta was born in Stepney and spent her early years growing up here. This map displays the forms of communications around London’s East End.



2:118. Burkin, Henrietta, ‘Memoirs of Henrietta Burkin’, TS, pp.86 (c.50,000 words). Brunel University Library. Extract published in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.306-312. Brunel University Library and Ruskin College Library, Oxford.

McLeod, Hugh. ‘Protestantism and British National Identity, 1815-1945’ in Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia by Peter Van der Veer. Princeton University Press: New Jersey. 1999.


Image References:

Front page of Henrietta Burkin’s memoir – taken by myself (19/10/2015).

‘Stepney: Communications.’ A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green. Ed. T F T Baker. London: Victoria County History, 1998. 7-13. British History Online. Web. 13 October 2015. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol11/pp7-13.

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