Kathleen Hilton-Foord was born in Dover in 1903. She moved in with her grandmother when she was three years old as her family home was overcrowded. Kathleen describes in ‘The Beginning’ that her grandmother had come from London and ‘saw how crowded our home was, So she found accommodation next day’ (Grannie’s Girl). Kathleen’s writing includes a collection of twelve poems describing her life, called Grannie’s Girl. Her memoir The Survivor – The Memoirs of a Little Dover Girl – Born 1903 discusses aspects of her life up to the age of twenty-one, when she became engaged to a ‘young sailor’ (The Survivor, p.6). There is also a seven page handwritten memoir similar in content to Grannie’s Girl and The Survivor.
Throughout her memoirs and poetry, Kathleen recalls events that took place at home with her grandmother and at school or Sunday school. Although Kathleen came from a large family she rarely mentions her siblings or gives their names, other than her older half-sister ‘Auntie Kit’ and her Uncle Jack. Two of her brothers were sent to an orphanage when her father died in order to learn a trade, but Kathleen was allowed to stay with her grandmother. Although they lived apart, Kathleen seemed to be very fond of her father, who she dedicates a whole poem to describing. He owned a taxidermist/pet shop and was often mistaken for her grandfather as he ‘seemed very old’ (‘Father’, Grannie’s Girl).
I was first drawn to reading about Kathleen by the title of her book of poems Grannie’s Girl. I imagined her autobiography would be sentimental and personal by the fact that she defined her childhood writing by being a ‘grannie’s girl’. I felt I could identify with Kathleen as I have also lived with my grandparents and give as much credit to my own grandmother (or Nan, as I call her) in my upbringing as Kathleen gives to hers. I find the way in which Kathleen talks about her ‘Grannie’ and their close relationship very touching and admirable. I was struck by Kathleen’s description of how her mother felt about her, ‘My mother once told me, She prayed for me to die’ (‘The Beginning’, Grannie’s Girl) and concluded that such a personal account of a working-class life couldn’t go unnoticed.
Kathleen points out that her grandmother received very little income and ‘spent most of her savings’ when she took Kathleen into her care (‘The Beginning’, Grannie’s Girl). This relates to the theme of social welfare I have identified in The Survivor. Kathleen says how her grandmother ‘wept with joy’ when she read in the newspaper that she would be receiving up to 5 shillings a week pension (The Survivor, p.2). The Old Age Pensions Act which was passed in August 1908 and came into effect the following January was an important turning point in the history of British social welfare. Although they were not overwhelmingly poor, her family struggled to accommodate all of its members.
Despite not mentioning specific dates, there are events relating to World War One Kathleen talks about in her writing. She refers to the Zeppelin air raids and how she would have to hide under the tables in school. The war is significant throughout Kathleen’s writing, not only because she experienced air raids, but also because her brother went to war and some of her jobs involved delivering telegrams to relatives of soldiers and to naval camps. Kathleen states that there were more women and girls working because men had gone off to fight, thus Kathleen has a number of jobs that she may not have had if there was no war.
Kathleen discusses her education and in particular how she passed the Labour exam and left school at the age of twelve. In order to leave school at this age, the ‘sixth standard’ of the Labour exam had to be passed (‘Leaving School’, Grannie’s Girl). Despite passing the test, Kathleen acknowledges that she was not ready to leave school and even her grandmother felt she should stay in education. This is something I hope to investigate further as it appears that Kathleen had little choice in the matter of continuing her education, particularly because of the expectations of women to contribute to the war effort.
Another important theme in Kathleen’s writing is that of home and family. The reason she lives with her grandmother is because of the lack of space in her family home. Even whilst living with her ‘Grannie’, Kathleen at one stage has to sleep in a cupboard because children were not allowed in the rented house. She also talks about having a bed that is made up of two orange boxes. Home is important in discussing Kathleen’s life as it impacts on her wellbeing and her life in general but it was also a major inspiration for her poetry.
‘We lived in a very large front room
Up several flights of stairs
We laughed a lot together
Despite our many cares.’
(Extract from ‘The Box’, Grannie’s Girl)
‘Hilton-Foord, Kathleen’. Grannie’s Girl in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Vol 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987 (2.398a)
‘Hilton-Foord, Kathleen’. The Survivor: The Memoirs of a little Dover girl – Born 1903 in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Vol 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987 (2.398b)
‘Hilton-Foord, Kathleen’. No title (handwritten memoir) in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Vol 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987 (2.398c)