Kay Garrett (b.1899): An Introduction

“I was small and had short hair and from the counter clerks in the outside office I learned that I was referred to as “ ‘Er with the curls” or, much nicer, “That little curly cow”!”

If you’re looking for a no nonsense, honest, yet heart warming account of working class life in the early 20th century, then look no further than Kay Garrett.

Born in London in 1899, Kay’s memoir gives you a detailed look into inner-city life from childhood to middle age and from London, where she spent most of her life, with a quick stop in Southern Rhodesia!

Although Kay’s memoir is littered with tales of loss and hardship, there are equal parts joy and love to be shared. All of this is weaved together beautifully with Kay’s comical and engaging style, which is a testament to her many years as a reporter for the Daily Mirror under pseudonym Mary Brown.

image credit: Franglaise.com
Children of London c.1900 image credit: Franglaise.com

The memoir consists of two sections, the first half detailing her early years and schooling. Although Kay states that her ‘chief memory is that they [her parents] drank’, it appears that her childhood was a happy one filled with music, reading and the occasional celebration. There is a particular emphasis on food in the first half, which even includes a three course recipe for three people! Kay also emphasises that her early life and schooling was typical for a working class child in London, a fact that will surely fascinate historians and history enthusiasts alike.

The second, larger section of the memoir is dedicated to Kay’s adult life from 1916-1946, and what life it’s been! She recounts living as a civilian and working with the army in both world wars; moving to and living in a British colony in Southern Rhodesia where the termite hills were ‘not quite extinct’ as they’d like; and a working life during the great depression. On top of all this we are also party to Kay’s personal struggles including the breakdown and fallout of her marriage (‘I told everyone I was a widow after I came home’); childbirth as ‘a hellish experience’; being a single parent in the 1930s and making a career for herself as a woman in a man’s world.

I’m sure we can all agree that Kay Garrett’s life is a fascinating one, but even if it was more mundane I’m sure that Kay’s wit, wisdom and sparkling first person narrative would still  manage to draw you in from start to finish.

This is the type of accommodation Kay was subject to during her stay in Southern Rhodesia. Image credit: blennerhassettfamilytree.com
This is the type of accommodation Kay lived in during her stay in Southern Rhodesia. Image credit: blennerhassettfamilytree.com

Overall, if you’re looking for a strong, funny, independent, resourceful, working class woman then look no further than Kay Garrett. Her struggle to survive the everyday necessities of working class life is one that will resonate with readers. It’s hard to believe that the world nearly didn’t hear her story. Kay admits that she wrote many more stories of her life and opinions of the world around her, but this was the only one that she didn’t destroy because she didn’t think the world would want to know. Luckily, a colleague suggested send send this story to the Daily Mirror and in true Kay Garrett fashion she said ‘what the hell. It’s only a stamp’ and the rest his history.

If you want to know more about Kay Garrett’s life, follow me on Twitter @portia_fahey to receive regular updates about this blog series and the @writing__lives project.


Works Cited

2.305 Garrett, Kay, Untitled (c.9,000 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.

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