“This is the story of my Welsh childhood- shot through with the richness of our community and the jagged edge of poverty and despair.” – p.5‘A Welsh Childhood: Memories of Aberfan 1928-1945 through the eyes of Mary Norreen Hart (nee Jones)’.
The title of Mary Hart’s memoir ‘A Welsh Childhood: Memories of Aberfan 1928-1945 through the eyes of Mary Norreen Hart (nee Jones)’, explains the whole purpose of the biography, to convey the experience of childhood in Wales during the twentieth century. But it also expresses the pride she feels for her community and her family. The memoir constitutes of 63 pages. However, some of that is made of photographs and Welsh hymns to give us a visual explanation of what she experienced as a child. Mary has also included some images of her family in the 21st century to compare her modern day life with her childhood.
There is a powerful sense of family unity and a large community in her memoir. I chose Mary’s memoir as I wanted to study how a small community experienced times of hardship after the war. Her story is not exclusively about her life but her experience as a child growing up in a family that was affected by unemployment. The memoir draws on her patriotism towards Wales, more specifically her feelings of belonging to Aberfan. This is important to Mary as the last pages of her memoir are made up of a copy of a Welsh hymn that would usually be sang at Chapel.
“Our family story starts in Aberfan, where Mama and Dada made their home.”- p.4
Mary was born on the 5th of July 1928 in her home at 42 Bryntaff, Aberfan (Merthyr Tydfil). Mining was the most significant source of income in the town, as it was in most towns in Wales. This is what Mary explains to be the source of income for the men on both sides of the family after Aberfan developed as a coal mining industry in the 19th century. Despite this, the family’s financial troubles led Mary’s father to seek better job opportunities which results in the family’s move to Birmingham. Her father previously served in the Royal Army Service Corps Regiment, during the First World War. However, after the war, he ‘was a broken man both physically and mentally’ (52) as he developed PTSD and drank often. Though even through poverty, her father’s PTSD and alcoholism, Mary writes as though she longs to revisit her childhood. Mary had an older brother, Ron, and an older sister, Winifred. However, due to financial circumstances, they ‘did not live together as a family for very long’ (5), due to situations such as her sister becoming a domestic servant at the age of fourteen. Mary’s childhood experience is hugely different from Jack McQuoid’s, as Shauna Hughes has noted in her analysis of his memoir. Both authors grew up in the same century. However, McQuoid’s childhood has been described by Shauna as ‘comfortable’, whereas Mary describes her childhood as close to the ‘jagged edge of poverty and despair’ (5) This is most likely due to Jack growing up in a middle-class background, whereas Mary’s is very much working class.
The memoir ends in their move to Birmingham, and I am not aware whether times do get better, though hopefully, this is something I could research. I have however been able to find out that Mary had children in Birmingham, with one of her daughters still living there today with her children. Her other daughter has since moved to Cheltenham, though I will go into further detail on this in one of my blogs.
The family is the central theme of Mary’s memoir. Mary starts the memoir with memories experienced by her family before she was born. It is clear that the memoir is as much about her family as it is about herself. This is evident in the first page as she describes her mother and father’s double wedding with her mother’s sister (Winnie Wales).
The lack of religious content in the memoir is also intriguing. Mary mentions chapel once or twice; however, religion does not seem to her as important as her family. Another intriguing aspect of the novel is the lack of political discussion. As Mary lives in a predominantly working-class background, I thought politics would be a key topic within the home, especially during the formation of the labour government. Perhaps the family would refrain from discussing such topics around their children, which would explain why politics isn’t prevalent in Mary’s memoir.
Mary’s biggest passion is learning, which is evident in her academic achievements, as she was accepted into grammar school. However, due to financial circumstances, Mary sadly had to leave Quaker’s Yard Secondary Grammar School at the age of fourteen, to seek employment in various shops to provide for the family. Interestingly, Mary attended Pantglas Girls’ Primary School, which was affected by the Aberfan disaster in 1966. Though at this point Mary had moved to Birmingham, it’ll be interesting to research into this to see how this affected the close-knit community of Aberfan.
“Here I am at 82 writing my story in the 21st century”- p.7
What is interesting about Mary’s memoir is that it was only published in 2011. Her memoir is a first-person recollection of the years between 1928-1945. However, on some occasions, she uses the words ‘we’ and ‘our’, which suggests that she uses her memoir to share her family’s experience rather than solely her own. It’ll be interesting to share Mary’s descriptions of family unity, poverty, and the Welsh community. With this in mind, a memoir (Mary’s in particular) will give a great understanding of the Welsh working-class in the 20th century.
HART, Mary Norreen, ‘A Welsh Childhood: Memories of Aberfan 1928-1945 through the eyes of Mary Norreen Hart (nee Jones).’ (privately printed, 2011), pp.63. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel University Library. Special Collections, Vol.4.