As soon as I saw Norah Fearon Knight’s entry for her memoir in the Burnett et al The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, it instantly grabbed my attention. Norah was born in 1910, in Seacombe, a district in Wallasey, Wirral which has close personal ties to myself.
My grandmother moved from Norris Green, Liverpool to Seacombe with my grandfather, who moved from Birkenhead, Wirral in 1960 and the pair spent many happy years there, including raising my mum there. My grandfather remained there until his death and my grandmother only recently moved, whilst I grew up only a 5 minute drive away, so Norah’s writing fondly discusses many places I too share fond memories of and am very familiar with, such as New Brighton and The Irving Theatre.
Norah’s memoir is titled ‘Nostalgia’ and rather fittingly so, as it largely focuses on her childhood up until around the age of 12. She explains how turning 12 ‘marked the end of an era’, as her father, who was a soldier, died the autumn after her birthday (70). She begins by briefly outlining the lives of all 10 of her siblings, whom she ‘loves most dearly’ and then continues with this family orientated theme as she describes childhood memories (3). She talks of the games she played with her family whilst growing up, which were often made up by Norah and her siblings. For example she tells how her sister Kathleen ‘invented a game which she called Tanks. It involved going down under the bed clothes head first, walking to the bottom, then coming up the other side.’ (16) and how her whole family would join in with games of ‘blind man’s buff’ and ‘hide & seek’ (18). In this way, Norah’s writing offers an insight into the kind of ways children passed their time during the early 1910’s, in particular working-class children – the Fearon family’s social status confirmed through many of Norah’s comments, for example she states ‘we were not particularly well off as the saying goes’ (18)
Despite her family’s lack of financial means, Norah’s positivity and gratitude shines through in her writing and it seems that, at least up until her father’s death, her childhood was happy and enjoyable, ‘there was never much money for toys in our house, but we didn’t worry if we couldn’t have the big things’ (47). She tells how her sister Kathleen began work at age 14 whilst her brother Harold did at 15 and also shares that herself and Kathleen shared a bed in the three bedroom family home of thirteen (68)! Norah also goes on to explain how, ‘sometimes mother would have visitors to stay, Kathleen & I would sleep in the bathroom!’ (18). This reaffirms Norah and the Fearon family’s working class status and makes her writing an invaluable source for understanding the experience of working-class family life and living conditions during the early 20th century.
She also discusses the relationship she had with her parents, presenting her mother Amy as a selfless, giving person, full of ‘loving, care & sympathy’ (20) and her father as fun, playful and outgoing, organising games for the children for example (17). She talks of celebrating various holidays such as Christmas, Bonfire Night and Halloween, yet religion itself is seldom mentioned by Norah, which is quite odd for someone growing up in the 1910’s. In fact, Norah rather unusually attended schools of not one but two denominations: one Catholic – St Joseph’s – and one Protestant – Riverside.
Whilst Norah describes herself ‘as not outstanding at anything in particular’, I think she was – an outstanding writer. She expresses herself eloquently throughout her memoir, using what would today be deemed as “proper” grammar and remains engaging in her stories throughout. You really see some of her personality come out and at times can imagine her speaking, for example she jokingly exclaims how she ‘married a lad from Bristol, of all places’ (8). This lad was Edmund George Flook Knight. and their wedding taking place at St. Paul’s Church, Seacombe in 1933.
‘Nostalgia’ is a handwritten memoir and so transcribing it has been highly rewarding and it is exciting to think that I am producing the first public typescript copy of it. Norah wrote it in 1964, ‘dedicated to my Dear Sister Kathleen’ (title page), who had just passed away when Norah was writing the final pages and who Norah seemed to share a special bond with, often talking of time spent with Kathleen and complimenting her talent and intelligence. The memoir closes with some loving words about those of Norah’s family who had passed away and she does not really speak of her adult life. Perhaps this is because her happiest memories are of the “era” that lasted until she was twelve and ‘Nostalgia’ exists as a kind of memorial to the family and home that meant so much to Norah.
‘One family who lived and loved and found a lot of joy in just belonging to each other’. (73)
If you live in or are from the Merseyside area and want to find out more local, social history, why not also check out Ellis O’Brien’s blog about Ken Hayter and his memoir ‘Toxteth Tales’ here, which details growing up in L8?
2:457 KNIGHT, Norah Fearon, ‘Nostalgia’, MS, pp.73 (c. 10,000 words). BruneI University Library.
Fearon, Norah. Nostalgia. (1964) Unpublished Memoir: Brunel University Special Collection
From top to bottom: The Irving Theatre Sketch; St Paul’s Church, Seacombe; Seacombe Ferry Landing Stage 1909. All via historyofwallasey.co.uk