Bessie Wallis (B. 1904): An introduction

I will be researching and posting about the memoir of Bessie Wallis, one of the autobiographies in the Burnett Collection. To begin with, Wallis was born in 1904 and spent her childhood in a mining community within Yorkshire. She had a multitude of brothers, but no sisters and her father worked in the local mining pit.

Orgreave Colliery, a coal mine close to West Melton

I decided to research this particular memoir because I found that Wallis was a good writer and communicates well in her memoir, which I thought interesting since my personal bias led me to believe that a girl who grew up in a rural mining village in the 1910s would have had a limited education.

In addition to this, she ensures to include the small details in her recount, such as her diet, “Our meals were always the same”, clothes “I had to wear long black wool stockings” and labour, “When I was considered old enough the task of kneading became mine.” She seems to appreciate the minute details of her life which hints at how much she values these elements of her life rather than the reflecting on the ‘bigger picture’.

Regarding the persona of Wallis, she contemplates on her past experiences with enthusiasm and fondness, taking care to include vast detail for the reader. This implies that she has put a lot of effort into this memoir and believes it is an important task. Across her account she mentions the responsibilities she had as a young child, from helping her mother with chores, aiding her grandparents in their shop and becoming an unpaid servant to her Auntie, which are the main points of her narrative that she actively dislikes. This focus on young labour is contrasted by her ultimate desire and accomplishment of becoming self-sufficient in a situation which limits her as a working-class girl. Therefore I get the feeling that the tone of the memoir is that of an inspiring success story.

I also noted that the author expresses how her life has been a “equal mixture of good and bad, fun and sorrow” which I thought was interesting as this suggests that she wants to shed a light not just on the negative parts of her childhood, or the idyllic nostalgia, but chooses to reveal both. As a result, I feel as though this memoir is then balanced and seems more of a truthful portrayal of her life.

Overall, in the 12,000 typed words Wallis illustrates a young girl who experiences the toil of a being raised in a traditional rural village, directly witnessing the dangers of the mining profession, class rivalry, the sexism of the education system and the value of childhood in early 20th century Yorkshire. I hope to use Wallis’s memoir to explore these themes, discover more about the society she grew up in and learn how it affected the way she wrote her memoir.

A map of West Melton in 1904

2:794 WALLIS, Bessie, ‘Yesterday’, TS, pp.31 (c.12,000 words). 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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