Violet Austin (1910-1983): Introduction

‘I remember wanting to stay a child like Peter Pan. I loved being young’ (15)

Violet Austin[i], like me, grew up in Slough so I am intrigued to find out about the changes she saw Slough undergo whilst living there.

Her autobiography is untitled and there is a large focus on her childhood. She was born in Slough in 1910 ‘the youngest of four children’(1). Her parents moved to Slough because the engineering firm her father worked for relocated. Nowadays, Slough is an industrial town, but Austin remembers when it ‘was a pleasant country town’(1) .

Aerial Map of Slough
Aerial Map of Slough

Throughout her 11,000 word autobiography she reminisces, in great detail, upon her ‘very happy childhood’(3) spent with her siblings playing and going for walks to the surrounding country parks such as Black Park. Austin has set out her autobiography in chapters with titles such as ‘Childhood’,’ School’ and ‘Recreation’.

Austin was four years old at the outbreak of the First World War and she admits ‘The fact that the country was at war did not mean much to me’ (7), but she does remember the introduction of rationing and the long queues at the butchers and the bakers. Her eldest brother enlisted as soon as he was eighteen but was killed in 1917. Austin remembers witnessing ‘a German Zeppelin caught in the glare of a searchlight’ (7), which was eventually brought down in Enfield, whilst visiting her aunt and uncle in Lewisham.

She recalls how her parents were not ‘able to give us many material things’(3) but that didn’t stop her and her siblings having a fun filled childhood and they made games and amused themselves so they were never bored. Reading the autobiography I find it interesting how many activities and events Austin went to regardless of the money her family had. She recalls attending boat races and Eton College’s Founders Day. It shows that not everything enjoyable in life comes at a price which was not an insight I was expecting to find in a working-class autobiography.

Austin left school at fourteen and began working in an office. When she was sixteen there was a General Strike, during which she remembers the boys from Eton College driving buses to help the community. The strike had very little effect on the state of unions and mine workers. However it was of ‘immense political importance’[ii] as it resulted in the Trades Disputes Act of 1927. She goes on to explain that the ‘situation was grim’(33) during the Great Depression in 1933 and 1934 by which time she had met her husband whom she married in 1935. They moved to a small village just outside of Slough called Cippenham and in 1937 welcomed their daughter.

Austin wrote her autobiography in 1983, by which time she had become a widow and a grandmother. She enjoyed knitting and gardening and belonged to Women’s Royal Voluntary Service. Austin reflects fondly on the ‘amazing changes’(p 34) she had witnessed in the way of life, but hints that today’s generation often take life for granted. However despite the amount of changes she finds ‘that people are much the same as before’(34).

[i] Austin, Violet, ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:22

[ii] Bourke, J, Working Class Cultures in Britain: 1890-1960, 1994, London, Routledge, p. 178  

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