Katherine Henderson (B.1908): Home and Family

Katherine’s family are at the focal point of her memoir. Without her family, there would be no story to tell. Katherine was one of 14 siblings, which is why the family being a predominant theme comes as no revelation. During the early 1900’s ‘large families were the normal thing to have and many children died young, families of over 10 children were commonplace.’[1]

Katherine’s childhood wasn’t a particular content one; her family were unhappy due ‘chiefly to her father being a martinet.’ (1)  Katherine makes constant reference to her Father’s tyranical ways and the fear she consumed as she was ‘too afraid of her father’s belt.’ (5c). She explains his word was law and how even her ‘energetic and courageous mother was a little afraid of her father’ (1) which was common at this time when many women lived in fear of their husbands.  Katherine’s father, John Wightwick encouraged all his children to work on the family’s farm, a labouring job for any young girl and for Katherine a ‘fear’ (5) as she was afraid on the farm animals. Katherine learnt to realise that ‘there was no use in protesting’ (5) her father’s demands because ‘if her father said go then go she had to.’ (5)

Katherine’s yearning for the world of work stemmed from her animosity against her father and desires to leave the family home at 35 Marsh Road in Ruckinge, Kent. In her early childhood she had a close relationship with her Sister Louie and ‘although Katherine wore ‘extremes in nature and outlook, there was a strong bond of affection’ (3) between them. In fact, the bonds between all the siblings helped them cope with their tyrannical father. Although Katherine had 12 other siblings due to their age and gender the nature of their work separated them, and many had left home by the time Katherine was born. The 1911 census illustrates three of her siblings had already left the family home and the remaining members carried out agricultural work. Katherine acknowledges in her memoir that she says very little about her older siblings and she believed her ‘father’s harshness drove them from home as soon as they left school’ (6) leaving them to fend for themselves. Although Katherine is not particularly close to her siblings many of the older family members support each other with the oldest siblings ‘finding them work and giving them love and security which they lacked at home until they got married and found their own homes.’ (6)

census
1911 Census, The Wightwick Family.

The manner of work carried out by the female members of Katherine’s family was significantly different to that of the males. The women of the Wightwick family were sent out to service, one of the major forms of only occupation for young girls in those days. However it was still the norm in the early twentieth century that ‘young women were simply expected to get married and have children.’[2] In 1914 the First World War broke out and the majority of her brothers were sent to fight for their country. Two of her siblings, Billy and Richard died in the war, and Bob, Fred and Jack were injured. Katherine confesses that she was ‘too young to realize the full impact’ that their deaths had upon the Wightwick family.

Family for Katherine is a consistent theme throughout her memoir as she took on the role of a Nannie, becoming a temporary part of a number of families. It was whilst with the Macdonald family that Katherine met her husband to be John Dudley. Katherine and John married in October 1937. (24) Katherine defines her marriage to John in the beginning as quite a happy marriage, giving birth to their ‘own little baby’ (29) three months after the First World War broke out. However, Katherine began to realise she did not know the real John. Katherine’s adult family life was one of violent attacks due to her husband’s rage and their young son paid the price of her husband’s mental instability, as ‘John killed Colin with an axe, and there he lay on the floor in a pool of his blood.’ (37) Katherine did not attend John’s trial at Norwich as she did not feel she would be able to cope. John avoided the extreme penalty of the scaffold, ‘preventing him from having to suffer capital punishment’ (38) which Katherine recalls she was ‘thankful’ (38) for. It was from the trial she learnt of the mental instability John had inherited from his mother’s side of the family, therefore due to insanity John was sent to Broadmoor. Katherine’s loss of her son cast a shadow over her life and over her memoir.

Violence therefore dominated Katherine’s experience of family life; first that of her father and then that of her husband. She seems to have chosen not to remarry. Instead she found an alternative family throughout her employment. She continued for the rest of her working life serving as a nanny. Work appears to have brought her some kind of salvation, enabling her to fill the emptiness of the loss of her family with a substitute, higher-class family.


[1] The Role of Women in 1900-1945. Available: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/women_in_1900.htm. Last accessed 25th March 2013.


[2] Family Life. Available: http://rls.org.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-000-001-435-L. Last accessed 24th March 2013.

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