Kathleen Hilton-Foord (1903-1998): Life Writing, Class & Identity

Kathleen Hilton-Foord writes about her childhood in retrospect, from an age old enough to have mothered three children (‘Epilogue’, Grannie’s Girl). Although she was born in 1903, her memoir and poetry are reminiscent of the commemorative narrative form of writing as distinguished by Regenia Gagnier for nineteenth-century British working-class autobiographies[1]. Kathleen nostalgically remembers childhood experiences of school, working and social activities. The majority of her memories are positioned as specific to her relationship with her grandmother; this is distinctly evident by the title of her poetry – Grannie’s Girl.

Kathleen's own illustration in 'Tribulations', Grannie's Girl
Kathleen is caught by her grandmother trying on her burial clothes.

Kathleen’s life-writing typically concentrates on individual experiences; exceptions to this are the Zeppelin air raids and commonly shared events at school, such as the children having their hair checked for head lice, playing games and cookery lessons.  The anecdotal stories within Kathleen’s writing, such as catching butterflies with her father (handwritten memoir, p.6) and trying on her grandmother’s ‘burial clothes’ (‘Tribulations’, Grannie’s Girl), are not dated and have no apparent purpose other than recalling for sentimental reasons. Gagnier states that ‘when storytellers enter Time, their stories end’ (Gagnier 350). This is true of Kathleen’s autobiography; the only time she comments on her age is when her story begins, ‘when I was about three… my grandmother, a widow, came down from London to stay and look after me’ (The Survivor: The Memoirs of a little Dover girl – Born 1903, p.1), and when her story ends, ‘it was love at first sight…I became engaged to him on my 21st birthday’ (p.6); these are the only references to age made throughout Kathleen’s collection of writing.

Kathleen’s class awareness is evident through her commemorative storytelling. In her episodic childhood tales she describes a girl ‘from a very poor family’ (handwritten memoir, p.2) and a ‘lobby where better off families’ paid for their coats to be hung up (p.1). The single reference to class made by Kathleen is used in describing the effects of the First World War on her family; this element of her memoir is one of the few stories that are shown to have had an impact on her sense of identity. In The Survivor she sorrowfully claims ‘we did not come from a poor class but the war, a large second family and age crippled him financially’ (p.4). She is referring to her father, who she had a close relationship with despite not living in the family home. Kathleen’s class identity is constructed and influenced by the employment status of her father, who owns his own taxidermist business and an orchestra. She proudly talks about his butterfly collection and her outings with him to help ‘complete his set’ of ‘many specimens, browns and blues’ (‘Father’, Grannie’s Girl). However, her class identity is complicated by the fact that she lives with her grandmother, who is poor enough to receive a state pension (handwritten memoir, p.2) and charity bread from the church (‘Our Parish’, Grannie’s Girl).

Kathleen's showns her independence in publishing her own poetry, similarly to the one-twentieth of self-published autobiographies within volume 1 of the Burnett Archive.
Kathleen shows her independence by publishing her own poetry, similarly to the one-twentieth of self-published autobiographies within volume 1 of the Burnett Archive.

Kathleen’s few mentions of the First World War don’t justify the extent of the suffering of the residents of Dover during this time. Prior to the war Dover was a bustling seaside resort, but its pier was used by the Admiralty as a landing jetty[2]; thus one of the only leisure activities which was indiscriminate of class was no longer available. The lack of leisure pursuits described by Kathleen suggests that few other pastimes were accessible to the working class once the pleasure pier had closed. Kathleen’s failure to mention the impact of this closure suggests that she was reluctant to align herself with the suffering working class.

Dover as an Admiralty Pier during WW1
Dover as an Admiralty Pier during WW1

Though Kathleen’s acknowledgment of class doesn’t feature as central to her life-writing, the aspects of childhood she describes reveal what life was like for a working-class girl from Dover. Rather than identify herself as a member of a specific class, the form of Kathleen’s writing portrays her as a member of a family; specifically, as a granddaughter. This makes Kathleen’s autobiography unique in the sense that hers is personal and particular to her own circumstances, unlike earlier nineteenth-century working-class autobiographies. It cannot be overlooked however, that Kathleen’s class plays a vital role in causing her to live with her grandmother. Before living with her grandmother, Kathleen, her parents and four brothers lived in a two bedroom house; this Kathleen supposes ‘was awkward with me’ (‘The Beginning’, Grannie’s Girl). Despite the ‘joys and sorrows’ encountered by Kathleen, through the medium of writing she is able to ‘feel again the (New Beginning), That youth and hope inspired’ (‘Epilogue’, Grannie’s Girl). Gagnier suggests that commemorative storytellers can be seen as ‘deeply rooted in history and wisdom in the positive view’ (Gagnier 348) and that they ‘give counsel from their own experiences’ (349); Kathleen’s memoir and poetry chart her maturation and her development of wisdom, without intention but with a regard for childhood naivety, for instance she says ‘In later years, when old enough to understand; I felt sympathy for my mother’ (‘Father’, Grannie’s Girl).

Kathleen asks if it 'was through me or God!' that her grandmother was able to hear Kathleen singing carols in Church, whilst her grandmother was at home.
Kathleen asks if it ‘was through me or God!’ that her grandmother was able to hear her singing carols in Church, whilst she was at home.

Kathleen’s autobiography is a mix of emotions. There is humour in the story of her classmates fooling the teachers into thinking they were sucking on beads, not sweets (handwritten memoir, p3); there is superstition about the power of God (p.5) and the existence of spirits (‘Strange Happenings’, Grannie’s Girl); there is sorrow when her father dies (‘Father’, Grannie’s Girl) and later her grandmother (‘The End’, Grannie’s Girl) and nostalgia of times gone by, ‘There were pleasures few, But far more enjoyment in them, Than what today can do’ (‘Our Parish’, Grannie’s Girl). Overall, Kathleen writes about these ‘pleasures few’ because, she says:

‘It’s nice to look back and remember

And sometimes take up my pen

Write of all the happenings, and life as it was then.’

(‘The Beginning’, Grannie’s Girl)

Ultimately, Kathleen’s autobiography outlines her childhood in a way that therapeutically reveals to her audience her capacity to overcome rejection, mourning and loneliness, feelings that may have been experienced across all classes, but which wouldn’t have been made easier by working-class conditions.

 


Works Cited

[1] Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (Spring 1987): 335-363

[2] Dover Museum. ‘Pastimes at the seaside.’ Pastimes Through Time. 19 April 2013 [Exhibition].

Image of Dover Admiralty Pier from http://www.simplonpc.co.uk/Dover.html

‘Hilton-Foord, Kathleen’. Grannie’s Girl in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Vol 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987 (2.398a)

‘Hilton-Foord, Kathleen’. The Survivor: The Memoirs of a little Dover girl – Born 1903 in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Vol 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987 (2.398b)

‘Hilton-Foord, Kathleen’. No title (handwritten memoir) in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Vol 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987 (2.398c)

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