Amy Gomm (b.1899-1984): Life and Labour

‘Towards the end of November, I was watching the “Situations Vacant” column again. “Shorthand-typist Wanted,” the ad.said, plus the usual additional requirements of good handwriting and quick at figures. Written application was demanded by the multiple tailoring shop open in Cornmarket’ (Gomm, 162).

Cornmarket, the street in Oxford where Amy found the “shorthand-typist” job advertisement.

In ‘Water Under the Bridge,’ labour is a central part of Amy’s whole life; she grew up with the importance of work embedded into who she was. The first thing we learn about life and labour in Amy’s memoir is her father’s work as an electrician/engineer and her uncle Ned’s work as a blacksmith. Throughout her childhood years in Charlbury, Amy was surrounded by people who spent the majority of their lives working. In my Home and Family Part 2 post, I discuss how Amy’s father worked every day but Sunday. This indicates the devotion her father had to work but also, as a father of a working-class family, working endless hours was necessary in order to support and provide for his large family.

Later in Amy’s life, when she turns fourteen, her family move to the city of Oxford to open a launderette business. The launderette business received a moderate amount of success that Amy felt extremely proud of. She was happy with the reputation the business considerably gained, ‘we were proud of the fact that ours was said to be “the second-biggest hand laundry in Oxford.” We don’t know whether this referred to area occupied, or to volume of business done. We don’t know, either which was the “first biggest” (Gomm, 92). Amy humorously entitles this section of the memoir ‘Fifty Percent Don’t Know.’ This refers to the amount of ‘Don’t Knows’ in Amy’s life; one of these being what the laundry business earned. For a working-class family to reach this success in business during the 20th century, this was definitely something to be proud of. Amy tells her reader that her mother primarily ran the business and devoted herself to it resulting in its success.

Amy describes how many people were required to help run the launderette business, ‘at a squeeze, the finishing building – the laundry – would take eight hands. Eight people that is. Sixteen hands – which sounds like a big horse, but no matter. Six could be ironing, while the other two worked on the drying lines, the damping and folding, and the packing’ (Gomm, 93). The explanation Amy offers for ‘hands’ shows her awareness of changing times in the 20th century. She seems to be aware that her late 20th century reader might find ‘hands’ a bit jarring and deciphers the meaning for them. The amount of people required to help the business indicates just how much Amy’s family put into the business to ensure that it ran successfully. Selina Todd also makes the point that, ‘domestic service had “disappeared” by the 1950s, largely because young working-class women found the occupation oppressive and left when job opportunities increased in factories, shops and office’ (182). Through the limited staff in the Gomm family business, it seems that Todd’s statement foreshadows the future of the business.

However, Amy confesses that the staff did not work hard within the business. She also describes her mother’s reluctance to push the staff: ‘it has to be admitted the women of our family had no heads for business. They were too nice, too kind, too considerate of the “under-dog.” All the unpleasant, unpopular, physically hard and heavy work would be done by Mother and Dorothy. “You can’t ask the women to do that.” That was the attitude’ (Gomm, 94). Whilst Amy admires the kindness of her mother, she also offers a critique of 20th century gender stereotypes. The belief that women would not be able to carry out physically demanding tasks seems to be something Amy felt strongly against when she was old enough to understand it.

Amy often read The Oxford Times in search for a job but she knew what she wanted to do. She describes her desire to work: ‘I’d known, before I left school, which way I’d go, when my chance came. Office work; that was for me. It was pretty highflying for those days. Not many girls worked in offices, unless they had money spent on their training’ (Gomm, 132). Amy clearly knew that office work was again a gendered role unless you paid your way into it but she also was aware of how well-received an office job would have been. Considering these factors, Amy’s entrance to an office job can solely be put down to hard work and determination to get her desired job.  Mike Savage would classify office work as ‘Non-Manual – Managerial and technical/intermediate’ which falls second and third on his table. At first, I was not sure which bracket Amy fell under but after countless research using www.ancestry.co.uk, I learned that Amy’s job was classified as a clerk. To summarise the ideas of Mike Savage, this would mean Amy was third on the table as ‘Non-manual.’ To go from a working-class girl to this would have been pretty impressive.

As Amy describes office work as ‘highflying,’ I must note that this was a solely gendered occupation. It was highflying for men but women would have struggled without paying for training. As Amy tells, ‘Dad was strong in his views that women’s work was domestic. He accepted that we needed to get jobs. He – and we – needed the money. But he hadn’t got over his prejudices. Girls who worked in shops or offices were “immoral” and office work was one step lower in his immorality grading than shop assisting.(Gomm, 132). The prejudice Amy’s father has about an office occupation was typical of some working-class attitudes in the 20th century. Women were expected to carry out domestic tasks and simply work in the home or in related jobs. However, Amy defies 20th century gender stereotypes and earns the career she desires. Selina Todd asserts, ‘the reason for decline of residential domestic service was, in Roberts Roberts’ view, simply explained by young women’s desire for “freedom – above all, freedom to meet men easily”’. However, there is no reference to a love interest in Amy’s life and her abandonment of domesticity is simply because of her interest in pursuing a different career.

It is clear labour is central to Amy’s life as she earns her role as a shorthand typist in Ealing. Although Amy claims that in this role she carried out various duties except a shorthand typist, this did not deter her. In fact, she had a job that no one believed she could get, so that was the beginning of her opportunities in life: ‘as for me – I was off to conquer the world. Now I’d got my foot on the ladder, I’d show ‘em. The sky was the limit’ (Gomm, 163). She feels extremely proud to have conquered gender norms of the 20th century despite the lack of faith her family had. Amy ends her whole memoir with this optimistic quote showing that defiance of gender stereotypes was possible.

Works Cited:

324 GOMM, Amy Frances, ‘Water Under the Bridge’, TS, pp.163 (c.55,000 words). Brunel University Library.

Savage, Mike. Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940: the Politics of Method, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011.

Todd, Selina. ‘Domestic Service and Class Relations in Britain, 1900-1950.’ Past and Present 203.1 (2009): 181-204.

Todd, Selina. Young Women, Work, and Family in England 1918-1950. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.

Images Used:

Cornmarket Street –
http://www.oxfordhistory.org.uk/cornmarket/history/views_old.htm

Laundry Warehouse –
http://www.retiresecure.org/681ae/laundry/wash-house-laundry/19th-century-factory-stock-photos-19th-century-factory.html

Shorthand Typist –
https://www.1900s.org.uk/1950s-shorthand-typing.htm

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