Elizabeth Rignall (B.1894): Life and Labour

On leaving college I became a teacher in a recently opened slum school at the back of Walworth Road

Walworth Road, 1930
Walworth Road, 1930

Terry Trainor states that the Victorian impression of the working class as the collective poor was achieved by the ‘crushing uniformity born of poverty’ (Trainor, 2010, 161). However, he argues that within this mass proletariat, a working class spectrum existed, in which hierarchies and status depended on a range of factors: ‘inhabitants of the lower depths shared a common bond of poverty, nevertheless, individuals participated to varying degrees in communities based on age, ethnicity, gender, occupation and place’ (Trainor, 161). Elizabeth’s memoir supports this argument of a working-class scale, as demonstrated in her almost Dickensian depiction of the ‘lower depth’ (Trainor, 161) schoolchildren she fist encountered as a teacher: ‘Victims of a real destitution which we do not see today. Coming to school as they did with their torn jacket and a ragged pair of shorts between their little blue bodies and the bitter wintry weather, and dashing up to my desk with a huge orange, apple, handful of nuts, an egg- what have you- and a “For you, Miss!” You knew quite well they had been “Knocked off” from stall or street display; but what could you do?’ (Rignall, 83). In direct contrast, Elizabeth’s memoir contains a recollection of the ‘one and only deviation I made from the paths of honesty’ (Rignall, 43), in which she attempted to pinch some sweets from the corner shop: ‘old Jim Hudson being nowhere to be seen, had fallen and taken a bottle from its small rack; when to my horror the old man materialised from behind a high rack and asked me what Mother would say to me when he told her…Nothing happened. Jim Hudson never told her; but it served most effectively to keep me in future on the strait and narrow’ (Rignall, 43). Elizabeth’s single, childish impulse in the sweetshop signifies her relatively comfortable working class position compared to the schoolboys’ dire poverty, illustrating the broadness of the term “working class” and highlighting the strong association between desperation and crime.

In 1925, after teaching around Buckinghamshire for several years, Elizabeth ‘longed to get back to London’ (Rignall, 103) and applied for a post at a church school in Kensington. It was there that she fell in love with the head teacher, Bob, ‘a tall, slim, red-gold giant, with intensely blue eyes’ (Rignall, 103). In the aftermath of WWI, Joanna Bourke argues women like Elizabeth faced increasing pressure for job security in the teaching career, based solely on their gender: ‘As unemployment levels soared immediately after the war, anger towards women “taking” jobs from menfolk exploded…The National Association of Schoolmasters campaigned against the employment of female teachers. In 1924 the London County Council made its policy explicit when it changed the phrase “shall resign on marriage” to “the contract shall end on marriage”’(Bourke, 1994, 85). Due to the threat of losing her job and being unable to support her family, Elizabeth was forced to keep her relationship with Bob a secret, defying society and the Church’s prevalent demands on pre-marital relations: ‘As both Bob and I had heavy commitments to our respective families we could not possibly have lived on his meagre salary alone; so marriage was out of the question…Nowadays of course it is no longer considered “Immorality” and premarital relations are not frowned upon. In addition, the whole policy of the L.C.C. regarding the employment of married women had made a complete volte face. But at that time things were very different for such as we were’ (Rignall, 103). Other than reflect on the radically different social expectations in her time compared to the modern-day, Elizabeth does not expand on her life with Bob, simply stating that ‘six years later cancer killed him’ (Rignall, 103). This restrained, protective tone may indicate that her memories of their time are too sacred to detail in her autobiography and that Elizabeth would prefer to remember ‘the great love of my life’ in solitude.

In 1954, Elizabeth retired from teaching and decided to fulfil her dream of managing a homemade cake and jam shop in Richmond with her brother, Jack. However, the ‘café was not really the kind I had always had in mind’ (Rignall, 129) and she ran into £1400 debt after selling off the business. Refusing the option of declaring bankruptcy, Elizabeth faced her misfortune head on and returned to the teaching profession: ‘Being a Tyke, I like to pay my debts; so it was back to the classroom for me yet again’ (Rignall, 129). Whilst still being called on ‘for part-time teaching, for coaching, and even for home tuition’ (Rignall, 129), Elizabeth finally retired from teaching in her late seventies.

I can now say, with complete honesty, that I think the life I have had was the right for me

References:

Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity London: Routledge, 1994

Rignall, Elizabeth, All So Long Ago, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:586

Trainor, Terry, Victorian London Slums Seven Dials, Lulu Press, 2010

Image Reference:

Walworth Road (Accessed: 31/12/2015)

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