Ellen Cooper (b.1921-2000) Life and labour: Part 1.

‘Dad would blow up balloons by mouth and tie them to a stick to sell in the High St, and he would also sell pretty birds on a stick that flew.’ (pg. 1).

Ellen came from a working-class background and followed in her father’s footsteps working hard in life and work to obtain good jobs and a salary. Life and Labour Part 1 will look at Ellen’s family’s occupations and Part 2 will look more in-depth into the jobs Ellen acquired throughout her life.

Labour is a notable aspect in many author memoirs from the Burnett Collection. Ellen’s experience in employment can be viewed in parallel to her experience with home as being the most interesting aspect of her memoir. Ellen tells her audience of three creative jobs she held throughout her life starting her first job in a local workroom after school. As mentioned in my previous blog, Education and Schooling, Ellen had an inherent creative and artistic flair which we see transcend into her occupations. 

At the beginning of Ellen’s memoir, we learn of her mother’s strong presence in the home: ‘Mum always there.’ (pg. 1). Ellen’s mother was unemployed. She had unpaid domestic duties in the household as mentioned in Home and Family, part 1. Her mother was devoted to creating a strong sense of family by caring for her children ‘with care and compassion Mother made us well again.’ (pg. 1).

The decision of many women to fulfil the role of domestic housewife has been explored by historians. Joanna Bourke claims ‘discriminatory practices by employers and trade unions have been blamed for keeping women within the house.’ (Bourke; 1994, 54). However, Ellen’s memoir suggests that her mother was happy to fulfil this role. This role of the housewife is explored in Bourke’s book which I strongly recommend for further reading on this topic.

Photo in association with The National Archive 1930s. Housewife in the kitchen wearing an apron.

Ellen’s father provided the family with financial income. Ellen tells how he was a hard worker and after a long day at work Ellen explains that ‘dad liked to read the paper and have a sleep, for he worked very hard.’ (pg. 4). ‘Earning a crust’ (pg. 1) was his expression Ellen tells us that her family ‘accepted that.’ (pg. 1).

On page two of ‘The House Where I Grew Up’ Ellen provides a memory of her father from Christmas time. ‘Dad would blow up balloons by mouth and tie them to a stick to sell in the High St, and he would also sell pretty birds on a stick that flew.’ (pg. 1). Ellen’s father found a simple yet effective way to make money for his family. Ellen tells of the rare occasions when she and her siblings would be given a pretty bird on a stick from their father but ‘without wasting too much profit.’ (pg. 2). In this, Ellen shows that she was aware of the importance of money from an early age.

Whitechapel High Street. East End, London in the 1930s

Ellen progresses to tell her readers that her father worked on Sundays as well as weekdays. ‘He never worked for an employer, but for himself all the time he must have worked for a pittance in those days.’ (pg. 3). Ellen explains how her father earned a small amount of money at the beginning of his career. However, career opportunities changed for him. Later in the memoir Ellen tells how her father ‘became an air raid warden.’ (pg. 6). Ellen’s father’s job as an air-raid warden ‘displayed conspicuous courage during the war.’ (Jones; 2006, pg. 149). Ellen’s father must have been a brave man witnessing casualties and traumatic war events daily.

When Ellen’s brother was 18, he was called for the army, ‘in the medical court.’ (pg. 6). His first port of call was to Ayrshire: ‘At first, he was sent to Ayrshire, and we went to see him off. We were so miserable.’ (pg. 6). Having to say a short goodbye to her brother must have been an emotional and frightening experience for Ellen and her family. Ellen tells her readers that he did ‘come home for a few times after that.’ (pg. 6). Her brother eventually went to the Middle East and ‘came home to us in the end.’ (pg. 6). When the war ended her brother returned home and he saw his father before he passed away.


Mrs. E. Cooper ‘The house where I grew up’, unpublished memoir, 1993, 8pp, Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Special Collections Library, Brunel University.

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

Jones, Helen. British civilians in the front line, air raids, productivity and wartime culture 1939-45. Manchester University Press. 2006.

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