Eva Shilton (b.1907): Life and Labour

Although work and general labour are not central themes in Eva Shilton’s memoir, they are a recurrent source of both relief and hardship for the family. For Eva’s father, a ‘skilled crafstman’ (Shilton, p.11) , work was not a source of pride but rather a source of necessary income in order, literally, to survive.

A three-wheeled car made by Coventry Victor Co., where Eva’s father eventually gained steady employment.

Class identity and labour are inextricably linked: the very definition of a labourer is someone who must work for a living and is therefore working-class. Eva’s father, however, spent much of his time following the war ‘still without a regular job, [as] firms closed down almost without notice’ (Shilton, p.15). I have previously established the concrete link between domestic happiness and her father’s employment in my Home and Family post: as a result of this prior focus on Eva’s father and his experience of labour, I will be focusing primarily upon female labour in the domestic sphere.

Throughout Eva’s memoir is an implicit assumption that the domestic space is explicitly of female responsibility: for example, when Eva was ill with diphtheria, she was ‘nursed at home by [her] mother and her sister’ (Shilton, p.3). Though her father was unemployed at the time, he took on no role in domestic matters such as illness, cooking and cleaning. Indeed, later in the memoir Eva is desperate for a ‘gym-slip’, a type of P.E uniform. Eva writes that ‘it really must show our poverty, when even this wish could not be granted’ (Shilton, p.13). Nevertheless, her grandmother, a seamstress, had been given a ‘very well made garment’ and passed it on to Eva’s mother, to unpick the embroidery and fashion a gym-slip. Her mother found it hard to concentrate when sewing, however, so Eva and her six-year-old sister were to ‘do all the cleaning, cooking, errands, [and] look after the baby’ (Shilton, p.13). Even in this instance, the domestic sphere is so confined to specified gender boundaries that, rather than help, Eva’s father is content to let his twelve and six-year-old daughters take over their mother’s role.

It is clear, from Eva’s later schooling, that young girls were being prepared to go into a life of domesticity. At Wheatley St. school, for example, Eva was given female-only tuition in domestic upkeep: ‘any ideas of making lovely cakes and biscuits were soon dashed’ (Shilton, p.14) Eva recalls that the first job she had in these classes was ‘to clean the flues with long brushes, and the coke ovens underneath’ (Shilton, p.14). She was also enrolled on a variety of other housekeeping courses, ‘meant for girls who, when they left school, were likely to go into service’ (Shilton, p.15). In this context, ‘service’ generally meant becoming a housemaid for a middle or upper class family. So impoverished was Eva’s community, though, that she stated ‘some of these girls went just for the food’. (Shilton, p.15).

Wheatley Street School

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