John Benson’s The Working Class in Britain 1850-1939 argues that: ‘It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of work in working-class life…Work it was that helped to determine most other aspects of working people’s lives: the standards of health they enjoyed; the types of accommodation in which they lived; the nature of their family and neighbourhood life; the ways in which they spent their leisure time; the degree of respect with which they were regarded; and even, it seems, the social, political and other values that they came to adopt.’ (Benson, 1989, 9)
In the early 20th century, work dominated the lives of labouring classes leaving little leisure time due to long working hours and little time for childhood. Children, like Florence’s sister Connie, needed to leave school at young ages in order to work and contribute to the family income.
“Connie was a milk-girl during the war (1914) and after, she use to drive a milk cart I remember her standing up in the cart with shirt blouse, breeches, and a frilly hat on, and managing the horse”.
Florence’s mother and father would certainly have experienced the reality of life in the labouring class and although born in the early 20th century, Florence herself experienced how work dominated the lives of the working class from an early age. Many of the working class autobiographies we have looked at express the feeling of pride for children in being able to earn and contribute to the family. This is something in which Florence touches upon in her memoir as she recounts her experiences of labour in her own life.
Florence’s memoir displays how work dominated the working classes, and was essential for her Father who needed to provide for his wife and growing number of children, for many working class families, the fear of not being able to work due to unemployment and disability loomed over families. After his service in WW1, Florence describes how her Father returned home and set up business as a Blacksmith and General Farrier. She writes how although commonly known as a day of rest, Sundays were busy for her Father as people used to bring him little puppies to have their tales cut. Florence’s greatest memory of her Father’s work was his time spent at Hampton Court Palace where his forge was and how “the beautiful gates in the palace have many parts repaired and made in his forge by his clever hands”.
Although times were changing during the early 20th century, women’s perception of work was often still viewed as the homemakers and in going out to work, women allowed a sense of freedom and liberation for themselves. Florence’s first job was as a bookkeeper in stores department of a motor accessories firm:
“It was my first job and I liked it very much and was told I worked very well”.
Upon her Father’s return from working abroad he asks Florence where she works and what she does and when she told him he replied: “I will come with you as I don’t want a daughter of mine working in a factory. I will explain it to the manager so don’t worry. Instead of going to my place of work I went into the managers office with dad and all was settled in no time/ I must admit I felt a little bit sad in one way, but very proud to think my father thought such a lot of me and wanted something better for me, dad said I could have some time at home with mother before I found another job.”
It was after her Father forced her to leave her bookkeeper job that Florence, aged just 14, started as a nursemaid for a baby girl named Pamela. In her own words Florence describes how Pamela’s mother was so pleased with Florence’s work looking after the baby, that by the time Florence was 15 years old, she did everything for the baby and stayed working for the family for 8 years. After she was fully recovered from suffering a breakdown, Florence remained at home with her mother and began helping the local doctor with his patients who had new babies in any way that she could. This then led Florence to begin to look after her own patients, such as Mrs Launders who she nursed back to health after a fall. Florence’s compassion and ability to care for others more than likely derives from her role in the family household from an early age looking after her younger siblings and helping her mother. It was this early introduction into labour through family that led Florence to further her experience through nursing.
‘Nonetheless it will be argued, and with some confidence, that the years between 1850 and 1939 saw fundamental changes in family life, and that these changes led eventually to the emergence of what, paradoxically, is often thought of today as the ‘traditional’ working-class family.’ (Benson, 1989, 96).
John Benson concludes that, as families grew smaller, healthier and more prosperous, there emerged a new generation of the working class. This relates to Florence’s experience as a member of a large working-class family and the change in her own family dynamic, where she had just two children, in comparison to the one she was raised in.
181 COOTER, Florence Anne, ‘Seventh Child’, MS, pp.71 (c.71,000 words). Brunel University Library found in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989)
Benson, John. The Working Class in Britain 1850-1939 (Longman Group Limited: New York), 1989.