Frank Goss (b. 1896): Life and Labour

Row of key fitters at the Cable Company Factory.
Row of key fitters at the Cable Company Factory. N.d.

Labour is a central theme in Goss’s memoir in relation to poverty and individual and social identity. As Goss’s memoir focuses on his childhood, the only labour we are told of is his parents who both earn a living for the family. However, we do see Goss take on his own aspects of labour such as chores and running errands for his mother and neighbours. As a child, Goss seems to place some importance on labour in relation to poverty as well as home and family. Even though he is at a young age during their time of poverty, he understands the dire affect it can have on a family. When his father loses his job, Goss listens to the conversation that takes place between his parents and describes the affect poverty can have on someone’s life:

poverty in itself is bad enough, but while you survive and have hope it is endurable, it is despair that destroys the fibre of a man. To see the bones and structure of life disintegrate, to feel the patterns and habits of living, in which the future has been envisaged as a procession of normalities, destroyed and replaced by a living fear of greater and greater destitution and want becomes an interminable progress into a greater hopelessness that surely breaks the spirit. (p53).

In his memoir, poverty is mainly seen in terms of hardship and the consequences of unemployment. Unemployment takes a toll on his father’s identity as he is unable to provide for his wife and children. Whilst he is out looking for a job, it is his wife that manages to secure three different jobs to provide for her children and when Charlie returns they are all sat round the table “tucking into the best feed [they] had had for months” (p66). Goss then describes how “The contrast with [his] father’s expectations can be easily appreciated and could not but make him feel momentarily that his own trials and tribulations had been worse than in vain and that, in fact his family appeared to manage better without him” (p67). Employment has a particular significance in terms of individual and social identity as it means you are able to provide for your family.

Charlie is the main breadwinner of the family but it is in fact his wife who manages to look after their children during Charlie’s periods of unemployment. When Charlie does find a job, Goss describes how they are once again “a prosperous and united family” (p37). When they are living in poverty, there is a strain on the relationship between the family but when Charlie can provide for them all, they are all united once again and no longer have to worry about money. Labour is shown as being a source of solidarity for Goss’s family. Poverty also affects the working class housing and for women, “The domestic sphere was often far from comfortable” (Davies, 114) as “the cramped nature of working-class housing again set limits to the pursuit of home-centred entertainment.” (Davies, 114). The conditions of the working class housing caused health problems for many families. At one point Goss mentions how he has measles and so possibly did his brothers.

Dressmakers, c. 1900
Dressmakers, c. 1900

Goss talks about chores he did at home and how he was rewarded with “three-ha’pence per week”. His chores included “the daily stale bread excursion, the washing and drying up of the dinner things each day” (126). The daily stale bread excursion was bakers selling “off their three-days-old loaves at a discount. To get stale bread, purchasers had to line up outside the bakers before they opened in the morning.” (p72). Goss would line up outside with his brothers at half past seven almost every week day morning to purchase a loaf of bread and if the bakers had sold out, they would then move on to another bakery. Whilst his mother is out dressmaking, his Grandmother sends him “to the greengrocers some streets away to get some potatoes” (p37). He cannot remember the weight he was instructed to get but what he does remember is that, “it was certainly more than [he] could reasonably hope to carry home. From the shop [he] got them across the road on to the opposite pavement and then finding [he] could not carry them, [he] dragged them along in the string bag [he] had as a carrier.” (p37). Even though his house “was possibly not more than a quarter of a mile, to a little boy dragging a heavy load it seemed almost an endless journey.” (p37-8).

Anna Davin states that “Most children were their mothers’ auxiliaries in the incessant round of cleaning, cooking and service in the home.” (p175). We can see this with Goss as he describes his other chores which were “the proper carrying out of a rota of tasks on a Saturday morning before going out to play. These tasks were divided up as follows. One – clean the front door knocker, the front door bell, the fire-irons and the fender. Two – clean the knives, forks and spoons […] Three – run any errands that might be required. Four – one week to clean all the upstairs windows, and the following week to wash all the bedroom floors including shaking the mats” (p126). They were paid their wages “each Monday, each Friday and each Saturday, a ha’penny at a time. This income was augmented by running errands for our neighbours for a ha’penny a journey.” (p126). When his father is unemployed Goss describes how he and Ralph ‘ranged over the better-off houses in [the] neighbourhood and asked: “If the lady wanted any errands fetched.”‘ (p54). Despite being at such a young age, Goss has a strong understanding of labour in the family and what it means in terms of individual and social identity.

Bibliography:

Davies, Andrew. Leisure, Gender and Poverty. Working-class culture in Salford and Manchester, 1900-1939. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1992.

Davin, Anna. Growing up Poor: Home, School and Street in London 1870-1914. Cambridge: Policy Press, London: Rivers Oram Press, 1996.

Goss, Frank. ‘My Boyhood At the Turn of the Century’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, Volume Number: 0.313194444 http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10909

Image references:

Cable Piano Company. N.d Web. Accessed 30 November 2015. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cable_Piano_Company

The Dressmakers, 1900. 2014 Web. Accessed 2 December 2015. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/79376012157367976/

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