Kay Garrett (b.1899): Life and Labour

Hello and welcome back to Writing Lives.

This blog post will focus on Kay’s work life from working as a child scrubbing doorsteps, to her job as agony Aunt, Mary Brown for the Daily Mirror. It is obvious that work was Kay’s driving force throughout her life as her memoir talks about every job she has held in her life in great detail so this will be an extra-large post!

Just to warn you, there is a section of this post that talks about sexual harassment in the workplace. For your convenience I will separate that section from the rest of the post so you can choose to read that section at your own digression. It’s not essential for you to have read the other posts in this series, but if you are interested in finding out more about Kay’s home life and more then you can find them all here.

“While I was still at school I got a job. Every morning at 7:30 I went to a house in a posh street [in Kensington]. I washed a long flight of red-tiled steps and polished the door brasses. For this I received from the housekeeper tuppence a day and breakfast – lovely hot dripping toast and a big mug of cocoa.” (4)

It’s not unusual for a working class person today to have a job while completing their studies, but Kay started working at a very young age and her mother kept all of the money! It may sound unfair, but for many working class families in the early 20th century, this was a necessity. As mentioned earlier, Kay’s father was an army pensioner and what little money the family did have was spent on alcohol. Starting work this early in life could also go some way to explain Kay’s insatiable work ethic throughout her life.

After leaving school aged 14 with a firm background in English and enough French to get by, Kay got a job at the National Liberal Club as a kitchen clerk in 1916. According to Kay, “the kitchen clerk was really as man’s job. But there were no suitable men left” (5) due to the outbreak of the First World War. It was here that she first worked with men in the armed forces from all over the world: “Italians; French; a Swede; one American; and an ancient Scot.” (5) This caused quite a language barrier in the kitchen, forcing them all to speak ‘kitchen French’. It’s a small miracle then that they managed to serve the incumbent Liberal Party headquarters three hundred lunches and three hundred dinners every day plus the occasional banquet!

It was in the same year that Kay underwent an ordeal that seems hard to believe today, but really illustrates how one’s class could determine how you were treated in that era.

P.S. If you’re squeamish, look away now!

Kay went to the hospital with a sore throat which turned out to be tonsillitis, that same night her tonsils were removed by a doctor “with no warning and no anaesthetic” (6) afterwards she was only told to go home. Now this is the truly astounding part… “being green and accustomed to accepting what my elders and betters said or did, [I] meekly went back on duty (I was due on at 6 o’clock) because I didn’t think I should make any ‘fuss’… Nobody seemed to think the doctors at the hospital had been incredibly savage to a 16-year old girl. They were ‘they’ and we were ‘us’ and we had to be grateful that we got free treatment.” (6)

This quote stands out to me because I think it really sums up the working class experience in relation to their position in society and how people’s class identity was ingrained in their interactions with people of superior status in society. Something you’ll see time and time again in working class literature of any epoch.

In 1917 when the First World War was in full swing, Kay enrolled in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (“the Waacs”) (5). Once again working as a clerk at the former gentleman’s club Connaught, she was a “scandalous novelty” (5) due to being one of the first groups of women to wear khaki. Although it is clear that Kay was a hard worker, she notes that the girls she worked with who were from Scotland and the North were even more hard working. There is admiration from Kay as she comments that these girls were “a bit rough and to me their speech was almost incomprehensible… [the girls] seemed to me to be heroic” (5). Could this be a remnant of the industrial powerhouses of the North that dominated working class life during the 19th century?

Queues outside the Employment Exchange during the Great Depression
Queues outside the Employment Exchange during the Great Depression


Being confident and experienced in typing, filing and shorthand it was easy for Kay to get a job while living in Africa, at one point she was even the breadwinner of the household as her husband looked for a job. But when she went back to England in 1930 that was a completely different story, “there were queues of shorthand-typists stretching out into the street” (9).

In a throwback to her work as a child, Kay became a ‘daily woman’ (cleaner) for a middle class woman in Acton. Although officially a cleaner, Kay notes that to her embarrassment she became the lady’s confidante, who told Kay her troubles that she couldn’t share with friends or family. I understand why this would make Kay uncomfortable due to the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality mentioned earlier clearly still resonating with people in the 1930s.

After a brief stint as a counter hand serving fish and chips Kay finally got a job as an office clerk in a city office. Although it was more within her expertise, she did not have a pleasant experience.

Her manager was an overbearing man who always breathed now her neck after finding out that she was a single mother, but living on her own. One night he locked her in the office with him and overpowered her. Luckily Kay thought on her feet, pretended that it “wasn’t the right time” (10) and the situation didn’t escalate, but it did leave her shaken. After the incident she confided in a work colleague who was “the gentlest and kindest man I ever met” (10) and he promised that no matter how late Kay had to work, he would never leave her alone in the office if the boss was still there and he kept that promise.

After eight months Kay asked for a reference and left that job and had to ‘sign on’ at the employment exchange. This may seem like an unfortunate turn, but it would start the next chapter of her life.

After writing a letter of complaint to the employment exchange, they offered her a job as the manager’s shorthand-typist and confidential clerk. In 1939 Kay was promoted to clerical officer of the National Service who would send people off to work. If they didn’t do the work then they would be sent to prison! It sounds like a pretty difficult job and Kay states that if she ever heard people say that civil servants had an easy time she would “froth at the ears” (11).

By 1946 things were starting to look up for Kay. She once again lived with her daughter and stated writing opinion pieces for pleasure. Following some encouragement from a work colleague Kay sent some of this writing to the Daily Mirror “and was totally incredulous when I received a marvellous letter from the Features Editor who said he agreed with every word I’d written” (12). She received 7 guineas (about £8) for her first published feature and landed the job as Mary Brown, columnist and agony aunt, where she stayed for seventeen years until her retirement. In the end, Kay earned more working for the Daily Mirror than her former manager of one of London’s busiest employment exchanges.

Although Kay may have transcended her working class beginnings, her work ethic and life experiences were no doubt forged by her starting work aged only eight. Working through two world wars and the great depression were certainly not easy either, but her positive outlook and strength of character shine through in Kay Garrett’s account of her working life.

If you want to find out more about Kay Garrett then follow me on Twitter @Portia_Fahey to keep up to day with the latest posts and other @Writing__lives blogs.


2.305 Garrett, Kay, Untitled (c.9,000 words), pp.1-12. Brunel University Library.

Extract published in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.306-312. Brunel University Library and Ruskin College Library, Oxford.

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