Letitia Simpson (1926-2012): Life and Labour (Part 3)

Letitia Audrey Simpson has had one of the biggest varieties of jobs I have ever came across. In a span of nine years, from when she was thirteen to when she was twenty-two years of age, Letitia had eight jobs. Those jobs were a barmaid in her mother’s pub, a Red Cross Nurse, working at the Foreign Relations office, an ammunitions factory worker, an electrical record shop assistant, working at two fashion houses in Piccadilly and Bond Street and a receptionist at a medical surgery (where she met her future husband).

Letitia began work just before she was sixteen after returning from her evacuation in the war, due to her hating being away from home. With most of the barmen in her mum’s pub, the “Wheatsheaf Inn,” being sent away on conscription, there were staff shortages which therefore meant that she had to take up the role herself. The problem was that she was underage to serve liquor, so her mother had to dress her up and Letitia describes this with, “It was true I looked about eighteen, sheer silk stocking replaced the thick black woolly ones I wore at school. Grown up fashionable wedge heeled shoes, were all the rage, and with reasonable amount of make-up, I actually felt like eighteen years old” (P63). From her emphasis on replacement, Letitia suggests that she has gone through a great transformation. She emphasises heavily how her looks have changed and transformed into the looks of a mature person, but she also emphasises that her personality has changed and matured by claiming that she “actually felt like eighteen years old.” As a person she will have matured mentally as well. No longer is she a scholar living in a quiet rural town through evacuation that shelters young people from war. Instead, she has returned to London which displays to Letitia the bombing and horror of the Blitz . Not only has she matured through encountering war, but through encountering employment, meaning she has a wage, a duty and responsibility which, as a scholar, she would not have means of getting.

Like many women during the war, Letitia became involved in the manufacture of ammunitions. Most women would have done this to produce a great contribution to the war effort, but Letitia’s reason for her taking up this form of employment was the fact that it prevented her from being subject to conscription, which was the main reason for her leaving the other jobs. Letitia writes that: “There was no time for slacking, we were all very aware of the war effort and conscious of the need to carry on” (P108). By Letitia saying that there was “no time for slacking,” she emphasises the mass production and hard labour that occurred in the ammunition factories. Letitia makes sure that she does not complain about the demand of the work as she refers to the “war effort” being on her mind and as her drive to continue. Helen Smith and Pamela Wakewich claim that: “the war revolutionised women’s work by laying out the welcome mat for their participation in the paid labour force.” Letitia’s memoir supports Smith and Wakewich’s claim as Letitia emphasises, throughout her memoir, that she didn’t have the required skills for certain jobs. For an ammunitions factory, skills were learned during the working process rather than being on the specification for seeking employers. This was due to the high demand of bullets and explosives, hence the reason why Letitia was able to get this job so easily, yet at first found it such a challenge.

Letitia’s last form of employment was at a medical surgery as a receptionist. For this job she took typing lessons at night school so she could fit the job. Letitia describes the atmosphere of the work place with: “Everyone was so friendly, even to the point of being personal. You became very comfortable there” (P133). By Letitia claiming to be “comfortable there,” she suggests that she has finally found a job she wishes to stick to and one can presume she does as she writes, later on in the memoir, that she was involved with a man called Mr Simpson who was a technician there and, as we know, her name changes from Dawson to Simpson. Also, from the quotation above there’s emphasis on feeling content at her employment by her using the words “friendly,” “personal,” and “comfortable.” Drusilla K. Barker and Susan F. Feiner write that: “whether or not the dentist [or surgeon or doctor etc] is a man or woman, the receptionists, hygienists and assistants are almost always women.” Therefore, from what Barker and Feiner claim, the job Letitia went to night school to train and finally wanted to settle down into, was a typical job for women. This is supported by the fact Letitia writes that, apart from the technicians and surgeons, all the other staff were women. Therefore, after seven attempts at other jobs that completely differ from one another, Letitia finally settles into a job that she feels is right for her but this, according to Barker and Feiner, could be due to the job’s feminisation.


Barker, D., & Feiner, S. (2004). Liberating Economics: Feminist Perspectives on Families, Work, and Globalization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

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

Burnett, John. Plenty and Want: A Social History of Food in England from 1815 to the Present Day. London: Routledge, 1989.

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363 http://www.jstor.org/stable/3828397 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Light, Alison. Common People: A History of an English Family (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2015) [19th & 20th centuries – very good model for work we are doing on author blogs]

Rose, Jonathan.  The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. [Very influential survey of reading habits and cultural ambitions based on autobiographies collected by Burnett, Mayall and Vincent]

 Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47-70 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2709910 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Savage, Mike, Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican)

Simpson, Letitia. My Day Before Yesterday, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, Vol 4

Smith, H., & Wakewich, P. (1999). “Beauty and the Helldivers”: Representing Women’s Work and Identities in a Warplant Newspaper”Beauty and the Helldivers”: Representing Women’s Work and Identities in a Warplant Newspaper. Labour / Le Travail, 44, 71-107.

Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247 http://www.jstor.org/stable/4284976 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

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