Lilian Westall (born 1893): Life and Labour (Part 1)

Nurses, late 19th-early 20th century

Figure 1 Household Maids for a London Family in the early 20th Century


Throughout Westall’s memoir, work is a main theme and spoken about more than anything else. For Westall work is the main purpose of life: ‘When I was fourteen I went out to look for a job’ (4); ‘I went to work for a dentist’ (5); ‘I became a kitchen maid’ (6).

Westall spends her life moving from job to job as she could never stay stable in one or the other. She gives many reasons for this, and some of these reasons are passive and some are very important in knowing the character of Westall.

She states a moment when she was sexually harassed: ‘I was even more worried about the nineteen-year-old son of the mistress, who thought me fair game and kept trying to corner me in the bedroom.’ This highlights the gender issues within the working-class society and Westall expressing that as a woman, she wasn’t treated very well. Historical sources back up this incident by stating that women were viewed as ‘a virgin, wife, or widow, or alternately a daughter, wife or mother’ (Wiesner, 52).

Domestic were not seen as employees, but as part of the furniture, necessary to keep things clean and ready. Westall was never treated like a person. In a sense, her employers tried to make her a machine. ‘I was the only servant’ (5). In every job Westall describes a degree of ‘over-working’ which she did not like at all. For me, Westall was constantly searching for something better, but never knew where to look. Westall seemed to have a spirit she could not make happy. ‘I’d had enough; working hard was one thing, continual scolding was another.’ (8).

‘By the early twentieth century a woman no longer handed over her manuscript to be read aloud by a man; she no longer blushed at the prospect of mounting a platform. (Prochaska, 2). Westall may not discuss suffragettes or the change of woman’s identity, but she lives it herself. She never questions her own abilities to live and earn her keep. She only tells us of her husband once or twice within the memoir and I believe that is because her life was much more than her spousal or her marital role. She worked throughout her life, as her husband worked for the navy. Westall worked for her family, to keep them safe. She was the independent mother, the strong leader of her family. I believe she made much more for herself than she lets on.


Figure 2 Women Striking against Gender Inequality in the early 1900s

‘To tell you the truth I was beginning to feel tired. I felt I’d had enough’ (10)

Westall shows us that when you come from a working-class family you are doomed to a life of work. Life became work and work became life, especially in the early twentieth century. But there was never a dull moment in Westall’s life; she had wit and endurance to always be better, something you cannot forget about after reading her memoir.

Have a look at Part 2 of Lilian’s Life and Labour


Used references

Westall, Lilian. The Good Old Days. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:746

Wiesner, Merry E. Women and gender in early modern Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Prochaska, Frank K. Women and philanthropy in nineteenth-century England. Oxford University Press, 1980.




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