Mary Norreen Hart (b.1928): Life & Labour

‘There was a sense in which autobiographers found themselves unable to write easily about their family life, or felt that they ought not to refer to some aspects of it’

(Vincent, 1980, 229)

Mary Hart’s memoir completely goes against Vincent’s quote, as she writes explicitly about family life and labour. One thing that is specific to Mary’s memoir is her description of the coal mining industry in Aberfan, Wales. Mary writes that ‘Aberfan developed as a coal mining community in the 19th century’ (4) and that ‘the ‘pit’ was the dominant focus for life in this small close-knit community’ (5). Therefore, it is clear that this aspect of labour in the village had a strong impact. This is important for Mary as she writes on this with such detail.   

Image of the Welsh miners from the BBC documentary.

In the BBC documentary ‘Wales: England’s Colony?’, Dr Ben Curtis says that during the 19th and early 20th century, Wales was ‘like the Saudi Arabia of coal […] in terms of the money it’s generating’ (40.30, 2019). This is clear in Mary’s memoir as the industry provided a huge source of employment for her family. She writes ‘the men on both sides of our family had worked the coal seams in Merthyr Vale’ (4). The ‘pit’ of Aberfan was a source of income for many working-class people from the 19th century onwards.   

It is quite unusual then, to see how she describes how the ‘lack’ of work around Aberfan pushed her father ‘to leave the valley to seek employment’ (5) in Birmingham. Although as Jonathan Rose explains, ‘after the boom years of the First World War and the immediate post-war period, demand for coal collapsed’ (Rose, 2001, 251). Therefore, this would have hit the community quite hard and serves as an explanation for her father’s unemployment after the war.  

Mary’s work experience  

Image of the department store ‘Theophilus’.

Although Mary writes on her childhood, she details quite extensively on her work experience as a young adult, after leaving school. She dedicates a whole subheading on it! Mary’s first job was at a department store called ‘Theophilus’ (37) and her second job was at the grocery chain ‘William Harris’ (38). There, she was made ‘to weigh and package sugar into 1lb and 2lb blue paper packets’ (28). Though after six months, she lost her job because ‘they had decided to cut one member of staff from each branch’ (38). Mary writes on this bluntly, which suggests that this was a common issue for working-class members of society. It’s clear that the economic decline that followed from the 19th century influenced Mary’s work experience.

John Burnett suggests that during the 20th century ‘the danger point consequently arose at age eighteen or nineteen when young men and women with no particular skills competed for jobs at adult wages many being dismissed or replaced (Burnett, 1994, 207). This is shown in Mary’s experience as a young adult. The lack of employment around the area affected Mary directly, as she had to compete with others to secure a job and a source of income. Mary states that after leaving school, ‘we became adults responsible for our own welfare and our parents’ (28). The ‘we’ here suggests that this was the same for her siblings. Therefore, this strain on finding work affected both genders. Pressures of finding work after education forced children during the early-mid 20th century to mature quickly.  

Mary details other sources of work such as a ‘greengrocers in Dowlais’ (29) and works as an administrative assistant in a ‘wholesale vegetable and fruit warehouse’ (29). However, there she was accused of putting her ‘hands into the takings’ (39). Although she denies doing this, this accusation was due to her residency in the working-class area of Bryntaff in Aberfan. This type of discrimination is common for her. While at an interview for another job, she says ‘at the mention of Bryntaff [the manager’s] demeanour changed (38). So not only does her class impact her finding a job, but so does the area in which she originates.   

Why does she write on this?  

Well, judging by her detail on the matter, Mary wants to raise awareness to the lack of ‘guidance for young people leaving school’ (37) and the lack of work opportunity during this period, as well as its impact.  

David Vincent mentions that an ‘autobiography has the potential to tell us not merely what happened, but the impact of an event or situation upon an actor in the past’ (Vincent, 1980, 226). This is what Mary’s memoir does when discussing her work experience during this time. As mentioned, she details that she had to mature quickly to support the family. This idea is repeated by Mary, which shows her anxiety on the matter; ‘from an early age, I was left to support Mama and cope with Dada both financially and emotionally’ (40). The lack of money and the effects of the war on her father is one of the reasons Mary started to work young. Rather than merely discussing her employment, she uses her experience to help readers understand the pressures of seeking employment during this period. 

Bibliography 

Burnett, John. Idle Hands: The Experience of Unemployment, 1790-1990. (London: Routledge, 1994). 

HART, Mary Norreen, ‘A Welsh Childhood: Memories of Aberfan 1928-1945 through the eyes of Mary Norreen Hart (nee Jones).’ (privately printed, 2011), pp.63. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel University Library. Special Collections, Vol.4. 

Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001). 

Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247. 

Wales: England’s Colony, (2019). [TV programme] 101: BBC Cymru. 

Images Cited

Mainwarin, Rachel. ‘The last generations of miners in Wales are captured in these poignant photos‘. WalesOnline. 12 October 2016. Web. Accessed 28 March 2019.

Wales: England’s Colony, (2019). [TV programme] 101: BBC Cymru.

What shops were on the high street?’ BBC. N.d. Web. Accessed 28 March 2019

Proof read by Shauna and Zoe.

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