Rosa Bell (b.1902): Life and Labour

Rosa Bell’s memoir primarily focuses on the joyful times and wonderful people in the community she surrounded herself with. As Rosa moves on to discuss labour, the labour of those close to her and her own, she somehow manages to maintain a positive attitude in remembering some of the truly horrific and hardened struggles she, and her family, faced as members of the working class in the twentieth century. As Robert Roberts states in relation to working class labour “all in all it was a struggle against the fates, and each family fought it out as best it could.” [1]

The first mention of labour in R.M. Remembers is in the opening chapter entitled ‘My Dad,’ in which Rosa writes about her parents’ employment and money struggles. Rosa writes of her father, Joseph Holiday, that he worked down in the mines until age eighteen “and saved every penny he could – [he] was feared and laughed at for being so careful – but he hated working down there and was determined to do something with his life” (p.2).

It is fair to say that Joseph Holiday achieved his goals, as through his saved money he sent himself to Boarding School, took a clerical position, worked as a painter in World War One, a rent collector and became, as Rosa dutifully and adoringly reminds us throughout her memoir, a wonderful Father (See: Home and Family.) Of her mother, Elizabeth Kennedy, Rosa writes that she was the “village dressmaker with her own wee workroom,” (p.3) who would later pass down her skills to her daughter.

The Seamstress by John MacDonald Aiken (1880-1961)

In the chapter entitled ‘My Youth,’ Rosa writes about after having lost interest in her studies getting her first job at 14 1/2 years old as an apprentice dressmaker, like her mother. She writes that it “was never interesting, left home at 6:30am & got back home at 8pm […] & after the apprenticeship there was no jobs available” (p.148). Sadly, even skilled workers in World War One struggled to find work. Fortunately for Rosa, however, dressmaking was never her passion, instead she desired to be a nanny.

Rosa writes that upon her first meeting at a “Big House to see a wealthy young lady with her first Baby […] the nurse in charge thought I was much too young for the responsibility” and she instead began working as a nurse housemaid “to get my training to be a nanny” (p.144). Rosa’s duties as a housemaid were very gendered and domestic in nature, mostly consisting of cleaning, serving food and laying fires.

Housemaid (1912)

Yet Rosa did eventually achieve her dream and cared for a disabled child whom she “loved very much” (p.150). Due to caring for the boy Rosa travelled many places throughout England including London and Surrey for outings, private schooling and specialised hospital care for the child to which she credits meeting “kindly caring people” (p.155).

Mother with a Baby and a Nursemaid by Frederick Walker (1840-1875)

It is not specified as to when exactly Rosa ended her employment with the child and his family, but I presume it is when she married her husband Ken and had a child of her own.

A recurring theme within Rosa’s memoir surrounding labour is that of mine and mine workers. Although Rosa’s father Joseph left mine work at age eighteen to pursue other things, mining and miners seemed to surround Rosa for the rest of her life. Rosa’s husband, Kenneth A Bell, worked as a miner for a time in his life, as did many of her siblings, her neighbours and their children.

Rosa’s sister Maggie (Margaret, b. 1887) had a son named Alfie (named for Maggie’s husband Alfred Harman) who died in a tragic mining accident: “I heard poor Maggie scream…Oh dear it was so sad to see him lying there still with a steal of coal dust across his face. And he was only 18 years of age” (p.157). Mining was dangerous and gruelling work, with many injuries and casualties caused from the practice, yet in twentieth-century working-class Britain, any work that was available would be taken.

Mine Workers (1900)

Rosa explores the idea of taking any available work when she remembers the time she and Ken were newly married and forced to live on the dole. Rosa writes that after a long, but undisclosed, period of time, Ken managed to find a job: “I was fortunate to meet someone for whom I’d worked and he soon got my husband a job […] we were so pleased to think we could be independent again” (p.35-36). The joy expressed at Ken finding a job is due to the source of freedom, independence and therefore basis of citizenship that was awarded by providing for oneself. [2]

Whether it was her faith in God (See: Habits and Beliefs: Religion) or her faith in other people, Rosa Bell, and those around her, somehow against all odds managed to survive some of the darkest times of working-class history in the twentieth century with barely a complaint as they embraced the freedom of labour and viewed the ability to provide for their families as a blessing despite the cost.

Memoir:  

Bell, Rosa. “R.M Remembers.” Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collections, 2:59, available at: http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10895

Citations:

[1] Roberts, Robert. (1971) The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[2] Rogers, Helen. ‘Independence.’ Life and Labour Lecture. Writing Lives, LJMU. Date: 21/02/19

Images:

[1] The Seamstress by John MacDonald Aiken (1880-1961) – https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-seamstress-83011/view_as/grid/search/keyword:sewing/page/1

[2] Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth Century Britain -https://www.spectator.co.uk/2013/03/human-machines/

[3] Mother with a Baby and a Nursemaid – https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/mother-with-a-baby-and-a-nursemaid-4981/view_as/grid/search/works:mother-with-a-baby-and-a-nursemaid/page/1

[4] Miners – http://www.japanfocus.org/data/j.miners.1900.gif

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