Rosa Bell (b.1902): Life & Labour

“Yes we did experience years on the Dole. I remember waiting for my husband in a queue in Cumberland almost a mile long, all of them good honest men really wanting work all going to sign on.” (pg. 29)

Having a life that is dominated by work often leaves very little time for leisure. Simply getting by was the main concern for people of the working classes. So, whilst many were busy paying the rent this left fewer resources for recreational activities. But, there often contrast with certain folks that did suffer a major problem which was the lack of work that was even available. The start of work is vital and people acquired a sense of identity from whatever position they ended up at.

Rosa herself lived in a household where her father was the most active member of the household economy. Whilst many children had to subscribe to this way of life, this was not an issue of Rosa’s. She went to school and had certain aspirations that could not always be fulfilled due to her family’s financial situation.

Coal mining ran throughout the male generations of her family, these included her father and her husband as well as friends of the family. As I read about all the horrendous incidents that occurred to these men whilst working in the mines, I cannot help but find it so incredibly tragic and disheartening. A lot of them were very young too:

“I was along seeing mum and Dad when I hear poor Maggie scream – my dad was old then and asked me to go to find out what was wrong and they told me Alfie had been killed in the mine crushed to death between two tubs full of coal […] there is not a whole bone left in his body […] And he was only 18 years of age.” (pg. 156-7)

It is only when Rosa remembers and writes moments like this that her memoir’s tone becomes very mournful. You can sense that this was an event that really hit home for her since this has managed to stand out so clearly in her mind for over sixty years.

'Pit ponies' suffered hardships just as much as the men.
‘Pit ponies’ suffered hardships just as much as the men.

She mentions further how unfortunate it was that so many decent people wanted to work productively as opposed to being idle and that they were so down of their luck that desperate measures were often taken:

“How well I remember the men from Scotland walking down South to find jobs of playing & singing on the streets to support themselves to pop a penny or 2 in their caps was a great joy to me for some of them had almost no soles to their shoes and they were really trying.” (pg. 38-39)

You can sort of imagine people having to travel out of desperation all across the country just to gain whatever they could manage. I believe events like these did take place during the Inter-war years which occurred from 1918 to 1939, when Rosa would have been a young adult and in the midst of the early stages of developing her work life. Minimum wage and having only a few hours to spare in a day for leisure was part of the discourse during this period in Britain. John Burnett explores unemployment in Britain during war time in his book The Experience of Unemployment, 1790-1990:

“On the surface, Britain in 1914 was still a highly prosperous industrial society […] Since the fundamental problem was a structural decline in Britain’s basic industries […] (south Wales, the north-east coast, west Cumberland and Clydeside), it was always possible to think of the depression as exceptional, untypical of the general state of the country.” (pg. 199 & 201)

Rosa and her husband had to survive on the Dole for a great deal of time, and the way in which she has written about this experience makes me feel that she had to justify her reasons for doing so. This makes me wonder if there was such a stigma to being on the Dole then as there is nowadays and that this rhetoric may have been used to judge the poor as being useless and lazy. David Allsop and David Wray explore this issue in The Rise and Fall of Autonomous Group Working in the British Coal Mining Industry in regards to coal miners: “The “market” consisted of a pool of skilled labor… made up of men whose contracts had ended… and those individuals who were unable to maintain a place within an established group because they were either “unreliable” or “lazy”. (pg. 223)

Although the mortality rate was quite high due to conditions such as hunger and diseases that were common in Rosa’s childhood: “… in many cases suffered from malnutrition and… many died from tuberculosis.” (pg. 29) Rosa still was able to salvage some joy in her life:

“I used to help a good lady […] and she was kind & gave me some small eggs of many a good meal The Spirit of friendship in those days was just wonderful & folks always shared what they had.” (pg. 33)


Further Reading:

  • Allsop, David. Wray, David. ‘The Rise and Fall of Autonomous Group Working in the British Coal Mining Industry’, Employee Responsibilities & Rights Journal. Department of Management & Quantitative Methods, Illinois State University, Normal 61790-5580 USA, Vol. 24 Issue 3, p217-217. 1p, September 2012.
  • Bell, Rosa. R.h.n. Remembers. Brunel University Library, July 1987.
  • Burnett, John ed. Idle Hands: The Experience of Unemployment, 1790-1990 London: Routledge, 1994.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.