Margaret Perry (b. 1922): Life & Labour

Male and Female Occupations.

Bourke argued that classes are demarcated in terms of economic indicators, such as occupation, income, and a distinction between people who own the means of production and those who only own their own labour power'(1). When thinking about working class labour, many instantly think about the gender work divide, with women acting as homemakers. Indeed, it has been argued that 'both capitalists and male workers had an interest in uniting to exclude women from jobs'(2), with evidence to show for this, 'by 1931, the proportion of married women in employment had increased by only two percentage points (from 14%)'(3). Ann Oakley saw the role of housewife as demeaning, consisting of 'monotonous, fragmented work which brought no financial remuneration, let alone any recognition'(4). 

However, in Perry’s memoir (born 1922 in Nottingham), we see that working class females, married or not, did still work. This begins with Perry’s maternal grandmother, who she believed died from ‘hard work’ (pp. 4). This was not due to the level of work she endured in her and her husband’s Fish and Chip shop, but for the fact that her business partner contributed ‘nothing to the business but an ability to drink away the profits’ (pp. 4). Added to this, he ‘managed to make his wife pregnant regularly once a year’ (pp. 4), showing what can disrupt female work. Even when her mother and father had married, Perry says that her mother continued ‘dressmaking’ (pp. 3) to bring in money for the rent. Bourke noted that 'women without paid employment are often allocated to the 'class' position of their husband of father (assuming - often wrongly - than women would be dependent on them'(5). Both males and females went into work when they left school, and Perry experienced this at fourteen, working as a ‘junior clerk … my nose was kept to ledgers from 9 a.m to 7 p.m’ (pp. 18).

Griffin and Spaldings, Market St Nottingham, where Perry worked aged 16-20


Perry then tried to ‘better herself’ by getting a job in a counting house of Griffin and Spalding’s Department Store, being surprised she got the position - ‘I was scared to drop an aitch’ (pp. 19). Here a ‘boy-friend’ (pp. 18) worked actively as a salesman and window dresser, and later as a display manager at John Lewis, instead of hidden in the office like Perry. Perry admits ‘I looked down on my father’ (pp. 19), the breadwinner, while working here, although he worked as a ‘Chief Engineer’ (pp. 2) in an electrical company.

A Source of Pride and Solidarity?

In reading Perry’s memoir, it seems that there was more solidarity between females in work than with males. For instance, Perry divulges that her father, ‘had no staff but a young boy stocker, whom he spoke to like a dog’ (pp. 2), and reveals his position, despite work, by stating, ‘I think this boy was the only creature he ever had power over in his life’ (pp. 2). Female solidarity is obvious with Perry’s female colleagues, ‘Fridays were good days too. They were the slackest and we took in it turns to tell stories of the trash we read in current magazines’, and ‘we spent as much time together as possible … gossiping at each others’ cash desk’ (both pp. 18). She notes how they all equally acknowledged their positions, ‘the office managers and departmental buyers were treated like Gods, with great reverence’ (pp. 19), but ‘appreciated the refined manners around me. It was my first contact with the middle classes and I liked them’ (pp. 19). Nonetheless, as Perry’s work roles improved, she had gained pride through leaving her original social class, ‘they spoke in the worst possible Nottingham-ese, and called me a “stuck up snob”. This pleased me. It meant I was well out of their class’ (pp.36). Even so, she still had solidarity with the other workers, ‘they roared with laughter when I copied their accents … and the girls were coming into my office with all their troubles’ (pp. 37).

The Palais de Dance, Nottingham


Work and Social Activities.

It was clear that the only day off a week, a Sunday, was made use of by Perry’s father, ‘his Sunday mornings in the pub with his brothers … were compulsory’ (pp. 3). With their children grown, Perry’s mother got a reprieve from her role, joining ‘the Women’s Institute and Old Time Dancing’ (pp. 23). It is clear too that relationships were made through work, e.g. ‘my first boy-friend worked here … we went out together three times a week and to the pictures once a week … at the week-ends, cycled for miles into the country’ (pp. 18) and ‘Palais de Danse … we went every Friday night … walked the three miles home to my house, talking all the way about the fellows we’d danced with’ (pp. 28). For Perry too, work acted as a source of learning, especially from superiors, ‘the manager had been sent from London … took it upon himself to correct all my remaining ugly vowels’ (pp. 29).

Relationships between Work, Home, and the Family.

Perry’s memoir shows the benefits gained from children’s earnings to the family income, ‘by 1936 my brother was earning enough to keep him-self and pay my mother something and I got a job at fourteen’ (pp. 23) providing geographical and social mobility, ‘it was decided that we could afford a better house in a nicer neighbourhood’ (pp. 23). The improvement to income at this time also allowed for holidays, ‘Aunt Maria took me to Skegness with her for two whole weeks in the middle of August … it was the first holiday I’d ever had. The Territorial Army were there and she let me go to the local hop every night’ (pp. 27) and ‘they all had more money than ever before … but life was nearly all work with little pressure’ (pp. 37). It is clear that work and family life then centred around the War Effort, ‘he had joined the voluntary fire services’ (pp. 29), ‘Nora … came to live near us. She took a job and handed over her daughter and her ration books to Mother’ (pp. 29), and ‘my age group were pressed into joining the Services … I was to be a costing clerk and given an office among the noisy machinery’ (pp. 33).

 


Class Identity and Work.

David Vincent argued that the 'less literate the writer, and the the less he was involved in specific activities of self-improvement or political activity, the greater his preoccupation with details of his life as a worker'(6). The opposite is evident with Perry. Through her different work roles, Perry admits that she ‘discovered there were different categories of working class’ (pp. 34). It is clear that she wanted to escape the working class for an upper class identity, ‘I wanted to better myself’ (pp. 24), and her father wished to appear intelligent too, ‘Father wore overalls for his work, but never came home in them. He dressed as much like a white collar worker as he could afford’ (pp. 2). Indeed, Bourke noted that 'the types of clothing one wore was far more important than one's academic achievement'(7). It is evident that the dead-end role of a housewife was demoralizing for Perry, ‘I couldn’t take a job other than war work’ (pp. 32), nonetheless, many married women in employment during the War argued that they did it 'because they needed the money or for patriotic reasons'(8), and not for an urge for work or career. The synopsis for Perry's later autobiography supports her work ethic, “she supported her husband’s devotion to the Royal Air Force, raised thousands of pounds through charitable good works for S.A.F.F.A and reared two children whilst accepting postings including the Middle East”, showing her urge to contribute through work.

 

The cover of Perry’s 2006 autobiography

 

Footnotes:

(1) Bourke, J, Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicty (London: Routledge, 1994) pp.2

(2) as above, pp.63

(3) as above, pp.62

(4) as above, pp.63

(5) as above, pp.4

(6) Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography (London: Methuen, 1981) pp. 64

(7) as above, pp.25

(8) as above, pp.64

References:

Perry, Margaret, Untitled, TS, pp.38 (c.13,000 words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (London: Allen Lane, 1982), pp.319-24 (2.606)

Perry, Margaret, Family Life in the Royal Air Force and Later (London: Serendipity Publishing, 2006)

Online Resources:

Want to read more about working class writers and their regard for their work? The Labouring-Class Writers Project: http://human.ntu.ac.uk/research/labouringclasswriters/Index.htm

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