In 1907, Margaret Watson was born in “the dismal tenement home at Ann. St, Cowcaddens” in Glasgow (p.1). Being the first of two children, Margaret’s family can be classified as rather unconventionally small, as in the early 1900’s, it was not uncommon for families to have up to ten or more children due to the high infant mortality rate. The faint memories Margaret has of her mother as “always ailing” and “having had to be often in hospital” (p.1) may explain the matter of Margaret having had only one sibling. Although she does not mention it directly, it is possible that her mother’s ill health may have caused relationship or financial struggles for her parents, or even affected her ability to have children.
Margaret’s recollections of her father whilst growing up are similarly rather vague, this resulting from the fact “he left to go on night shift duty at a nearby Power Station… then he slept during the day.” (p.1) Like many working class families in the early twentieth century, Margaret’s father is described as being the bread winner. However, following the death of her mother in 1910 when Margaret was “almost six years old” (p.1) her father was faced with the added pressure of not only providing for his family financially, but also emotionally. In their mother’s absence, Margaret recalls how she and her brother, Chick, “were put to bed by my father, he then left to go on night shift duty…We were locked in, but during the night I heard him come in, to look upon us, see we were alright [and] depart ever so silently.” (p.1) In spite of her father’s efforts to balance his responsibilities and provide his young children with the stability they needed, Margaret describes how in the eyes of her Aunt Maggie, the sister of her late mother, his efforts were detrimental; “A consultation ensued between them, it was then decided we children return to Paisley [where] we were to be taught to live like respectable citizens, not like heathens.” (p.1)
“Off to the shops to be suitably attired for our journey to the promised land.” (p.2)
However, Margaret recalls how a change of clothes could not mask the ‘uncivilised’ habits that she had adopted growing up in “the dirty back court” in Glasgow (p.1). Unlike her younger brother, who transformed into “a greatly changed little boy, due to the hygienic conditions in which he now lived,” (p.2) Margaret describes how “old habits” such as her untidiness and inability to refrain from swearing hindered her transition into middle-class life (p.2). Contrary to the unrestricted freedom Margaret had when living under the care of her Father, she recalls the “hated chores” that she was made to perform alongside her Grandmother in Paisley; “The polishing of dish covers with Brasso… the washing of the aspidistra plant leaves… the dusting of the countless little ornaments.” (p.3).However, in spite of her dislike of domestic chores, Margaret’s memories of her home life in Paisley are recalled fondly, often expressing feelings of gratitude and affection for her Grandmother; “Every night I sat at the fire on the fender stool, polished till it shone by Granny. There with my huge toasting fork, I made the toast for tea… Those were happy times indeed” (p.2). In some ways, I believe that living with her Grandmother allowed Margaret to recover the maternal relationship that she had been deprived of following the sudden death of her mother. The intimate relationship that Margaret shares with her Grandmother is depicted lovingly and in great detail throughout the early pages of her memoir. Numerous fond memories and amusing anecdotes are disclosed to the reader; it is almost as if Margaret intends to repay the kindness of her Grandmother by describing her in the same attentive and loving way that she was cared for as a child; “I was washed from top to toe in a tin bath by the fire by granny; I positively shone. My hair was washed… then into a lovely clean bed, I felt like a princess.” (p.2)
The remarriage of Margaret’s father when she is nine years old results in an unwanted return to Glasgow, and “amidst tears from granny and [her]self” (p.4) a separation from her Grandparents. The account of the mistreatment Margaret suffers at the hand of her new stepmother, Lizzie, who is described as being “hated” and “drank a lot” (p.5) is especially tragic when read in comparison to the loving way she was cared for by her grandmother in Paisley. Despite her young age, Margaret must adjust from being cared for to carer; “I was told I must brush [Lizzie’s] hair; many times I was brought out of bed to do this task. I would brush and brush, tears running, she sat with closed eyes, I brushed until I was allowed to go to bed” (p.8).
The Great War has a dramatic effect on Margaret’s childhood: “my father a reserve, was called up, we were left to the tender mercies of Lizzie” (p.5). In her father’s absence, we are told how under the care of her stepmother, there were “many rows” and “exchanged blows” (p.5). Although Margaret does not go into great detail when describing her relationship with her stepmother, it can be assumed that the mistreatment she suffered at the hand of her stepmother was grave, as “[One of her neighbours] contacted the Cruelty to Children Inspector. A huge local council car came [and] shipped us off to the Children’s Home” (p.5).
When reading Margaret’s recollection of the time that she and her younger brother spent in the Children’s Home, I found it rather unsettling to read: not because she was unhappy there, or mistreated in any way, but because her memories of being in the care system are some of the happiest she has of her childhood. She remembers “…how nice it was at the Home, clean beds, regular meals, hot water to bathe in.” (p.6) The Children’s Home offered Margaret everything that she lacked in her own home with Lizzie; stability, comfort and safety. However, she recalls how her happiness was short lived; “then the day dawned when Lizzie arrived at the Home, gave her piecrust promises to look after us, and was allowed to take us away with her.” (p.6) By putting the children back into Lizzie’s care, the social welfare system can be seen to have failed Margaret and her brother. She recalls how despite her stepmother acquiring work as a cook, where she would “steal butter and bacon etc.” (p.7) she and Chick would often be sent to school unfed and hungry. (p.7) However where the social system failed, the working class community prevailed; recalling a time when she fled to a neighbour’s house after Lizzie “made a dash” for her (p.7), Margaret describes how “Mr. MacBride told Lizzie if she laid a finger on me, he would get the Police, never the word Police was used” (p.8).
When Margaret has a family of her own, she teaches her children of the importance of working class values and being part of a community. Although she does not state this directly, I believe this is because of the important role her neighbours played in her own childhood, protecting and caring for her and offering help when she needed it; “Many nights when we had to borrow a penny from Mrs. MacBride, otherwise sit in the darkness, this penny for our gas meter… Once again the neighbours to our rescue” (p.5-6). I think it is also a result of her difficult childhood that Margaret works so hard throughout her life. We are told how she often worked multiple jobs and long hours, acquiring work wherever she could obtain it. This, I believe, is so that Margaret could provide her own children with a better upbringing than the one she received herself, and make available to them what she was deprived of when growing up.
Burnett, John. Mayall, David and Vincent, David (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography (Brighton: Harvester,1897) Vol: 2 No: 802
Stevenson, Sandy. Old photograph of Glasgow Road, Paisley, Scotland – Accessed on 21 November 2014 –