In the first part of this home and family themed blog post, I explored Margaret Watson’s hectic early life moving between the middle-class lifestyle of her grandma in Paisley, and the working-class poverty-stricken environment of Glasgow with her father. Margaret and her brother Chick experienced many upheavals during their childhoods due to the death of their mother, the conditions of their father’s home, and the treatment they faced at the hands of his new wife, Lizzie. In this second blog post, I will be exploring in further depth Margaret’s experiences at a Children’s Home that she and her brother were sent to after her caring neighbours contacted a ‘Cruelty to Children Inspector’ after witnessing the abuse they faced at the hands of Lizzie, their stepmother.
Margaret and Chick were living contently in Paisley with their grandma when they were uprooted and brought back to Glasgow due to their father remarrying. Margaret’s memoir tells us that their new stepmother Lizzie was not a pleasant woman. As well as this, Margaret alludes to the fact that Lizzie’s relationship with her father is abusive, saying “so many rows between Lizzie and my father, blows exchanged on either side, it was awful.” (p.5) Things took a turn for the worse for Margaret and Chick when their father was called up as a reserve in the army, and they were left alone with their stepmother. Margaret does not go into great detail about their mistreatment by Lizzie, as the experience was clearly traumatic. Most significantly, the true extent of Margaret and Chick’s difficult home life is shown when a concerned neighbour called a ‘Cruelty to Children’ inspector, and “A huge local council car came and shipped us off to the Children’s Home” (p.5). The abuse the two children faced must have been substantial for it to be noticed by neighbours, and Margaret and Chick were placed into the care system.
As I briefly mentioned in the first part of this post, surprisingly Margaret’s memories of the children’s home are fond ones, which was initially shocking to me because during this time children’s homes were often poorly organised and sometimes negative environments for children to be in. Being in the care system often has negative connotations surrounding it, however Margaret’s time in the Home are some of the happiest she writes about in her memoir. “How nice it was at the Home, clean beds, regular meals, hot water to bathe in, something we had never known from a water tap. Even at Granny’s, I never had hot water, from the tap” (p.6) This line of the memoir shows the level of change Margaret is experiencing when she moves to the Home, as she points out that even her middle-class lifestyle with her grandma seemed less luxurious in comparison to the Home, as she had never had hot tap water to bathe in until now. These luxuries were bound to heighten the wonderful experience for Margaret and her brother, who were so used to poverty and abuse in their old home at Glasgow that any change was for the better. When reading the memoir, I found her description of her time at the Home heart-warming; it is hard not to feel happy that Margaret got to experience a place where she felt comfortable after her difficult time with Lizzie.
Another aspect of the Home that brought comfort to Margaret was that she got to stay in the company of her brother. As mentioned in the previous part of this post, Margaret and Chick were briefly separated when they moved to Paisley, as Chick went to live with their Aunt whilst Margaret went with their gran. In the Home, Margaret stayed with her younger brother on their first night because he was crying, presumably due to the distress at facing yet another uprooting at such a young age: “the night matron awakened me, told me I must have my small brother into my bed, he had cried all the time, kept the others awake. I took him in” (p.5/6). This moment shows Margaret’s care for her younger brother, and also portrays the level of trauma the two must feel; Margaret shows great bravery in looking after her upset brother on their first night in an unfamiliar environment, and it’s a credit to her character for turning a potentially negative situation into a positive one, and turning out to enjoy the changes that the Home brought.
Unfortunately, Margaret’s newly found love for the children’s home is brought to a sad end, when Lizzie shows up to the Home and takes her and her brother back to her Glasgow home: “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) It is unfortunate that the care system that Margaret grew so fond of eventually failed her and Chick, because being returned to Lizzie led only to further neglect. Saying this, as mentioned in my last post, Margaret’s working-class neighbours continued to care for she and Chick when Lizzie did not, leaving out food for them and checking on their wellbeing. Margaret’s period in a children’s home merely adds to the hugely interesting theme of home and family in her memoir, and although the care system eventually fails her, it is comforting to know she spent some very happy times there during what was mostly a distressing childhood.
Watson, M. Untitled, T S, pp.39, Brunel University Library.
Devine, M (1996), Scotland in the twentieth century, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh
Kirk, J (2009) The British Working Class in the Twentieth Century, University of Wales Press, Cardiff