Being born into a working-class family, Margaret Watson’s life as a labourer was set in stone. With her mother dying when she was only five years old, Margaret was part of a single parent family in a poor area of Glasgow. Her father had to provide for her and her brother alone, and in her memoir, Margaret recalls witnessing the hard work her father did in order to care for his children. “At night we were put to bed by my father, he then left to go on night shift duty at a nearby Power Station.” (p.1) Witnessing her father put so much effort into caring for her by working difficult hours at his job at the Power Station is foreshadowing of her own life, as throughout the years Margaret works many different jobs in order to provide for herself and her family.
In the early years of her life, Margaret, although a child, was keen to work in order to help out her family financially. For many working-class people in the early twentieth century, labour did not just begin after they had left school, but began in childhood, as there was often not enough money within a family for the children to not help provide. This was especially the case for Margaret. When her father left to join the army during World War I, Margaret and her brother Chick were left alone with their nasty stepmother Lizzie, who often left them unfed and fending for themselves. With Margaret being the oldest of the two siblings, she felt it her responsibility to provide for her younger brother by working.
Margaret’s recalls earning money by “running errands, carting rubbish to back yards for the elderly, [so] we had coppers for chips.” (p.7) By running errands such as this, Margaret was able to earn pennies to buy food for her and Chick whilst Lizzie was “God only knows where.” (p.7). As well as collecting rubbish for her elderly neighbours, Margaret had an early introduction to a life of cleaning work, she remembers “two old ladies who were unable to take their turn of washing the stairs. I for the much needed pence volunteered to wash the stairs.” (p.7) As she had no experience in washing stairs, she recalls how she did not do an expert job, and many tenants complained and her “services were no longer required.” (p.7) This dismissal was the first of many throughout Margaret’s life; in her memoir she explains how she changed occupation several times as she grew up. Being dismissed from her stair-washing duties did not dishearten Margaret, who was already a committed labourer from a young age.
It was not uncommon for working-class children like Margaret to feel a sense of accomplishment from working, as providing for their older family members often made them feel helpful and mature. Margaret’s stepmother Lizzie had an alcohol problem, with Margaret often speaking of her ‘drunkenness’ in her memoir. This contributed to her neglect of the children, but Margaret did not let this bad situation disadvantage her, but instead made it into an opportunity to make money for her and Chick, saying “I decided to take her empty beer bottles into the pub and what was called the Family Department. This was only for “carry out” trade and the return of empties.” (p.7) By returning Lizzie’s empty beer bottles and glasses to the pub, Margaret was paid a small amount of money. This is a prime example of Margaret’s determination to work and turn any potential bad situation into a positive one. Whilst Lizzie’s alcohol problem leads to her being neglectful and not feeding the children, Margaret used this to provide for herself.
Saying this, Margaret was not immune to the pulls of the carefreeness of childhood. Even though she stepped up to look after Chick and earn her own money, she recalls seeing other children playing games outside, and feeling disappointed that she had so many adult responsibilities. “[we] watched their games and when they looked up at us, we stuck out our tongues at them. I had not much time for playing, so many chores were there for me.” (p.10) This is reflective of how children in working-class poor families often did not get to behave like children, as they were just as important as their parents in providing financial support for the family. This meant that many children like Margaret were in some ways robbed of a childhood. Although she stepped up to provide for her younger brother Chick whilst her stepmother was absent, Margaret missed out on many opportunities to make friends, or focus on her education. It is these early introductions to labour that grew to impact the rest of Margaret’s life, as witnessing her father’s hard work led her to become a fiercely hard worker herself.
With Margaret being so used to a life of labour from such an early age, it comes as no surprise that her adult life is full of many different jobs and careers. In the second part of this blog post, I will be exploring how an adult Margaret navigated her way through the world of work and provided for her own children.
Zweiniger-Bargielowska, I (2014) Women in Twentieth Century Britain, Routledge