Norah Brain (1907-1987):Life & Labour

Norah Brain (1907-1987)  left school aged eleven in 1918 to work, in her memoir she writes:

‘ I was only 11 & should be at school but [ one word illegible] I was doing a womans work, the help I was to give his wife  included feeding pigs, foul, calves, bringing the water from the well, the turf from the [ one word illegible] washing the potatoes for the animals 2 big pots full. I did not milk the cows.  I was there about 6 months. my 12 birthday came & went unoticed.’ (55-56)Example of children feeding pigs

From reading Norah’s description of  work life it  is shocking, not only is she sent away from her home and family to work aged eleven she does not celebrate her birthday which is very saddening. From Norah’s description of  work  it seems that life was a struggle and work consumed her life due to her working -class background hence why she never really writes about leisure time and the work she does write about is often skilled labour, such as picking potatoes and jobs related to farming.

Having mentioned the sadness of Norah’s work she does write about some positive aspects of working life.  After spending most of her childhood with rather a lot of siblings in extremely cramped conditions Norah writes of the joys of finally having a bed to herself whilst she is working away from home. ‘  That night I had – for the first time in my life- a bed of my own. I threw myself fully clothed on the bed & in a few moments I was fast asleep [..]’ (55) In addition Norah to some extend does get a small amount of leisure time but she chooses to spend this time with her family. ‘ Time went by, each Sunday evening I was given a few hours off I went home.’ (58) Norah also speaks of dancing on a Sunday evening at some kind of club, she writes: ‘ Sunday evenings Londons had a “bit of a dance” ‘. (58) Therefore although Norah’s life was consumed with work in her childhood, within the memoir she still describes leisure events. Emphasizing that although the conditions were harsh Norah still enjoyed her life.

Throughout Norah’s memoir she is quite vague leaving out specific dates and places which makes it quite hard to research her life as well has details about work in the Twentieth- Century ,such as minimum payment and holiday time.   Although Norah doesn’t give a detailed account in her memoir I get the feeling that work was a key aspect throughout her life.  From the beginning of the memoir we are told Norah and her Mum would wash soldier’s clothes for money. ‘ [..] later she took in soldiers washing- I had to mangle & mend also collect & return with my brother [..]’ (4-5) Work was central to Norah and her working -class family as although many mothers at the time stayed home to look after children. Norah’s mother would be at home looking after the children whilst doing extra work for her family.  Within Norah’s family work is a central aspect to their lives as Norah writes about her father working. ‘He was never not out of work – he worked hard & long hours [..]’ (3) Norah’s comment could be seen to have a hint of pride as if you were out of work within the 1900s and the Twentieth Century you were often frowned upon.

Throughout Norah’s reflection  work is mentioned  to be a major part of working- class life. Norah has worked right from the beginning of the memoir in 1914, even staying off school to do manual work as she states : ‘ Soon it was  time to dig potatoes we children stayed away from school to pick and sort them.’ (41) Although potato picking for Norah is not paid work it is still a form of manual work contributing to the household. The fact she stayed off school to do this proves that work was a main priority in Norah’s upbringing.  From reading Norah’s memoir it is evident that work is vital in working- class people of the Twentieth Century.

Useful Texts: Klaus, H. Gustav. The Literature of Labour: Two Hundred Years of Working-Class Writing.
Brighton: Harvester, 1985.

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