Nora Isabel Adnams: Class, Politics and Protest

‘Strip them of their wealth, and how would they stand. Many would make a pathetic a sight!’ (17)

Founders Day 1900s
Founders Day at Barkingside

Nora Isabel Adnams’ autobiography of a working class childhood centres around her time at Barnardo’s children’s home. Whilst the piece does not explicitly discuss politics or the class system, Nora maintains some firm beliefs involving equality and the treatment of the working class. Protest’s are completely absent throughout Nora’s memoir, she does however remember several royal visits and memorials from her childhood.

Many of the examples Nora gives involve the working class being treated as some kind of spectacle, an example of which can be seen in ‘Founders Day’ (18). The memoir details how visitors from the middle and upper classes would pay to tour Barkingside Village for Girls, and how the houses would be scrubbed beforehand and ‘the best quilts to be put on beds (and taken off directly the visitors had gone)’ (18). This kind of façade shows how the homes were presented in very different light from reality, however, Nora comments that they enjoyed these days as ‘we were left to our own resources’ (18).

Nora experiences several historical events throughout her childhood, however, she does not appear to place any political significance on them due to her age at the time. The piece talks about celebrating Empire Day and ‘waving our union jacks, then danced on the green around the maypole’ (13), and comemorating King Edward’s death and ‘how sad we were, also another good resolution was made- to be good – which no doubt, I did not keep for long’ (13). Nora also has an encounter with another historical figure – Dr Barnardo himself – who promises to help her, but dies shortly after, which Nora notes ‘was indeed a great loss’ (3). Although Nora does not reveal any political persuasion, it is fascinating to see a working class perspective on these historical events and figures.

Comemorative statue of Dr Barnardo
Comemorative statue of Dr Barnardo

Within the memoir, it is clear that Nora becomes impassioned when talking about the rights of those ‘less fortunate’ (17), which is understandable after being a child in this position herself. Nora appears to have a strong sense of responsibility to the working class, but the idea of ‘less fortunate’ could also suggest that she has moved up in the class system. Nora at the time of writing is a mother, and it is her children she addresses when delivering this emotive speech:

‘Why will people with money think poor people have not any feelings. Often they have more than the rich, and in my opinion are far more scrupulous. So you, my dear children, if at any time it lays in your power to help a child in need, do so for your mum old mum’s sake … be generous to the less fortunate, but please don’t be patronising. Well I did not mean to preach, but I feel very strongly, as you know, over the pompousness of the rich. Strip them of their wealth, and how would they stand. Many would make a pathetic sight.’ (17)

This is a lengthy piece of text, but I feel important to include, as it offers a real insight into the world of Nora as an adult. Her memoir, as a whole, is a light and airy read, so this speech appears in great contrast. This is what makes it so powerful, and so easy to empathise with, as it gives you a sense of what she truly believes in. It could also be seen to follow McKibbin’s idea that working class consciousness ‘was defensive rather than aggressive’, as although Nora speaks harshly of the rich, she is much more concerned with the defence and protection of the poor.

Although Nora’s piece at times appears to be a rally cry to help those less fortunate, it could be argued that it is her everyday anecdotes that work more successfully to promote positive class relationships. Nora’s breezy and humorous tone allows readers to see the Barnardo’s girls in an honest light, and rather than portraying perfect children, gives us an insight into their mischievous, but ultimately well natured world. This allows for a more truthful portrayal of working class children, the result of which helps to prove Nora’s point that all people, including the poor, have feelings, and we must strive to ‘be generous to those less fortunate, but please don’t be patronising‘ (17).

All images collected from – Web Accessed 17th December 2014.

‘Nora Isabel Adnams’, ‘MY MEMOIRS OF DR. BARNARDO’S HOME, BARKINGSIDE, ESSEX’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection: 2:859

McKibbin, Ross. Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951. London: Oxford University Press, 1998.


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