‘Nearly ninety years is a long time to look back on… but it seemed worth trying to set down some of the things I remember so well about the world that has gone’ (1).
Susan Frances Silvester was born on 13th November 1878 at May cottages, in Minworth, near Birmingham. This made Susan a Victorian, with Queen Victoria’s reign ending in 1901. Her childhood and early adult life was also spent in Minworth, which is what her memoir focuses on, including her friends, work and parents. Her father, John Pittaway, worked for a farmer as a waggoner and her mother, Sarah Hailstone, tended to their home and garden, whilst also sewing and mangling clothes whenever possible to make money.
No other works by Susan could be found, however her writing in her memoir, although simple and uncomplicated, does not sound amateur. Her nostalgic tone and genuine voice effectively capture an essence of mid-Victorian rural life. She handles the subjects and stories of her early life with gentle care, successfully outlining why a working-class rural life was so special, albeit so ordinary at the time. Susan writes, ‘when I was a baby I had a serious scalp infection… every week for two or three months my mother wheeled me in a push chair to hospital in Birmingham, a round trip of about fifteen miles’ (4).
The memoir was self-published by one of Susan’s two sons, as stated in a foreword written in dedication to her by a W.F. Silvester. Also, the illustrations in the memoir are signed Phyllis Silvester, a granddaughter of Susan. Her children therefore worked together to preserve their mother’s memory, showing how much she meant to them. It is heart-warming to see that Susan has passed on her parent’s tenderness and love to her children.
Throughout her early life, Susan worked at a variety of working-class jobs including scrubbing floors at the village shop, at a baker’s and at a blacksmith’s. Most jobs were six to seven days a week, with work starting ‘between five and six o’clock’ (17).
What is intriguing about Susan Silvester is how fondly she writes about her childhood, despite her underprivileged family. The title of her memoir, ‘In a World that has Gone’, refers to the village she grew up in as a world in itself, suggesting a strong significance to such a small place in time that is no more. She shares a deep connection with her rural heritage, which is brought to light through her impassioned sketches of her upbringing.
Susan worked so hard for so little, and was still grateful to have had employment. She writes about working at her village shop before and after school, being paid only a single shilling a week (which is estimated to be worth around £4.10 relative to today’s British pound, according to nationalarchives.gov.uk). However, Susan still reminisces contently over how there was ‘always good fires and good food… freshly ground coffee… comfortable beds’ (13).
‘My father’, she writes, ‘took a great pride in his garden and in summer lots of people used to stop and admire the flowers in the garden and the climbing roses which covered the front of the house’ (2). In moments like this, Susan Silvester captures an authentic picture of what she feels was an idyllic pastoral lifestyle – one that she thinks is slowly being forgotten in modern Britain. I believe it is important to hold onto these portraits of the past, otherwise these quaint roots of modern life could be lost.
The last chapter of her memoir is titled ‘The Last Years of the Old World’, which wraps up her early life with her getting a house with her husband, William, the blacksmith, still in Minworth. She ends on sweet notes, describing her most treasured days: summers with her husband and their two boys. Her husband passed in July 1928 but she lived on until she was 89, passing on 28th April 1968.
Silvester, Susan, ‘In a World That Has Gone’. pp. 31. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, Brunel University Library, Special Collection, 1:628, available at: http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10895