Susan Silvester (1878-1968): Life and Labour

‘It is difficult for anyone who hasn’t gone through it to realise the desperate economy which had to be practised by labourers and their wives who were determined to do the best for their children’ (4).

It is clear at this point that labour consumed a lot of Susan’s early life as it was to keep herself and her family fed and clothed. Labour was not just a way to provide income for the Silvester family, but also to provide food such as the process of ‘gleaning’ (4), as I mentioned in my ‘Habits and Beliefs’ post. Susan’s father also ‘cultivated an allotment of a quarter of an acre’ (3), alongside his seventy hours a week, as a waggoner. Susan also mentions that ‘several times a year a pig would be killed’ and ‘eggs were always to be had from our own hens’ (3). Susan also notes how her mother worked in reusing anything she could, such as when ‘garments became worn the good parts were cut out and made into new articles’ (4). Her family could not have been more self-sufficient. Although her family were poor, the labour her parents put in meant that Susan and her three sisters never went hungry.

Susan herself made a ‘twopence and a piece of pastry’ (13) for a morning’s work of scrubbing floors in the village shop, when she was still at school. Even in her childhood Susan was working to provide herself with food. Although this is commendable, part of me cannot help but feel somewhat sorry for her as she goes on to mention ‘it was understood that as soon as girls in working class families left school they would go out to service… you just seemed to belong to the people you worked for and you did whatever they wanted’ (13). It seems somewhat exploitative but Susan shows no grief regarding this intense approach to labour, possibly because it was the norm for her class. 

Humphries states that ‘the implications of children’s labour depended on the terms and conditions of employment, and specifically how they affected schooling, health and training’ (Humphries, 2010, 4). Susan does not express any difficulty in school or at home in regards to labour. She states generally that her and her sisters ‘had to put up with a lot of discomfort’ (6) but she never speaks of work getting the better of them.

However, she does also romanticise work. For example, her description of the blacksmith’s shop is sentimental and vivid; ‘there are certain sounds sight and smells which always come to mind when I think of the blacksmith’s shop… clanking of iron… sizzling of water… sparks and burning flakes of metal’ (19). It is interesting to note that other memoirists of her time also tended to ‘render the past through the display of a number of disconnected memories and flashes of recall’ (Rogers, Cuming, 2019, 185). This is an example of what Virginia Woolf describes as ‘moments of being’ a phrase coined that characterises ‘modernist autobiographical writing’ (2019, 185).

A Blacksmith’s shop in 1907. 

The detailed portrayal of this place shows how her experience there stayed with her. This fits with an idea that Cannadine provides, which proposes the working-class victorians were less concerned with education and ‘more concerned with survival, self-help and co-operation’ (1998, 137). This leads me to conclude that Susan recalls her early life of labour more so than her education because it was more significant to her and the people around her. Although she did have an education it was not as important to her due her and her family’s place in society.

One thing Susan does recall from school, however, is ‘sewing and knitting… making clothes for the poorer children in the parish’ (6). Not only was physical labour integrated into their education but their class values of co-operation were also. Labour informed most aspects of her early life, indeed, it dominates a large proportion of her memoir, whether it was her personal experience or vicariously through other people, like her parents. 

For instance, when her father got a ‘better paid job’ (5) she notes that life became ‘a little easier’ (5). This meant that he could afford to have time off for recreation, although this was new to him and the Pittaway family. He then started taking Susan with him for short holidays at Steeple Aston (5), a village outside of Oxford. It is interesting to think that they considered this a holiday, when the people of today would not consider it to be a worthwhile trip away.

Steeple Aston, 1921.

Susan also details what other people in the village did for a living; even if her connection to them may have been tenuous. For instance, she talks briefly about a Mrs Wright who lived in ‘a one-roomed cottage’ (8). She was essentially the village midwife, performing this service ‘for all the women in the neighbourhood, including my mother’ (8), Susan adds. It is incredible to think that such an important job falls to one woman, completely self-reliant and self-proclaimed. And even though this role did not earn her much in money, it earned her her place in the village. Susan speaks fondly of her and gives the impression that she was loved in the village. A grandson of hers, Susan’s age, got to be known as ‘Grandad Smith’ in the village. This shows how strong of a reputation Mrs Wright created through her efforts and therefore it passed down through her family. The nickname also suggests how the village was such a close-knit community, so much so that it was almost as if it was one large family. 

Bibliography

Bentley, Nicolas. The Victorian Scene: 1837-1901. London: Spring Books, 1971, p. 100.

Cannadine, David. ‘Victorians.’ In History in Our Time, 129-42. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1998.

Humphries, Jane. Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010.

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

Images Used

thevictorianweb.org

steepleastonarchive.org.uk

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