Amy Frances Gomm: (b. 1899): Life and Labour

I’d known, before I left school, which way I’d go, when my chance came. Office work; that was it for me. It was pretty highflying for those days.’ (Gomm, 132)

A backyard blacksmith making shovels in London’s West End. Find this picture here

Life and labour is a central theme in Amy’s memoir, ‘Water Under the Bridge.’ In the initial pages of her aaccount, Amy discusses her fathers role as an engineer in their hometown village Charlbury, and the days she would join her uncle as he continued the family Blacksmith’s. It is clear that from a young age, Amy had many influences around her who inspired her to crave employment and the perks that came with it; money.

 

Once she and her family moved to Oxford in 1919, they began their own family laundrette business. She gushes with pride how ‘we were proud of the fact that ours was said to be

“the second-biggest hand laundry in Oxford”’ (Gomm, 92).

Amy reveals that the success they did encounter was predominately down to her mother’s hard work ethic. Amy made it apparent that her mother felt her and Laurie were still too young to leave school and work long hours at the family business around this time because ‘her precious girls musn’t be exposed to the harsh realities of life.’ (Gomm, 92)

Amy points out a distinct difference in the expectations of childhood to the prospects of a job later on in early adulthood. As a child, ‘the laundry, and especially the wash-house was forbidden territory, We might, on a fine day hang clothes on the lines. Small stuff.’ (Gomm, 92) They were also expected to partake in domestic work, as she tells us ‘Laurie and I were the home-makers, more or less, from Monday to Friday. We looked after Charlie, too. That took a lot of doing.’ (Gomm, 95) However, as she approached early adulthood, the days they spent during the week at home consequently led to them reading The Oxford Times to see ‘if a job was advertised.’ (Gomm, 132)

A women’s rights poster from the 1920’s, demonstrating that women should be treated equally in regards to work and voting. Find this picture here
A Victorian advert for a soap brand called ‘Sunlight Soap’ published in 1902. Find this picture here

Amy had always aspired to work in an office since a young age, however ‘not many girls worked in offices, unless they’d had money spent on their training’ (Gomm, 132) which Amy, as a working class girl, could not afford to receive. Her class identity was made apparent in this instance, because it was restricting her with future employment. Another restriction of Amy’s when she was younger was her father, who was ‘strong in his views that womens work was domestic’ therefore ‘girls who worked in shops or offices were ‘immoral’ (Gomm, 132), which led to Amy sometimes missing out on job opportunities. Her father however did accept that women needed jobs, simply to live; henceforth Amy’s mother running the family business. (Gomm, 94)

Labour for the working class in the 19th Century more often than not meant exploitation and was necessary just to keep afloat. There was little chance to really prosper and it proved to be rare that working hard led to serious success. Amy provides us with evidence of this as she tells us of the hardships her mother and sister endured running the family launderette business. She openly admits the women in her family were ‘too nice, too kind, too considerate of “the underdog”‘

Women working in a launderette in the early 1900s. Find this picture here

and that the company did not make much profit despite it being the second biggest in Oxford. It is apparent that, despite Amy’s mother and sister Dorothy working hard, they were clearly too soft to run a prosperous business. Amy reveals how ‘all the unpleasant, unpopular, physically hard and heavy work’ (Gomm, 94) would be done by her Mother or Dorothy and that they didn’t feel comfortable asking the employees to do these tasks. Amy’s mother and sister were working harder and much longer hours than their paid employees, who Amy stated were paid half a crown a day.

‘Mother and Dorothy didn’t have a tea break. Their cups stood beside them on the ironing bench, to be drunk as they worked.’ (Gomm, 94)

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