‘Most of the time, there we were, all ten of us, snug in our cottage’
Amy Gomm was a family orientated person who came from a big family. Amy provides a family tree ‘showing relationships of people in the story’ (2) in her foreword. Amy’s inclusion of a family tree makes reading the memoir easier to understand as it creates an awareness of each person’s involvement in the story. Amy’s memoir was dedicated to family: ‘For Ann and Mary.’ There is no indication in ‘Water Under the Bridge’ that Amy has her own children. Presumably, Ann and Mary are Amy’s nieces but she leaves these details out which reinforces Amy only anticipated family to read her memoir.
In her memoir, she looks back nostalgically on her hometown Charlbury calling it “our village.” Amy explains that her mother came from a family of blacksmiths: ‘Uncle Ned, the blacksmith, was a widower with two children, who were brought up with us’ (Gomm, 2). As Ned had to work, Amy’s mother took in his two children and brought them up. This was typical of the time as men had to work. Therefore, it was an accepted factor that there would be two new additions to the Gomm family.
Throughout ‘Water Under the Bridge’ Amy often indicates that her mother was an influential figure in her life. This is partly because the admiration she had for her mother due to raising so many children even though it was typical during the late 19th century and early 20th century. There is no bitterness expressed over Amy’s mother taking in two children that were not hers. There is no sense that Amy is jealous because she accepted that working-class lives often involved taking in children if men had to work: ‘From the day Dad married Mother, he took in the ready-made family, brought up the children as his own. There was no hint of friction’ (Gomm, 6).
Burnett writes that in autobiographies ‘the first striking fact which emerges from the writings is the great variation in the numbers of people which the home contained and, particularly, the extent of what we would now regard as severe overcrowding.’ (219) In fact, Burnett goes on to write about overcrowding in ‘Water Under the Bridge’: ‘[Amy Gomm] remembers that the family of ten lived in a small cottage consisting of living-room scullery and three bedrooms; despite this, and her father’s small wage of 17s. a week, there was an open invitation to friends and relatives to stay since extra visitors could always be accommodated either in the boys’ or girls bedroom’ (220). Larger families and overcrowding were common for working-class families during the early twentieth century but Amy’s memoir proves this did not always result in family tensions as it brought her family closer together.
Amy writes how her grandfather’s assets, after he died, were divided between the boys of the family only. The girls got nothing:[ ‘Grandfather’s assets went to the three boys…Mother and Laura got nothing. There was no bad feelings about this. It was an accepted thing that the boys got what was to be had’ (Gomm, 2). She notes how no one questioned this given the gender roles during the 20th Century. Sonya O Rose Gender was explicit in contests between workers and employers when women and men were in competition, and it was implicit in working men’s struggles even when women were not directly involved’ (Rose, 1993, 127). Many women in the 20th century were expected to lead a lifestyle of domesticity whilst the men were the breadwinners, and this explains why Amy’s great grandfather only divided his assets between her uncles.
Amy tells her reader that her father was an electrician/engineer while her mother was a relief caretaker in the ‘big house ’ (housekeepers). Amy’s father withdrew from home and focused on work, until the death of Amy’s mother, which changed her father’s relationship with all the children. After the death of her mother, Amy’s father increasingly began drinking and met a new wife just a few weeks after the loss of his wife.
Gomm describes that during her mother’s healthy years, she worked and focused on domestic life depicting how challenging working-class life was for a mother who needed to earn a living at the same time as raising ten children. Rosemary Collins writes that during the 20th century ‘working-class women began to withdraw from industrial life into the home, where they tried to emulate the domestic lifestyles of the wealthy’ (Collins, 62). However, Amy’s mother attempted to balance both work life and domestic lifestyle until Dorothy, one of Amy’s sisters was old enough to take on the responsibility of carrying out the day-to-day domestic tasks. Dorothy could help raise the children while the mother and father could earn a living.
I find this interesting as Amy makes a mundane routine seem like it was an important part of bonding for the girls in the family. Amy goes into a lot of detail about washing and ironing clothes indicating that these things were important to her lifestyle growing up. The domestic tasks Amy describes in her memoir depict the gender roles of the 20th century, the girls washed the clothes and the boys carried out tasks that required more ‘elbow grease’ such as cleaning the family’s shoes (26). There is no hint in her memoir that Amy is bitter towards the gendered division of labour in her family.
My next blog post on Home and Family Life will look at the relationship Amy had with her parents and how this is represented in her memoir.
324 GOMM, Amy Frances, ‘Water Under the Bridge’, TS, pp.163 (c.55,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the1820s to the 1920s. London: Alan Lane, 1982.
Rose, Sonya. Limited Livelihoods: Class and Gender in Nineteenth Century England. Berkeley: California UP, 1993
Amy’s Family Tree from page 2 of ‘Water Under the Bridge.’ 324 GOMM, Amy Frances, ‘Water Under the Bridge’, TS, pp.163 (c.55,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Overcrowded Home. Living Conditions in Industrial Towns. https://www.historycrunch.com/living-conditions-in-industrial-towns.html
Blacksmiths Shop – https://www.oldfieldforge.co.uk/history-of-blacksmithing/