Lottie Barker’s autobiography is not a typical account that would be expected of a working-class adolescent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. One might expect details of harsh working-class life, dealing with pecuniary instability and general hardship written with emotional, condemnatory language. Although Barker’s memoir does address the conditions of working-class life, her tone is of an almost celebratory and nostalgic nature of her early childhood.
Born on 31st March – Good Friday of the year 1899 – Lottie Barker grew up in Beeston, Nottingham. Although only covering twenty one years, the autobiography discusses peace celebrations, the coronation of Edward VII (1902), the outbreak of WW1, an explosion in a munitions factory and general insights into work and family life.
Originally, I was researching Lottie Barker’s autobiography from the Burnett Archive which was entitled: ‘My Life as I remember it: 1899 – 1920’ (neglect of capitals appear on the original document). After vigorous research and delving into www.ancestry.co.uk, however, I was able to discover more information on Barker through a 1911 Census. It was from this material that Barker’s maiden name – Martin – was discovered.
From this exciting find, I browsed online to find more information on my chosen author by searching with her maiden name. Again, from another website: www.lentontimes.co.uk – a website exploring the local history of Nottingham -another discovery was obtained: Martin’s memoir was actually published with a different title: Never Let Anyone Draw the Blinds. From henceforth I used this published form as my primary source and therefore have adopted Barker’s maiden name, Martin, into my writing.
This published book was compiled by Paula Hill, Lottie Martin’s granddaughter. Hill has rearranged a large proportion of Martin’s memoir from its original structure and gave the book its title: Never Let Anyone Draw the Blinds. This title has a poignant undertone as it stems from a phrase Martin used to express her wished after her death: ‘never let anyone draw the blinds when I’m gone’- an escape from traditional mourning conventions to bring light to her life.
Hill divides the memoir into five sections: ‘Chapter 1: Childhood 1899 to 1909’, ‘Chapter 2: Growing Up 1909 to 1919’, ‘Chapter 3: Towards a New Life 1919 to 1920’, ‘Postscript’ and ‘Appendix: Lottie’s family background’. Interspersed within these chapters are fascinating images of Nottingham local history and a photograph of Lottie Martin with three of her siblings during childhood.
From the revealing postscript in the memoir, Martin’s granddaughter provides us with information on the author’s life after the autobiography. It seems that Lottie’s real hardship began after her husband’s death in 1937 as she was left to raise five children singlehandedly. Barker (married name) struggled to make ends meet with many cleaning jobs. However, through her hectic life she managed to attend evening classes to fulfill her dream of becoming a cookery teacher. Barker died in 1976.
Martin’s autobiography immediately raises questions of the ability to recollect past events. The verb in the original title, ‘My Life as I remember it: 1899 – 1920’, highlights the subjectivity of the form of autobiography; rather than an historical written document, the autobiography is based on the individual’s ability to ‘remember’ the past. As David Vincent states in his study, ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth –Century Working Class’, ‘we [as readers] are ‘faced with major problems concerning the ‘truth’ and ‘relevance’ of works which are necessarily subjective in form’[i]. Indeed, embedded within Barker’s text are repetitive uncertainties when remembering the past as she constantly repeats the phrases: ‘I believe’, ‘I presume’ and ‘I am sure I would have remembered it’.
Despite concerns surrounding the ‘truth’ of the text, there are other captivating aspects that make this work such a great and informative read. Unquestionably, Barker’s memoir appeals to a diverse readership as it incorporates a variety of themes including: childhood, war, politics, social class, education and gender. It is with such a vast range of themes that this autobiography would appeal to both historians and general readers alike who are interested in the development of childhood and working-class life during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Not only does the text provide great historical and social insight into the life of a working-class female, it is written with such clarity and honesty which allows the reader to transport back in time to working class life in 1899-1920.
Barker, Lottie, ‘My Life as I Remember It, 1899-1920’, TS, pp.70 (c.31,000 words). Brunel University Library