There were many cases of rickets in children and children died too. Our family had its share of death and illness.
Lottie Martin’s memoir Never Let Anyone Draw the Blinds discusses, in depth, the home and family life of an ordinary working-class family. Indeed, to readers this may appear a dull and monotonous read but interspersed throughout the discourse are many tragic events that come to shape the Martin’s home and family life in many ways.
Martin was born at 8 Greyhound Yard, High Road, Beeston on March 31st 1899. According to the 1911 census, this house contained six rooms in total[i]. The house no longer exists. However, Lottie brings the house back to life with a great description:
‘As well as a sitting room our house also had three bedrooms and an attic which had been used in pervious times for the hosiery work…and a small kitchen…The stairs were not carpeted’.
Considering that the Martins were a working-class family, they seemed to live quite comfortably in a decently proportioned house.
The Martins seemed, at times, to be detached from the working-class community of Beeston. Lottie writes that ‘there was no wonder that our hearts sank into our shoes…many of our associates [thought] that we were stuck up’. Indeed, we can see that there was not only a class superstructure prevalent in Britain but also a certain hierarchy amongst the working-classes.
Working-class families took pride of their homes as we can see when Lottie continues: ‘however we kept those stairs so white I will never know. They were scrubbed with sand and soap every week’. We can see how this creates a certain idea of respectability amongst the working-classes. Rosemary Collins informs us: ‘Working-class women began to withdraw from industrial life into the home, where they tried to emulate the domestic lifestyles of the wealthy’[ii]. Thus, contradicting the general view of the poor being idle.
In Chapter 1 of Never Let Anyone Draw the Blinds –‘My Childhood 1899-1909’ – we are given a brief chronology of the births, and deaths, of Martin’s family. Lottie was the fifth child out of seven to be born. When Lottie writes: ‘our family had its share of death and illness’ we can see how Lottie was not exaggerating; there were many tragedies in the Martin family.
Unfortunately, two of Lottie’s siblings, Thomas and Lily, died within a couple of years of each other, both at very young ages. To add to these tragedies, Lottie became suddenly ill:
‘In September 1902 I was taken ill with my throat…Dr Smith…diagnosed that dreadful illness diphtheria…this was a great shock to my mother who had already buried two children … for diphtheria was a killer in those days’.
Indeed, mortality amongst children in working-class families was highly widespread. Lottie provides us with an interesting social and historical insight when she writes: ‘Wages were small…children were neglected and poor…children died like flies’.
Whether intentional or not, one cannot ignore the similarities with Gloucester’s poignant speech in King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport’[iii]. Indeed, the working-class – like the ‘flies’ in Gloucester’s speech – seem to be bound to an inevitable fate; they are regarded as superfluous in a highly class-conscious society.
The tragedies of the Martin family do not end there. The biggest upset to Lottie was her mother’s death. Although written from a much later perspective, Lottie’s language becomes highly poignant when expressing the emotions of loss:
‘A knock came to the door…I knew my mother was dead, that I would never hear her voice again, how sad and unhappy I was … I think it was her love that left such a void’.
After her mother’s death, Sarah Ann – the oldest sister and child – took on the role of the household matriarch. Sarah Ann was responsible for cleaning, cooking and making sure her younger siblings were in good, respectable order.
Lottie too had her own responsibilities: ‘my duties were to see that Liz and Tom went to school in the manner we had been accustomed. Brush Liz’s hair, see that Tom always pulled up his stockings…and peel the potatoes’ where we can see Lottie beginning to perform the stereotypical roles expected of women within the household.
Indeed, throughout Lottie’s narrative, we gain a confirmation of the stereotypical gender roles prevalent in the late 19th early 20th centuries:
‘All my young life I remember my mother working, when she had tidied the house, out would come the lace work. This method … was carried out in most working class homes of the beginning of century. The lace was taken from the factory to individual houses where the work was let out by the woman of the house to housewives for clearing’
Alongside performing domestic chores, Lottie’s mother was in paid employment. Joanna Bourke, in a study of working-class Britain, points out that in 1901-1921 ‘14% of married women were in paid employment’[iv]. Through this, we can see that life for a working-class mother and wife was highly strenuous.
Lottie also explores the role of the ‘man’ – or breadwinner – of the house. There are no mentions of Lottie’s father being involved in domestic work. Lottie however describes the many visits her father had to the pub, coming home drunk and causing occasional trouble. Yet, writing retrospectively there seems to be a certain understanding for such actions:
‘He was a peace loving man and in later years I have understood better why he broke out on occasions, his job was exceedingly hard, he was head furnace man at Beeston foundry for 36 years, he was riddled with spark burns all over his arms and chest and not a hair on his arms…no wonder he broke out at times’
We can see how Lottie’s father was a prime example of belonging to the Marxist ‘superstructure’ theory; he was seen as the ‘hands’ of society, working for the bourgeois[v]. Indeed, the sense of aggression – ‘he broke out at times’ – reveals the father’s indignation at his job which in turn was directed at his family. However, he was a ‘peace loving man’ and we can see how Lottie comes to understand his frustration as he is subjected to many hours of intense, proletariat labour.
Most certainly, Lottie’s autobiography confirms the stereotypical gender roles within the home and family. Yet it appears that the only chance of escape from such environments is through friendship. Lottie recalls one of her most treasured friends: ‘My favourite among all my friends was Flo…I could make a dash and join her never caring what would happen until I had to face the music on my return’. Indeed, friendship was a way for working-class children to escape hardship, allowing one to pursue a life of childhood innocence.
[ii] Rosemary Collins, cited in Joanna Bourke’s Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity (London: Routledge, 1994) p. 62
[iii] William Shakespeare King Lear Act 4, Scene 1 (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1994) p.56
[iv] Joanna Bourke Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity (London: Routledge, 1994) p. 62
[v] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels The German Ideology: Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2004)
Barker, Lottie, ‘My Life as I Remember It, 1899-1920′, TS, pp.70 (c.31,000 words). Brunel University Library
Bourke, Joanna Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity (London: Routledge, 1994)
Burnett, John, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography (Brighton: Harvester, 1987) vol.2 no.37.
Engels, Friedrich and Marx, Karl The German Ideology: Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2004)
Hill, Paula Never Let Anyone Draw the Blinds by Lottie Martin (Nottingham: 125 Bramcote Lane, 1985)
Shakespeare, William King Lear (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1994)