Never Let Anyone Draw the Blinds by Lottie Martin illustrates, with great honesty, the life and labour of the working-classes. Indeed, there was a general assumption of the working-classes as being idle throughout the time of Lottie’s adolescence (1899-1920). However, we gain insights into the hard labour of the poor, emphasising how useful and meaningful the labourers actually were to Britain.
Lottie Martin grew up in the working-class community of Beeston, Nottingham. Both of her parents were hard working as they had to support their seven children. Like most working-class families, however, the Martins only earned enough money to survive; as Lottie recalls: ‘All my young life I remember my mother working’. After the death of Mrs. Martin – Lottie’s mother – who died within the first ten years of Lottie’s life, the whole family was in turmoil and labour dominated their lives in order to maintain a stable household.
Work played an enormous part in the Martin household, creating effects on home and family life. Lottie’s father was subjected to extreme conditions at work which resulted in him turning angry:
‘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’
Lottie’s father is portrayed as the main breadwinner. Where the Victorian man was seen as strong, authoritative and powerful, we can see through the negative language above that he was weakened. His job was physically harming as he was ‘riddled with spark burns all over’.
Indeed, it is evident that there was little time for childhood as the Martin family had to survive without the mother figure. Work dominated the Martin family life, causing socializing and recreation to become nonexistent. Lottie was instantly domesticated as she not only had to cook for the family but had other additional duties: ‘my duties were to see that Liz and Tom went to school in the manner we had been accustomed’.
Lottie also reminds her readers of how young the labouring-classes went to work. Lottie’s brother Tom was sent to work at the young age of eleven: ‘tom my brother had the misfortune to set fire to Hemmings warehouse … to send a boy of these tender years into a warehouse … was a veritable trap’. This is a poignant moment for the reader as we can see how Tom was deprived of his childhood and forced into extreme labour, resulting in drastic consequences.
Lottie recalls her first job at the Leather shop of Thomas Bailey and Son, Leen Gate, Lenton, where the workplace is portrayed negatively. There was: ‘nothing to improve the dark, damp smelly interior where about forty young girls and women toiled for ten hours every day clad in thick heavy shoes and a large heavy apron to protect their clothing’. Through a repetitive use of derogatory adjectives – ‘dark’, ‘damp’, ‘smelly’, ‘thick’, ‘heavy’ – we can see how this was not only an unhealthy place to work, but even the clothing, ‘thick heavy shoes’, seemed to drag the women down.
Lottie continues this negative outlook on her job, describing the long hours of manual labour:
‘Seven a.m. we would start our daily round … every girl was supplied with a large wooden mallet and a strong pair of scissors about ten to twelve inches long. These were her stock in trade without which she could not work.’
We can see a Marxist structure taking place here as the women are seen as the ‘hands’ of the company, as the wooden mallet and pair of scissors are hand-held objects ‘without which they could not work’.
Throughout Lottie’s narrative, the discourse marker ‘despite’ is used repeatedly. Lottie has on open mind and can see through the hardship. In fact, whilst working in the leather shop, there was a strong sense of solidarity:
‘Despite this there were moments when the over looker would leave her point of vantage and some darling mortal would burst into song, though God knows what any of us had to sing about in those conditions’.
It is singing that gets them through the day. Yet money is also a strong factor: ‘Despite all this one became adept at the work and could earn very good wages, which made up in a degree for the horrible job and terrible conditions we girls experienced’
Despite the intense labour, Lottie earned good money. What is most striking about the above quotation, however, is the ambiguous phrase ‘we girls’. From a Marxist reading we can see how the girls had a collective identity; they were the proletariat of society and therefore had no sense of individuality, reminiscent of Karl Marx’s theory that: ‘in bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality’.[i]
However, from a more positive outlook there is a sense of community amongst these girls; they were ‘all in it together’. They would ‘burst into song’ to help them through the day.
Although there is a sense of solidarity within the workplace, there are also aspects of working-class division: ‘This was the only place in which the girls were working, except of course the offices, and there was quite a distinction in the status of the select few who managed to acquire work in the more select part of the building’.
There is a strong evocation of the ‘them’ versus ‘us’ concept explored in Lottie’s memoir. Lottie evokes strong images of the young girls performing intense labour in contrast to the respectable ‘office girls’.
After leaving the leather shop due to closure, Lottie describes her long hours working as a crane driver during the war: ‘we were on 8 hour shifts at first but this was changed to 12 hours … then we changed to 18 hours … It really seems incredible now, no one would work those long hours today, the union would step in’.
Again, this is another physically challenging role for Lottie and we can see her taking on duties usually associated with men. But what is most particularly striking is when Lottie continues: ‘our normal working week [changed to] 80 hours’, a staggering amount of working hours for anyone, regardless of gender.
Indeed, the theme of work dominates Martin’s Never Let Anyone Draw the Blinds. Lottie evokes strong images of intense labour – both for men, women and children alike – conjuring up themes of injustice. Yet, Lottie brings some light to this extreme hardship as she recalls: ‘As I look backwards in time I think 1909 must have been the beginning of change for ordinary people. In January of that year the Old Age Pension came into operation. All persons over the age of 70 years were entitled to this benefit’.
At least we can now see a reward for all the hard work people contributed to society. However, due to the extreme hardship of labour, very few people managed to reach the age of seventy and therefore missed out on their
[i] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels The Communist Manifesto (London: Penguin Books, 2002) p. 16, Chapter 2, ‘The Reception of the Manifesto’.
Barker, Lottie, ‘My Life as I Remember It, 1899-1920′, TS, pp.70 (c.31,000 words). Brunel University Library.
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 Communist Manifesto (London: Penguin Books, 2002).
Hill, Paula Never Let Anyone Draw the Blinds by Lottie Martin (Nottingham: 125 Bramcote Lane, 1985).