Lottie Martin was born in Nottingham in 1899 into a working-class family. Throughout Never Let Anyone Draw the Blinds – her published memoir – are constant references to Lottie’s reading and writing habits. Lottie thoroughly enjoyed school and materialised into an intelligent and literate girl.
In order to understand literacy rates amongst the working-classes, we must explore firstly the historical context of reading habits in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Jonathan Rose provides a useful account, in a chapter entitled ‘Willingly to School’, into the reading habits of the working-classes: ‘from the beginning of industrialization, the British working class enjoyed a reputation for self-education’[i]. Indeed, it was down to the individual to educate themselves.
Despite this sense of auto-didacticism, Lottie does go to school and exceeds rather well: ‘I still progressed at school and by the time I was nine I was very good at English and excelled in essays…I was awarded a certificate for one of the best on the subject, Prevention of Cruelty to Dumb Animals’. We can see how Lottie’s education has in fact shaped her writing skills which has consequently enabled her to write an articulate and grammatically correct autobiography.
Most certainly, Lottie received a good education; she was able to read and write efficiently at a young age. Lottie writes:
‘Jane Harper reached the age of seventy… asked if I could do something for her that she wanted keeping a secret…she requested me to read … she herself could neither read or write, as many of her contemporaries she had never had any schooling…it was the Ministry of Pensions’.
Lottie’s education therefore was subsequently useful to her community. The Education Act of 1870 evidently divided the older generation with the younger, giving the younger generation an advantage in terms of literacy. Consequently, education was a major factory in separating the working-class culture.
Although Lottie explores the lack of literacy amongst the working-classes, there was one member of her community who took her education to the extreme:
‘the chemist’s wife … on the slightest pretext would pick a quarrel , during which she would use the longest words in her vocabulary and both her neighbours were at a loss for words to retaliate both having little education’
This quotation is discussing how the neighbours of High Road were jealous of the wealth and property of the chemist’s wife. However, we can see a further division within the Beeston working-class community: education. The fact that ‘the longest words in her vocabulary’ were used to create division highlights the impacts literacy rates had on the community; language became a way of establishing class.
We gain a sense of Lottie’s reading habits within her memoir. Indeed, Lottie does not distinguish between classic (good) and trashy (bad) reads, but there is a moment in her autobiography where she recalls reading magazines in her neighbour’s house: ‘I would often sit by her fire reading the comic papers … How I loved Butter Ball, Weary Willie, Trowsey Triddle those beloved characters in the comic papers of those days’.
Magazines in the early 20th Century were popular amongst adolescents; hence Lottie writing of ‘those beloved characters’. Magazines were highly visual and thus more enjoyable to a younger eye. The most striking character Lottie mentions is Weary Willie. Otherwise known as Emmett Kelly, Weary Willie was also a performing clown who dressed in shabby clothes which imitated the impoverished working-classes[ii]. Thus we can see how Lottie was searching for an entertaining, humorous read during her youth.
What is more interesting is where Lottie read these magazines: ‘I would often sit by her fire reading the comic papers’. As Lottie’s mother was dead during this period, Lottie may well have been going to her neighbour’s house to experience the full family life ‘by the fire’. Magazines are a more sociable reading experience which ultimately creates interaction with everyone. If one cannot read, then one can look at the pictures for just as much entertainment.
Overall, Lottie’s memoir provides insightful outlooks on the reading and writing habits of the working-classes. Lottie was an intelligent, literate girl who had plans for the future:
‘I was still progressing at school and sat examinations with a view to further education when I reached the age of thirteen , alas this was not to be apart from the fact that I would have to buy, or Sarah Ann would have to buy my uniform and books’.
Class ultimately affected Lottie’s ambitions. Yet also from this quotation, we can see how class influenced the reading habits of the working-classes: ‘Sarah Ann would have to buy my … books’. Indeed, books were expensive which, to a certain extent, prevented the working-class autodidact from reading as much as they wished.
[i] Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001) p.187
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.
Hill, Paula Never Let Anyone Draw the Blinds by Lottie Martin (Nottingham: 125 Bramcote Lane, 1985.
Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001)