Margaret Watson (b.1907) Life and Labour

After the death of her mother in 1912, when she “was almost six years old” (p.1) Margaret’s childhood was forced to come to an abrupt end. Despite her own grief and confusion, Margaret had to grow up quickly so that she could provide her younger brother with the motherly role he needed, and offer support to her father as he struggled to hold their family together. As a girl, Margaret recalls how she and her brother, Chick, would watch “children playing outside in the street whilst we sat at the window. [We] watched their games and when they looked up at us, we stuck out our tongues at them. I had not much time for playing, so many chores were there for me” (p.10).

For many working class children in the early 1900s, there was little time to play freely; childhood was often compromised in order to earn a wage. Margaret herself was no exception to this, and recalls how as a child, she would cease any opportunity she could find in order to help her father with their financial problems; “There were in our close two old ladies who were unable to take their turn of washing the stairs. I for the much needed pence volunteered to wash the stairs” (p.7). In her discussion of Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution, Jane Humphries argues that in working class autobiographies from this period, there are “recurring images of the pride that children experience in working, and, in particular, the enormous sense of achievement that they get when they are able to contribute particularly to their mothers’ and to their siblings’ standard of living” (Humphries, 11). Although Humphries’s analysis was focused on autobiographies of an earlier time period, her argument is relatable to Margaret’s memoir. Her efforts and to sell her labour in order to attain money for her family, even at such a young age, is evidence of Margaret’s determination to be a contributing member of her family.

Girls completing domestic chores in 1920.

Watching her father “leave to go on night shift duty at a nearby Power Station” (p.1) Margaret was taught the importance of paid labour from an early age. After being fortunate enough to have received an education under the 1918 Education Act, Margaret didn’t leave school to find work until she was fourteen; “At fourteen years of age… I left school and started to work at Templetons Carpet Factory, a nasty dirty job. I always smelled of oil and sheep wool. The oil impregnated one’s skin and clothes” (p.11). Leaving school to work was not optional for the majority of working class girls in the early twentieth century. Most worked in either domestic service for richer households, in family businesses, or, like Margaret, in textile factories. Just as Margaret’s description indicates, workers were often subjected to harsh, and often damaging conditions inside the factories and wages were poor.

mill-girls-cotton-mill-1908
1908: Factory Girls in a Cotton Mill

It was a result of the working conditions that Margaret, after three years of work at the Carpet Factory, “had decided to run away” (p.10). With “exactly one pound in the world”, and her father under the impression she was “a sensible girl, going off to service to become a servant” she recalls how she “packed [her] bags” and left home (p.14). By putting the education she received at school to use, Margaret was able to obtain a job in a Hostelry working as a waitress. She admits that, “my arithmetic being below par I was very often short in my cash at the end of the day… [but] my tips soon made up my losses (p.20). Margaret was fortunate in that when she left home, she was not faced with the horror of unemployment. Her brave actions are evidence of her determination to improve her circumstances, and of her refusal to accept the ill-fated prospects she was faced with when working at the factory.

Happier in the new life that she had created for herself, Margaret recalls that there was only “one snag in this pleasant way of living” (p.16). As a result of her work hours, she writes of her disappointment that it interfered with her weekly activity of “dancing at the Dennistoun Palais [sic]”; “There was one draw back, it put an end to our Palais [sic] dancing evenings or rather to mine… My friend Betty still went with another girl” (p.17). In order to earn a wage, Margaret’s weekly respite was compromised. This was not unusual for working class men and women during the twentieth century; as their lives were dominated by work, it often left little time for recreational activities.

dennistoun palais
The Dennistoun Palais in 1938, where Margaret attended weekly dances. It was the biggest dance hall in Glasgow, with a capacity of 1,800.

In Margaret’s memoir, she describes her pregnancy as the reason behind her having to leave two of her jobs; “I was expecting my first child… the bulge was too big. I decided to leave before my condition became too evident” (p.20). Before the passing of The Employment Protection Act in 1975, there was no law to prevent women from being sacked as a result of being pregnant. Because of this, women like Margaret often felt as though they had to hide their pregnancy, for fear of losing their jobs. However, once a mother, Margaret recalls how she and her husband “needed the cash” (p.21) so that they could support their newborn child. Unable to reclaim her position at the Hostelry, she remembers how she “went back to work, this time to the Alhambra Theatre, there to put posh people into the best part of the house” (p21). Margaret takes great pleasure in describing this job to her readers, recalling how she found it exciting “to see how the other half lived” (p21). However she recalls with an element of sadness that once she “was expecting [her] second child, [she] had to retire from the “field of battle” once again (p.21).

For a brief period before the Second World War, Margaret also discusses working as a “gown saleslady” in her memoir (p.23). However, despite initially feeling pleased with “the prestige of being employed here”, she recalls how her working conditions soon made her miserable; “Wages were poor, the Salon was heated to suffocation, carpeted and my poor feet ached like hell” (p.24).

The Second World War offered working class women like Margaret an opportunity to leave the drudgery of ‘women’s work’ and contribute to the war effort. Margaret discusses in her autobiography how she received “free training [that] was part of the war effort” to become a “Heavy Vehicle Driver” (p.25). During the War, around 600,000 women served in uniformed services such as nursing, policing, the military, or – like Margaret – in transport. For many working-class women, their service provided them with a new found confidence. Of her position, Margaret writes that she felt she “gained in confidence” (p.26) however, more importantly to her, she writes that, “my children were very proud of Mum’s big van; so was it an honour for me” (p.27).

women drivers
Volunteer women drivers in a Wolseley, donated towards the War effort, 1940.

After the War was over, Margaret informs her readers that “we [women] were no longer required” and that she was “sorry to leave” (p.31). However, for Margaret, the training she received as part of the War effort proved to be invaluable. As a result of the driving experience that she gained, Margaret was able to spend the final years of her working-life driving “all over Scotland, summer and winter… In a smart uniform and a gleaming car”, as a result of acquiring a job driving “for a smart West End Company” (p.31).

 


 

Burnett, John. Mayall, David and Vincent, David (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography (Brighton: Harvester, 1897) Vol: 2 No: 802.

Humphries, Jane. Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution. Cambridge, 2010. pp.11.

Image References:

Girls Completing Domestic Chores (Accessed on 02/01/2015)

Factory Girls in a Cotton Mill (Accessed on 02/01/2015)

The Dennistoun Palais in 1939 (Accessed on 30/12/2014)

Volunteer Women Drivers in 1940 (Accessed on 30/12/2014)

 

 

 

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