Mary Denison (1906-1997): Home and Family (1/2).

‘It was a strange, unexpected house – one moved from one century to another as one walked through it.’ (3)

Mary Denison’s memoir is enriched with information on both her home and family life. Mary dedicates the first three chapters of her memoir to telling us about the vicarage that she spent her childhood growing up in and the people with whom she grew up around. To write one blog post on home and family could not possibly bring justice or adequate voice to Mary’s memoir. Therefore, I have chosen to split this thematic post into two. The first blog post will focus solely on the home, where Mary grew up and how she felt about her childhood home. The second post, which will follow next week, will focus on the family and the people that Mary grew up with.

The Vicarage home. obtained via https://stchads.co.uk/

As mentioned, Mary’s memoir opens with an array of details on her family home. Mary doesn’t shy away from details as she recounts each room and the furniture within them. ‘The front rooms were the superior ones, the nearest to what would be expected of Edwardian rooms. Big, high – ceilinged, swallowing up the best furniture, the best curtains, the best floor rugs’ (4). Mary pays close attention to detail when describing her childhood home and it is this detail that leads me to believe that Mary wanted to remember the Vicarage through her memoir. As mentioned in the previous blog post, it is possible that Mary wrote a memoir with the intention of remembering her childhood and the Vicarage plays a central part of this memory. Mary also notes in her memoir that the Vicarage was demolished during her lifetime as she says ‘It may as well be called the old Vicarage. Since not a stone of it remains today, nor one memorial of its long life’ (3).  This quote provides us with more insight into why Mary wrote this memoir, as it can be argued that her memoir was created in order for her to produce a remembrance for the place in which she grew up.

Taken from Mary’s Denison’s memoir.

Before I go on to look closely at the Vicarage itself, it is crucial to look at the location that the memoir is set in. Mary grew up in Far Headingley, Leeds, and this is where her memoir begins and ends. Mary spends only a brief amount of time telling us about Leeds. Mary comments on how ‘as Leeds stretched outwards, Victorian and Edwardian houses crept into the village, overflowing it in time, and producing a mixture of country village and city suburb.’ (3) This quote can be representative of the growth of industrialisation in Leeds, something that Mary witnessed as a child. Mary witnesses as Leeds begins to change, as city began to emerge with country. In another quote, Mary talks about how ‘there were still steps and passageways and little patches of garden, but they rubbed shoulders with more imposing structures, surrounded by large gardens or shrubberies of sooty laurels.’ (3) This reiterates the idea that Leeds was undergoing industrialisation, a change which Mary comments upon strongly within her memoir. It is almost as if Mary wanted to capture the Vicarage in her writing before it became unrecognisable.

Mary then goes on to focus on the vicarage itself and how ‘town and country mixed – and the same mixture was reflected in the Vicarage itself.’ (3) Mary notes how the change she witnessed outside of the Vicarage began to reflect inside as well. Mary also goes on to talk about how ‘It was a strange, unexpected house – one moved from one century to another as one walked through it.’ (3) Mary, through her descriptive narrative, allows the reader to envision that they are walking around the vicarage, she captures each room in her memoir so that it cannot be erased.

However, one aspect of Mary’s memoir which distinguishes her from other Writing Lives authors is that she draws attention to the poorer families within her parish. Mary came from a middle-class background and this allowed her to address the class divide that she witnessed in her memoir. One example of this is when Mary travels with her mother to a poorer area of the parish. Mary says that ‘yellow fog swirled around the gas lamps, rows of drab houses ran back into the gloom. Poor people, ragged people, out in the streets in the cold and the dark.’ (2) Here Mary addresses the poorer areas of her parish and contrasts this to her own home life. This is a fascinating aspect of Mary’s memoir as she offers a first hand account insight to the class divide.

One source which helped me to further my research with regards to the home in the 20th century was Ben Jones’ article ‘The Working Class in Mid Twentieth – Century England: Community, Identity and Social Memory’.

Taken from the Ben Jones article.

This source comments on how overcrowding and poor living conditions were common during this time and how ‘many of those who grew up in working class families in the first half of the century registered the difficulties in overcrowded households’ (157). This overcrowding can be seen in the quote from Mary’s memoir, as she recognised the poor living conditions for the lower classes.  Ben Jones also looks at how ‘for a large number of working-class people home was an elastic concept, which might mean a whole house when times were good but up to the 1950s was perhaps as likely to mean a room or rooms within a dwelling.’ (158) This is contrasted by the large rooms that Mary goes into detail about throughout her memoir. Mary comments on how her realisation of the class divide and the poor conditions that others lived in was ‘impressed indelibly on your mind’ (2)

1939 census – taken from http://Ancestry.com

One question which Mary never addresses in her memoir was where she called home after the Vicarage.  We know that Mary is writing this memoir as an adult, yet we don’t know where she is located when she wrote it. Through my extensive research I discovered that Mary, according to a 1939 census, still lived in Leeds at 7 Sand Hill Drive with her husband Henry Martyn Denison. This confirms to me that Leeds was the place that Mary regarded as home, it was the place where she felt most comfortable. However, the Vicarage was the home that Mary never wanted to forget.

Works Cited:

Denison, Mary. ‘Church Bells and Tram Cars; a Vicarage Childhood’. Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection.

 ‘Mary Denison’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:250

Jones, Ben. (2012). ‘The Working Class in Mid Twentieth-Century England: Community, Identity and Social Memory. 1st ed. Manchester University Press.

Images cited:

Image taken from Ben Jones’ article ‘The Working Class in Mid Twentieth – century England: Community, Identity and Social Memory.

Image of the Vicarage home obtained via https://stchads.co.uk/ .

Image taken from Ancestry.co.uk.

Image taken from Mary Denison’s memoir.

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