“My mother used to say this ‘It’s not what your wearing it’s what you make do”Mrs Yates (p.5)
Naturally, many authors start their memoirs at the very beginning of their lives, and at the heart of every life is home and family. Mrs Yates belonged to a family of seven and was the eldest sibling of four. Unfortunately, two siblings contracted measles in their early infancy and passed away which left only two children in the Fenton family. Her mother Elizabeth was a housewife who found little jobs here and there such as laundry washing and childminding for villagers and her father worked at the card room in the cotton mill. His wages at the mill were ‘just over a pound’ (p.2) a week which put the family in the working-class category, ‘A weekly wage below 21 shillings would still imply poverty for a family of two adults and three children’ (Burnett, 1989, p.111).
Mrs Yates lived in a two up two down house in lower Darwen Blackburn which was built in 1868. It’s more than likely that this house was a pre-regulation terrace house which is ‘a type of dwelling constructed before Public Health Act 1875 […] built as cheap accommodation for the urban poor of the Industrial Revolution.’ (Wiki, 2020). Most pre-regulation houses shared a water pump and an outhouse, therefore Mrs Yates’s house did not have a bathroom. In order to clean herself, she would have to boil the kettle and wash in the sink. The house was populated with mismatched hire purchase furniture as Mrs Yates recalls ‘We had about four chairs and a sofa. They didn’t match you know. They were bought at different times’ (p.2). Mrs Yates’s family understandably couldn’t afford to buy furniture all at once, therefore, hire purchase was a more financially stable option that gave working-class families such as the Fenton’s the chance to spread the cost. However, most of the time this would come with crippling interest. It seems the working classes were always struggling their way through debt to attain the simplest materials or services. To add to the unusual look of the Fenton family home the floor was covered in sand due to the fire cooker in the kitchen, and the sand was put down to prevent any damage from the spitting fire pit.
In the interview, it’s clear that Mrs Yates’s family had more access to food than other families in the village, and this was not due to her father’s wages (which were standard wages) but because Mrs Yates’s mother ‘spent more on food than other things’ (p.5). This can be identified in the interview when Mrs Yates describes how her breakfast differed from other villagers, ‘We’d have an egg for breakfast but a lot in the village they only had to have half an egg’ (p.5) it’s evident that Mrs Yates’s mother understood the importance of nourishment which was, unfortunately, an issue in working-class life in the late nineteenth century due to the accessibility and costliness of fresh produce. Fresh milk was not always obtainable to lower classes according to an investigation carried out by Dr Edward Smith in the 1860s: ‘Smith believed that the ‘proper quantity’ of milk for infants was two to three pints per day: in his survey, he found that the average amount consumed per person was less than one pint a week’ (p.164). Mrs Yates’s yard backed onto a farm which meant her family had plenty of access to milk, and she even describes how she had a choice of three different types of milk, full fat, skimmed and cream.
31 Fore St, Lower Darwen. Mrs Yates’ Home in 1911
A luxury meal for Mrs Yates and her family was a roast which they would regularly enjoy on the weekend. The roast would include a shoulder of mutton as it was the cheapest meat that was on offer. Mutton is meat from a sheep that’s over two years old therefore it’s much tougher and fattier than lamb, making it the more undesirable of meats. Her mother would use up every last bit of the mutton to ensure nothing went to waste, ‘we used to make it last, you see. You’d cut it off on the Sunday then had it cold, and then make…well we called it stewed potatoes with it […] And every bit was used up’ (p.5). Her mother, as Mrs Yates describes, was very thrifty, and she would often offer words of wisdom to her daughter, ‘It’s not what your wearing, it’s what you make do’ (p.5), her thriftiness no doubt ensured that the Fenton family never went without. in the house Mrs Yates would often do little bits of housework to help her mother however, she couldn’t do too much due to her busy work and school schedule: ‘Well you see, you see how small I was and when I worked…. I’d gone to school and the mill, I was really worn out’ (p.7), therefore Mrs Yates did small chores such as washing the dishes and clearing the table after dinner. She would also knit frequently as many working-class girls did in the nineteenth century.
Mrs Yates recalls fondly upon her childhood and goes into great detail when describing her family home which gives us substantial insight into the working-class home in the nineteenth century. It is evident that her mother made sure their family had enough food to make sure they were well nourished, and her thriftiness was evidently very beneficial to the family.
Burnett, J. Plenty & Want: A Social History of Food in England from 1815 To the Present Day. London: Routledge. 1989.
‘Mrs Yates: Before My Time’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection
‘Pre-regulation terraced houses in the United Kingdom’. Wikipedia. N.d. Web. [Accessed 23 April]