Bessie Wallis (b. 1904) Habits and Beliefs part 1

In this first part of ‘Habits and Beliefs’ I am going to center my discussion on the culture of children in Bessie’s memoir. Then in part two I will move the attention onto the adult population of West Melton and compare and contrast.

Within Bessie’s recollections of her childhood, habits in a working class community are depicted as shaped by the lack of money and the strictness of the faith in the area “There was never enough money for the luxury of a toy for a child but we did have our snap and playing cards. These cards were frowned upon in most homes where the Methodist religion was closely followed.”

As a result, it appeared that leisure relied mainly on the outdoors and the use of creativity and this seemed to reinforce a sense of appreciation for the two, “In the Spring the spinneys and copses were covered in Bluebells, Acconites and sometimes wild Pansies. To us children these woods were Paradise.”

This adoration by the children of the outdoors detailed by Bessie is fortified by her reflection of how childhood has changed at the time of her writing the memoir, “The canal vanished beneath concrete. The fields trampled with houses and worst of all, no wonderful steam trains to watch and wave at. What the modern child misses!”

In Bessie’s description, children were allowed to wander without supervision and Bessie comments on how she was unfazed by the two mile walk in which she sometimes accomplished with her friend to complete chores.

This sense of independence and disregard for danger is highlighted by how she describes the children “delighted in taking nets to the canal to catch ‘tiddlers’. This was strictly forbidden which is why we did it!” It was forbidden for a good reason too, as each year a young child managed to drown. Bessie admits that when her cousin had tragically been one of those children, she only temporarily abstained from the favored past time.

In addition to spending most of their time out in nature, unsupervised, it seemed as if the children of West Melton were not be sheltered from any kind of reality that life has to offer. For example when the butcher slaughtered the pig twice a year “Cutting up was the next stage and, like young ghouls, we watched without batting an eye.”

This level of openness about the world that these miner’s children experienced might be why the mother of Bessie’s friend Alice, whose family worked on the railway said “the miner’s children were too coarse and rough.”

However, even if these children were left to their own devices and mainly ungoverned in their play and what they saw, they were constrained in other ways. For example, Bessie describes her Grandfather’s funeral, at which “All Grandchildren, no matter their age, had to attend the funeral.”

These children also made their own dogma in this world seemingly limited only by their imagination. One of these was by gender within the school grounds, in which the genders were “separated by mutual accord” based on what games where played, “pise” or rounders being the only game which both sexes played together. This belief of the segregation of the sexes started early, it seemed.

Even in a poor mining community in which the parents of children were typically busy with labor either in the colleries or in the home, it could be stated according to the text Leisure and recreation in a Victorian mining community: the social economy of leisure in north-west England. by Alan Metcalfe “Miners had always been concerned about their children and from the earliest years the Sunday Schools had provided trips, teas and games for their members.”

This is shown through ways such as Bessie’s mother carefully saving so they could afford to visit Cleethorpes “The Railways ran cheap excursions and many children had a day there which day was the Summer holiday highlight.” and the feasts and Sunday School outings I have mentioned in previous blog posts.

The beliefs and habits, at least for the children of West Melton seemed to be that of free-spiritedness, love of nature and rough play, this only being softened by the religious restraints they had to partake in with the adults of the community. These same adults in Bessie’s memoir make effort to ensure these children’s lives are filled with enjoyment despite the shortage of money between families. The celebrations for children are ones only possible by the collective contribution of money of the whole village. The belief that childhood should be held sacred seems to be one shared by the community. At least until that woeful day in which the child grows old enough and fulfills their role of buying a shovel and joining their older relatives in the pit.

Bibliography:

Metcalfe, A., 2005. Leisure and Recreation in a Victorian Mining Community: The Social Economy of Leisure in North-East England, 1820–1914. Routledge.

J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982)

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