Wally Ward, born 1914, wrote his memoir ‘Fit For Anything’ in the 1960s to detail life within the confines of epilepsy. In his first chapter, ‘Early Years’, Ward describes his childhood home life – a time before he had begun to have epileptic seizures. Ward depicts a family of his mother, father, and three children (himself included) struggling against poverty to raise children during World War One. Writing retrospectively, Ward recognises the severity of their situation and can identify that his parents “were very poor in those troublesome times and my father was out of work for long spells and only my mother’s skill with a sewing machine, kept us fed and clothed.” (1)
However, Ward’s explanation of his childhood views of their plight shows a naivety often lost in working-class autobiography. For example, when he recalls visiting a soup kitchen as a child to collect his family’s meal in a can, Ward describes that he “felt about six feet tall as [he] stood there and handed in [theirs].” (2) This quote indicates that Ward had felt pride in providing for his family, unaware of the realities of needing to utilise this service. He establishes after this that he “was far too young to understand what it was all about” (2), underlining that his youth prevented him from understanding his working-class status. This may reflect on his attitude across the rest of the memoir, which lacks the class focus of most other working-class memoirs – perhaps the positive and oblivious attitude he had in his youth prevented his internalisation of his class.
Ward’s writing about his parents paints the picture of two incredibly different characters. His mother, firstly, is portrayed as the glue holding the family together – both emotionally and financially. The tone of writing is admiring when concerning her and describing her efforts to provide for her family; Ward explains that she “would go chorring for long hours and bring back washing and ironing to do. She also took in sewing – anything to earn a few shilling to buy food for us; although more often than not, she herself went hungry to bed.” (2) Undoubtedly, a large part of Ward’s resistance to his financial standing would have been founded in his mother’s work to shield him from its effects. Joanna Bourke (writer on working-class cultures 1860-1960) wrote of the effects women of the family could have on prosperity during this period, stating ‘the increased prosperity of working-class households from the late nineteenth century was created not only by higher wages, but also by improved housewifery’ (65). In Ward’s case, actual financial income went no way in improving his surroundings, and Ward credits his mother almost entirely for that which they possessed.
This being said, his father did indeed work to provide for the family, although Ward mentions very early on that his father was often out of work for long spells. It is heavily suggested that this may have been due to his father’s unpleasant attitude – Ward writes that he “drank a good deal and used to beat my mother on his bad days” (2). It is interesting to note not only that Ward’s father was violent but how this violence was dealt with. It was a female neighbour (who was “strong” whereas his mother was “frail”) who would resolve the issue. This emergent power for women to control domestic environments is discussed by Melanie Tebbut, who studies the use of gossip as a tool for female authority. Here, Tebbut talks of families with drunken or violent fathers being labelled as “rough” which helped to police aggressive behaviour. Although this demonstration of women policing aggression is much more passive, it links into the suggestion that women in this era were beginning to take a stand against domestic aggression and altering their views on what was deemed acceptable.
Perhaps because of his strained relationship with his father, Ward provides very little information about his children and his relationship with them. His chapter entitled “The Children” (noticeably not titled “My Children”) is a mere two pages long and barely regards his children at all. In fact, only three paragraphs are devoted to his children, with most of the text referring to changes in his medication at the time of the birth of his son. What little he does say about them is less about the children themselves and more what he did for them. For example, Ward wrote of the toys he built for them: “Dolls houses, forts, scooter, tricycles, dolls, prams, wooden engines . . . anything they asked for and they thought the world of them.” (39)
JM Strange has noted in her work on Fatherhood in the Working-Class that males struggling to express their emotions often signalled these emotions instead through things they have made and provided for their offspring – in this case, the aforementioned toys. This is particularly relevant in Ward’s case as it is evident he would have learned this stoicism towards children from his father. Although Ward does feel affection for his children, he has never learned how to convey this through words and may feel that fathers should not do so, and thus demonstrates his affection to the children and the reader through tangible means.
Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity. London: Routledge, 1994
Strange, JM. Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014