Hilda Swettenham (b. ~1907): Home & Family – Writing Lives

Hilda Swettenham (b. ~1907): Home & Family

Throughout her autobiographical writing, Hilda Swettenham frames the memories of her young adulthood around key places in her hometown. While the memoir initially portrays Collyhurst as nothing more than a setting, the background upon which the author’s life is staged, the central location becomes its own character within the narrative, developing a sense of individuality and identity. Recounting the geography of her hometown, Hilda constructs a mental map of her experiences in Collyhurst, guiding readers on a step-by-step tour of the very streets she grew up in.

On the fringes of inner-city Manchester, Collyhurst is a small town, rich with industry and local history. Although it is now a place of regeneration, the ‘area stayed largely rural until the [nineteenth] century, when it began to expand rapidly’ (), introducing much commercial trade. In the early-twentieth century, Collyhurst was characterised by a ‘mixture of heavy industry and congested housing’ (), a hub of hard labour in impoverished conditions, dominated by the working class. Hilda’s memoir explores the ‘heavily industrialised’ () town, traversing the streets on which ‘corn mills, a brick-making works, a paper mill, a rope works and dye factories had been constructed’ (), as well as examining the sewing trade which she was involved in.

The reader is able to mentally stitch together a patch-work map of Collyhurst through Hilda’s depiction of her geographical mobility, staged by her daily movement between home and work as well as her wider movement between jobs. While she does not pinpoint the specific house in which she lived, the author describes her experiences living on ‘Teignmouth St[reet]’ (2), which also happened to be the same road where she ‘got [her first] job at “Aykroyd & Sons Shirt [F]actory”’ (2) in 1921. She moved to ‘“Blonds” on Cheetham Hill Road’ (5) in 1935, later relocating to ‘a job in Ancoats’ (6), a small neighbourhood in Collyhurst, before ‘Aykroyd took [her] back again’ (7). Hilda further details the shopping culture and markets of Collyhurst, listing roads such as ‘Charlton St[reet]’ (11), ‘Paley St[reet]’ (13), Collyhurst St[reet] and Oldham Road’ (14), ‘Rochdale Road’ (15), and ‘Willert St[reet]’ (23), which contain ‘a good number of shops, butchers, barbers [and] confectionary’ (13). More notable locations include ‘“St. James [Church]”’ (2), an Anglican church, built in 1873 and demolished in 1971, which is visible from Hilda’s housing on Teignmouth Street, as well as her local pub, ‘the “Shakespeare” [or] the “Shaky” as the regulars called it’ (16). Her memoir is a jigsaw puzzle of street names and local landmarks which allow readers to establish a sense of place using her amalgamation of spatial indicators.

A painting (Fig. 7) and a photograph (Fig. 8) of ‘Bradley’s Steps’, a footbridge Hilda would walk ‘to save tram bus fares’ (5).

The author seems to have an intriguing fixation on the geography of Collyhurst, recalling the exact routes and shortcuts she took on her daily journeys. By providing precise directions, Hilda encourages readers to navigate the streets of her hometown alongside her, walking them ‘down the road, down the fifty[-]three steps and up the seventy[-]seven steps in Angel Meadow to save tram bus fares’ (5). Through her narration, she imparts insider information and local knowledge which allows readers to assimilate into her memories with a grasp, not only on the street names and local landmarks, but also the ‘walking distance[s]’ (11).

Written almost as a love letter to the Collyhurst of her young adulthood, Hilda’s memoir chronicles the changing landscape of her hometown as a result of the ‘programmes of slum clearance [which dominated the 1930s]’ (). This refers to governmental strategies to redevelop working-class areas into renewed urban spaces, aiming to transform the ‘dangerous structural condition’ () of places like Collyhurst. However, while having the potential to improve the living standards of the existing housing, these strategies ‘risked impoverishing already poor families’ (). Attempts ‘to mitigate the worst effects of sub-standard housing’ () were futile, as Collyhurst residents, including Hilda, sought to maintain the legacy of their original housing by ‘conserving, retrofitting and fetishising ‘authentic’ nineteenth-century period properties’ (). This is evident as the author argues that ‘who-ever was responsible for the tower blocks in Collyhurst made a terrible costly blunder, because they made worse slums than the little houses they replaced’ (24), thereby ‘mapp[ing] the spatial dynamics of class formation [and] plotting changes in working[-]class neighbourhoods wrought by slum clearances’ ().

Maps of Collyhurst then (1923) (Fig. 14), and now (2021) (Fig. 15).

Hilda’s nostalgic tone towards ‘the old Collyhurst’ (25) creates a sense of sentimentality and reminiscence which allows her autobiographical writing to ‘preserve memories of a way of life that is changing or has already ceased to be’ (). The author writes that ‘when an area like Collyhurst was destroyed […], the community spirit is destroyed’ (25), emphasising the extent to which her memories have ‘been condemned as tainted by nostalgia’ (). It is interesting to note that working-class autobiographers ‘tend to be vague about what constitutes a community’ (), as there is an element of ‘backward-looking romanticism’ () associated with the rose-tinted lens or ‘golden haze’ () that these memories are often recalled through. In her final statement, Hilda directly addresses her hometown, writing, ‘[g]oodbye to the old Collyhurst, we shall not see your like again’ (25), resonating a feeling of loss and longing for home.


Primary Sources

Swettenham, Hilda. ”Early Working Life from 1921 to 1936′, and other autobiographical fragments’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 1790-1945 (3 volumes). John Burnett, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds.). Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989. 2:0750. Available: /uncategorized/hilda-swettenham-b-1907-biographical-entry

Secondary Sources

Bourke, Joanna. Working-class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity. London: Routledge, 1994. Available:

Curry, Emma. ‘Nostalgia: Collyhurst, a source of agriculture, coal, chemicals and sandstone’. Manchester Evening News. 6th April 2016. Web. Accessed: 6th April 2021. Available:

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’. Victorian Studies 30:3 (Spring 1987), 335-363. Available:

Jones, Ben. The Working Class in Mid-Twentieth-Century England: Community, Identity and Social Memory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012. Available:

Nicholas, R. City of Manchester Plan: Prepared for the City Council. Norwich and London: Jarrold & Sons, Limited, 1945. Available:


Fig. 1: Collyhurst Flats. Available:

Fig. 2: Collyhurst, Electric Circus club on the corner, Manchester, 1970s. Available:

Fig. 3: Rooney, Clare. Collyhurst Flats [Painting] from Once Upon a Time: Collyhurst Remembered. University of Salford, Manchester. Available:

Fig. 4: Riley, Harold. (1961). Elisa Ann Street, Collyhurst, Manchester, 1961 [Mixed Media on Paper]. Clark Art Ltd., Cheshire. Available:

Fig. 5: New Foster Street looking to Church Street, The Royal Hotel on the left and St James Church ahead. Colourised by George Heywood (2020). Available:

Fig. 6: Taken from the railway footbridge off Collyhurst Road 1958. Available:

Fig. 7: Lowry, Laurence Stephen. (1938) A Footbridge [Oil on Canvas]. Sotheby’s, London. Available:

Fig. 8: Barney’s Steps in 1960. Available:

Fig 9: Rochdale Road. Available:

Fig. 10: Rooney, Clare. May’s Pawn Shop [Painting] from Once Upon a Time: Collyhurst Remembered. University of Salford, Manchester.

Fig. 11: Rochdale Road, Collyhurst, 1958. Available:

Fig 12: Coulthurst, S. J. (1895). Shopping on Rochdale Road with Junction with Angel Street. Colourised by George Heywood (2020). Available:

Fig. 13: Flynn, Mark. Shakespeare Hotel. Available:

Fig 14: OS County Series: Lancashire and Furness (partial), 1923, 1:10,560. Available:

Fig. 15: Teignmouth Street, Manchester. Available:

If you enjoyed this, you might be interested in Sarah Roane’s blog post about War and Memory in Annie Ford’s intriguing memoir, where she examines how the community of Collyhurst was affected by the First World War. Available: /uncategorized/annie-ford-1920-onwards-war

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