Edna Bold (B.1904): Home & Family – Writing Lives

Edna Bold (B.1904): Home & Family

“Edna Bold was born into a ‘respectable’ working-class family in Beswick, Manchester, in 1904, neither rich nor poor, but hard-working, somewhat narrow and puritanical.”[1]. Bold confesses “I adored my own family”(41), and she makes them a significant theme in her memoir by using subheadings to tell each of their stories. It is clear that Bold’s family helped shape her identity and Bold describes her upbringing in Manchester as a happy time where she developed and discovered herself.

Market street
Market Street, Manchester, 1910.


In the early twentieth century “all children who had both parents absorbed the model of father going out to work and being the provider”[2]. Bold admits “I loved my father more than I loved God”(28). Her father was a baker who suffered a business crisis which led to “financial embarrassment”(32). This meant the family had to live with their Aunt Lizzie who Bold describes as “a thorn in the flesh of her entire family”(31).

Ann Oakley argued that the role of housewife in the nineteenth century was a “demeaning one, consisting of monotonous, fragmented work which brought no financial remuneration, let alone any recognition”[3]. Bold says “As a child of twelve, I was a useful nursemaid and help to my mother”(35). Bold was a liberal minded child who pursued a life of pleasure and freedom. She says “School, homework, baby minding were the daily ‘slog’”(36) and that her parents “accepted the puritanical reverence of work that was performed without love or real pleasure or satisfaction”(36). Bold did not want to accept the “accidental conditions”(36) which she was born into and wished to ‘better’ herself. She explains this was the time she and her parents “began to travel different roads.”(36). (See, Edna Bold (B1904): Habits, Culture & Belief)

The ‘ideal’ housewife.

It is noted that “The death of a child among the working classes was […] ‘cruelly frequent’ and ‘accepted’ as a possible ‘destiny’ for each child born.”[4] And that working-class “mothers who lost children to death had achieved a ‘comparative immunity’ from bereavement.”[5]. This was not the case for Bold’s mother, who after the death of her baby, had a mental breakdown and was taken into an institution. Despite the “deprivation”(31) Bold suffered from the absence of her mother, she says she and her brother “were happy in [their] togetherness” and living with their cousins Frank and Ethel.


When talking of her childhood Bold says “every child was obliged to run errands for mothers, relations, neighbours”(2). Children running errands was typical amongst members of the working-class. Bold describes this task as “the chief”(3) of all her resentments because “It interfered with and subtracted from the play-way”(3). Despite her resentment Bold was aware of her class identity and she knew she was ‘better off’ than other members of the working-class. The walk to her father’s bakehouse, which was in a “terrible slum”(7), “disturbed and frightened”(7) her. This image provides an interesting contrast amongst the working-class. The term ‘respectable’ is often used to describe a working-class family like Bold’s who stood somewhat above the ‘very poor’.

Bold says her “consciousness of the English family, the English countryside was acute”(41). Bold “adored the countryside”(41) and felt “far more comfortable there than in town”(41). Although Manchester was “at once a terrible place”(1) she and her brother “had no sense of deprivation”(1). Bold lived on “the main road”(2) in Beswick which “was a social centre where everyone met, shopped talked and walked”(2). Bold says she played “on the main road”(11) as soon as she “could walk and talk and be trusted out alone”(11). The street where she played was adjacent to where her “Grandfather, Grandmother, Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, friends lived”(11). Despite playing many games, such as “‘bobbers and kibs’, whips and tops, shuttlecocks and paddles”(12), Bold recalls earlier that “To dig up dirt between the nicks of the pavement flags was every town child’s impulse”(8). Next to this was their desire to “grow something”(8). Bold planted peas and beans between the flags in her garden which were “a staple diet in every household”(8). Her awareness of her working-class identity is shown through this activity. Bold says “It was not long before we discovered the incredible and different order of things we had begun to sense as the peas and beans struggled to grow in their inadequate, unlikely seed beds”(8). I believe Bold uses the peas and beans as a metaphor for herself and her brother.

An image of children playing in the street, 1900’s.


Bold’s says her cousin Dorothy “was more like my sister”(18). Bold’s Aunt Maggie thought “Dorothy was the best”(18). Bold says she accepted that they “were at the top of the packing order in our family”(18) yet “despite this established superiority and my undoubted inferiority, my cousin and I were as close and loving and inseparable as identical twins”(19). Bold and Dorothy were born just a few months apart and they “walked to school together, played together, Sunday schooled, picnicked…”(19).


When talking of her Grandmother you can see the difference in relationships between generations of working class families. Here Bold describes her Grandmother;

“She had an invisible aura which kept everyone at a respectable distance. No-one exercised any degree of familiarity or expressed any degree of coarness in her presence. On her part she never obtruded her personality nor drew attention to her poise and dignity. Yet she had a natural sympathy, free from all trace of sentimentality. She treated her Grandchildren with the respect and attention she gave to adults”(47).


David Vincent “observed that ‘bereavement is everywhere’ in working-class autobiography. Yet life stories were not dominated by death.”[6]. Vincent placed emphasis on working class authors leaving out their emotional experiences. This is the case for Bold. In her later life when she discusses family members dying her only comment is “Grandmother, father and mother followed one after the other to the hereafter”(41). I would suggest the omission of emotion here is because Bold is able to accept death when it is a natural occurrence. Bold says “An increasing number die peacefully of old age in their beds, but a greater proportion suffer the savagery of disease or the butchery of lethal accidents”(71). Bold was not able to accept the death of her brother because he was run over by a police car in 1957;

“His wife Edith and I shared a sense of insupportable grief and fear. I wept, resolving through the unrestrained bitterness of tears, that I would examine and investigate, and discount nothing that gave some explanation to the absurdity of death and the far greater absurdity of living”(72).


When Bold enrolled in “Charles Peachment’s life class”(34) she saw “John Bold posing in a smock and cap […] little realising I was looking down on an impression of the man who was to be my future husband”(34). When she met John again a few months later Bold knew that she “was to have much to do with the pale, remote man”(118). John and Bold had a mutual interest in Art. John “painted landscapes, townscapes, seascapes, and the nude.”(120). Bold states “I knew from the days I walked the mean Manchester streets as a child, and heard the names Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, that the artist in the wider sense of that much abused word was special, very special indeed.”(122). John’s artistic nature attracted Bold to him and he became her husband.

‘Suburban Landscape’, by John Bold. Click this link to see a twelve peice collection of John’s artwork.

Bold’s experience of growing up on the “mean Manchester streets”(122) undoubtedly shaped her identity. Her home and family experiences provide not only an account of working-class life, but a coming of age tale. Her childhood developed her awareness of class and through hard work and perseverance she was able to ‘better’ herself. Although Bold “adored”(41) her family she did not want to live in  the puritanical way that they did. Instead she developed and interest in Art which led her to her husband John Bold. Bold’s family were a huge part of her life, this is evident in the way that she uses sub-headings to talk about them. The importance of her family is further highlighted in her foreword when Bold dedicates her memoir to her Grandnieces and nephews.

[1] Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the1820s to the 1920s. London: Alan Lane, 1982. Pg.106

[2] Benson, John. The working class in England 1875-1914. London: Routledge, 1984. Pg.16.

[3] Oakley, Ann. Housewife. London: Penguin, 1990. Pg.265.

[4] Strange, Julie Marie. Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, 1870-1914. Cambridge, University Press: 2010. Pg.257.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Strange, Julie Marie. Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, 1870-1914. Cambridge, University Press: 2010. Pg.10.


N.B. All images link to their original source.

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