Mary Norreen Hart (b.1928): Habits and Beliefs – Writing Lives

Mary Norreen Hart (b.1928): Habits and Beliefs

“The Church of Christ was a haven”

Smyrna Chapel, Aberfan

For many during the 20th century, religion was a way of life. But, for many poor families, religion would be a form of escapism from their situation at the time. The first suggestion of religion in Mary’s memoir is when she recalls her illness after birth. She says; ‘everyone thought I would die; they even put me into a clean gown to meet my Maker’ (7). Through this, it’s clear that the family had some religious beliefs and turned to religious practice as a form of desperation. But it is unclear whether the family were extremely religious, or whether it was more of a cultural belief.

Aunt Polly

Mary’s aunt Polly becomes a significant character in religious discussion, as she is described as ‘a strict Chapel goer [..] Dada occasionally took us to visit Auntie Polly dressed in our Sunday best’ (24). Polly is hardly mentioned in the text and there is the suggestion that her father rejected his sister due to her strict religious ideologies. The little information we get from Polly shows how important religion is to her. But also, as we are given a limited amount of information, it suggests that her religious beliefs dominate her character and form her identity. There is this idea that the family weren’t particularly religious themselves, though would respect members of the family that were. 

Parish Money

Joanna Bourke claims that ‘By the First World War, it was clear that religion provided little to unite ‘communities’ torn by questions of poverty, racial tensions, or class antagonism’ (148). Though Mary’s memoir challenges this and suggests the opposite.

Religion becomes important for those who were poor or unemployed. Mary notes that ‘most people lived off ‘Parish money’ (nowadays benefits)’ (14). Being “on the parish” meant being dependent on poor relief rather than religious charity, although the Poor law was organised on a parish basis.

Religious Events

Charabanc outing to Barry Island by the Church of Christ

Religious events provided pleasure in the community. Mary recalls that ‘the Church of Christ held Sunday school classes and welcomed the mothers to help. They would often arrive just wearing a clean pinafore unlike the Church of England where most peoples’ bosses wore finery’ [..] The Church of Christ was a haven’ (31). This would also give women space outside the home to mingle with others and gave a purpose to women who would often be unemployed.

Mary writes that ’the cycle of Christian festivals punctuated our lives with joyfulness and were planned with the great anticipation’ (40). Religious events such as Sunday school and Christian festivals gave those within the community a space to socialise and be a part of the community. Therefore, religion dominated most events within the community unlike the 21st century. The word ‘punctuate’ again shows how prevalent and important religious events for poor working-class families, like Mary’s.

Different religions

Religion in this community then seems particularly Christian. But ‘there was however a clear divide in terms of religious denomination – in those days it was considered shocking for example for a Protestant girl to marry a Roman Catholic man’ (30). Religion was impactful in terms of families and the creation of families, as though different religions could not mix with each other. This brings a different light to the close-knit community that Mary has often described Aberfan as. This perhaps suggests that the community was in fact divided in issues such as religion.

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

HART, Mary Norreen, ’ (privately printed, 2011), pp.63. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel University Library. Special Collections, Vol.4. 

Images Cited

Burgess, Kaya. ‘Church apps replace th The Times. 10 March 2016. Web. Accessed 4 April 2019.

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