Kathleen Betterton (B.1913) : An Introduction – Writing Lives

Kathleen Betterton (B.1913) : An Introduction

                                                   Kathleen Betterton (B.1913): An Introduction


I chose to research Kathleen Betterton because her memoir provides an example of the growing confidence of women during the twentieth century; the transgression of woman in society is of great interest to me. In the previous century, as Jonathan Rose finds, only one in ten nineteenth- century workers ‘memoirs were written by woman’ (Rose, 51) . I was also drawn to Kathleen on the basis she was working-class. It was her aspiration for a ‘better’ future; to not settle for what was the ‘norm’ for the working-class female that captured me. The memoir is roughly 9,200 words long and has been typed and hand edited by Betterton throughout. The memoir was deposited by Brunel University Library July, 1987. At the end of the memoir Betterton has hand written ‘Linton, 1975’ (300), it is most likely that this was the place and date she finished her autobiography.


Extract from the context of Betterton’s editing.



Kathleen was born in 1913 to a working- class family who lived in a deprived area of Fulham, (London).  ‘WHITE PINNIES AND BLACK APRONS…..’ is the perfect title for her memoir. The above was a common outfit for the working- class, and it was also what she was wearing during a childhood photograph in which she recalls as ‘one that is a favourite’ (2). I find her choice of title symbolic; she finally accepted her roots. From a young age she was aware of a ‘difference’ due to materialistic aspects , ‘as we know already with precocious snobbery, are the poorest ones since white pinafores, like white button-up knickers, are already out of date, even among working-class children like ourselves’ (p.1). It is evident that she has not yet an understanding of social class, ‘blessedly unaware of the problems of world-class existence. My parents knew them too well’ (p.10).


The memoir is a very reflective piece of writing, reminiscing on her struggle with class identity ‘where did I belong?’ (p.142). her education had given her a different perception on life, ‘though I loved my family as much as ever, my standards had altered’ (p.163). Betterton’s style of writing, like many poor writers of that time has a sense of needing to justify themselves; constantly feeling less valuable to those of a higher class.


Betterton was the youngest of two. Her father, a proud and serious man worked long hours on the trains. Her mother, an unqualified seamstress with a dry sense of humour. She laboured over neighbour’s’ garments for next to nothing. Kathleen adored her elder brother Stanley.


Betterton’s family, although poor, believed in education ‘we had more books than anyone in the street’ (p.5). Her brother like her was a child who enjoyed learning and studying. Both had academic abilities. It was this ability that got Betterton spotted by her teachers from an early age, recognising potential in the youngster for scholarly success.


Betterton describes the area she was raised as ‘to house the poor’ (p.2). Her early life at home was a domestic space of happiness for Betterton had a good childhood. She reminisces on many fond memories of playing with the neighbouring kids, days out visiting relatives, special occasions and her general happiness ‘its atmosphere was predominantly happy’ (p.12).


As the years progress and Betterton moved away from her home, studying with those from more privileged background’s, she realises she is different. She does not fit in with her working-class roots or the new life she was introduced to through education. She was a young, educated, scholar. She gained a place at a prestigious Oxford college where she socialised with the wealthy, many of whom later on in their lives attained high status professional roles within society.


Betterton’s voice is manifested all over the transcript. As a reader I felt very connected to her writing. The best way I can describe her style is that of a friend reminiscing. Her writing gives me a sense of what it might have been like as a woman growing up in the early 20th century, the struggles and the want for success. Her memoir discusses education, relationships, politics, death but most of all social class.


The memoir is split into five parts and is written in chronological order. The first part focuses on a young Betterton, her family life, her childhood memories. The second part is her experience at Christ’s Hospital. The third chapter follows the journey of her life at Oxford and the freedom she was given as a student. Her fourth chapter, dated 1935-1939, focuses on her personal life as a woman; her final years in employment, her marriage, children and grandchildren. Her final part is the epilogue; a somewhat speech to her audience.



Betterton’s memoir also reflects on the people she met in her life: academics including her lecturer C.S Lewis and many friends who came from families who held a high status within society and her few childhood friends. Her autobiography is an account of her emotions and thoughts. She highlights the challenges she faced due to class, gender and the attitude of society. Betterton is a positive role model for woman. She shows the importance of self-progression and that all can be achieved. It is her aim to teach the young. To dismiss ignorance and to educate later generations on the great work those before them have achieved for a better way of life. To carry on the battle for a more prosperous future for all.




Betterton. K. (1975)’ White Pinnies, Black Aprons….. ‘Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library: Special Collection. 2:71.


Caine. D. (1967). English Feminism 1780-1980. New York: Oxford University Press


Gagnier.  R (1987). Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.  Victorian Studies. Indiana: Indiana University Press.


‘Kathleen Betterton’, in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Brighton: Harvester. 2:0071


Rose. J. (1992), Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences. Journal of the History of Ideas. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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