Kathleen Betterton (B.1913) : Life and Labour – Writing Lives

Kathleen Betterton (B.1913) : Life and Labour


‘Money earned when one is young has a significance far beyond its cash value; it confers a comforting sense of self-importance’ (177).


Way of life had improved for the poor during the early twentieth century to that of previous years, ‘the British population which did occur, notwithstanding the significant continuities in social structure of which we are now well aware. In the long run, health, life expectancy and standards of living all improved’ (Cannadine 1998). But it was still a time of hardship and struggle for many. Bought up in a working-class family it was only due to her education that Kathleen was given more opportunities than others in her class. The working-class life was to leave school at fourteen and enter in to skilled employment or factory work. But as Kathleen stayed on in education her life set out differently. Reflecting back to her teen years when on vocation from University, she felt inexperienced looking for a job as ‘everyone of my age had long been at work’ (177). It was very rare for a working-class child to stay on in education to the age of eighteen and even rarer for them to reach University; they and their families could not financially afford to support this option regardless of their academic potential.


Just before starting at Oxford, Kathleen applied for posts as ‘mothers help’ but was unsuccessful. Looking for work was proven difficult for all as during ‘the thirties unemployment was widespread’ (177). For two successive Augusts she did manage to obtain a routine secretarial position earning one pound a week. For Kathleen employment gave her a profound pleasure, working was a source of pride and security.


The 1931 depression affected everyone; the lack of employment became a huge worry. As a student Kathleen and her peers aspired for better jobs of a higher status than the types of employment offered to the labouring class. Their dedication to study was to set them for a more prosperous future of employment but during this time ‘students could no longer look forward to an assured future in the professions’ (183). There were several reasoning’s for unemployment, but a big focus was on technology; employees being replaced by for the latter. Katherine Watson cites John Burnett’s argument, that it was the above that was ‘changing the demand for agricultural and industrial labour’ (Watson, 193) resulting in unemployment.



Social misery was at its peak in 1933, resentment had settled in. Undergraduates formed together, meeting up and supporting one another. Kathleen and her fellow peers became socialists sticking together on their shared beliefs about employment. She and her friends welcomed into their home the teachers taking part in the hunger march from South Wales to London, their support showed a fellowship for labour.

1930's depression Glogster.co.uk
1930’s depression

Graduating from Oxford Kathleen’s working life began. She managed to secure herself permanent full-time jobs. She took job positions doing hack-work for a publishing firm and secretarial work. But she did not have any interest in these areas or any talents as she states. She wanted a job with human interest; contact with students ‘perhaps after all I would be happier teaching’ (207). Her decision was to take posts private coaching the children of the wealthy, preparing these girls for examination papers. With coaching she moved from family to family once her work had been completed.


Coaching children of the very wealthy gave her a comfortable life style, in which she enjoyed very much.  Residing with the families she got the opportunity to live a privileged lifestyle it ‘gave me fascinating insights into the lives of the rich’ (191). Her relationship with the families of who she taught was good, she spoke highly of them, bonding well with her pupils. Her work led to her socialising with the wealthy, she became a part of their family.  In many ways she was a friend to the young girls.


In writing to Richard she talks about how one of her male employer’s behaviour is that of a capitalist and how ‘the world revolved around him as the planets round the sun’ (217). Questioning her criticism she asked herself was she being too harsh as he, ‘was he just exhibiting the normal male chauvinism of his class and generation?’ (217)Other than the tension he caused, it was never directed towards her.

Coaching the young was also a learning curve for Betterton, Her new life abled her to take part in very middle-class activities such as horse riding and dining out at restaurants. The life Kathleen was living compared to where she was born was on very opposite ends of the hierarchal structure. Her new lifestyle put her in a position of feeling even more distant to her modest roots.


Later on in life, Kathleen started teaching at a mixed grammar school for two years. She then left to teach English at Christ’s Hospital. After a break from teaching she had to return due to financial difficulties.  At the age of forty-six she took a job at Bourne Grammar school teaching Latin. Her final teaching role was at Christ’s Hospital as head of English department in 1961. Her time as a teacher gave her great gratification, she left in 1973.  Her work life helped her in the discovery of self identity. It was through her teaching career that her insecurities vanished; she no longer felt that class awareness was a prominent as it was in her day. She finally found acceptance in where she came from, and who she was.



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


Cannadine, D. (1998). Class in Britain. London. Penguin Books Ltd.


Image : Glogster.co.uk/images.


Watson, Katherine. ‘Idle Hands: The Experience of Unemployment, 1790-1990 by John Burnett reviewed by Katherine Watson’: The Economic History Review, Vol 49, No1 (February, 1996), pp.193-194

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