Margaret Watson (B.1907) Politics, Protest and Class – Writing Lives

Margaret Watson (B.1907) Politics, Protest and Class

Margaret does not comment on her political opinions in her memoir, as the primary focus of her writing is to reflect on her family and home life. However, the references that Margaret makes in her memoir to the impact of spreading “disease[s]” (p.33) throughout Scotland in the mid 1900s, indicates the political pressures of the time.

During the Second World War, death rates in Glasgow from bronchitis, pneumonia and tuberculosis were high. Ewen A. Cameron discusses the devastating impact of these diseases on the working class communities in Scotland, and argues that contracting such infections “was considered to be a sign of poverty or an inevitable outcome of the process of industrial civilisation”. He goes on to say that “about 40% of working-class deaths in cities were from tuberculosis” (Cameron, 128).

Margaret’s own family was greatly affected by the spread of bronchitis and tuberculosis in the 1940s. She recalls, “My own daughter was at this time in Bridge of Earn Hospital, Perthshire, with a pleural effusion of both lungs” (p.34). During the early twentieth century, if a young adult developed a pleural effusion – in other words, fluid in the lungs – the chance of tubercular infection being the cause was very high. Before the development of antibiotics, many patients became seriously ill with increasingly severe lung problems. They would lose a great deal of weight and develop a wasted appearance. In this day and age, this outcome is uncommon – at least where modern medicine and treatment methods are accessible. Of her daughter’s condition, Margaret recalls “[It] was a lengthy stay, she was desperately ill” (p.33). However, although it took “over a year” for her to receive “the all clear” from the hospital, Margaret describes the moment her daughter came home as “a happy event for all of us” (p.34).

Female Patients on a Tuberculosis Ward, 1940.

Unfortunately, this happiness was short-lived, as not long after the return of Margaret’s daughter, she recalls how her family received “a great shock”; “My husband developed a bronchial condition, took pneumonia and died very suddenly” (p.34). The hurried manner in which Margaret transcribes this information may be an indication that this particular memory is one that she finds difficult to talk about. Her tone becomes rather sombre in this section, recalling how she “now had little patience at the Remand Home,” which was where Margaret was working at the time of her husbands death. She writes; “I had lost interest [there]. The girls’ chatter at night would wear me down” (p.34). Here, the huge impact that this event had on Margaret’s life becomes visible to the reader, and we can see how after her husband’s death, Margaret’s whole attitude and mentality towards life shifted. Margaret’s account shows the helplessness that working class people must have felt against the advancement of the tuberculosis and bronchitis epidemics during the early twentieth century. As these diseases spread across the country, they were powerless to prevent the countless lives and families that were destroyed in the process.


Burnett, John. Mayall, David and Vincent, David (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography (Brighton: Harvester, 1897) Vol: 2 No: 802.

Cameron, Ewen A. Impaled Upon a Thistle: Scotland Since 1880 (New Edinburgh History of Scotland) Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. p.128

Accessed on 16/01/2015


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