Francesca’s thoughts went back down the years to Harting Coombe Farm, near Rogate where she lived with her parents, her sister and her brothers, nearly seventy years ago. (1)
Memories of Long Ago is a nostalgic account of some of Mrs W.E. Palmer’s childhood years which she spent living at Harting Coombe Farm in Sussex, from 1910 to 1925. Written in the third person under the pseudonym Francesca, Mrs W.E. Palmer recalls her poor, but seemingly happy childhood, in a unique and engaging style.
Born in 1908 in Bramley, near Guildford, Winifred begins her memoir with an account from adulthood before detailing a heart-warming recollection of her childhood memories which ‘came into her mind like a message from heaven’ (1). Yet, Winifred’s memoir is not solely confined to an account of her own life. Rather, she recollects her mother with great fondness and admiration. A dressmaker and member of the Women’s Institute, born in Brighton in 1875, Winifred’s mother Flo was a hard-working woman. Flo was ‘left alone when she was quite a baby’ (1) and was adopted by a coachman and his wife, yet she ‘never felt the loss of her parents’ (2) due to the kindness of her adoptive family. This cheerful and optimistic tone is upheld throughout Winifred’s memoir, despite her account of the hardships of working-class life.
It can easily be said that Mrs W.E. Palmer’s outlook on life is inspirational as she wastes no time on dwelling on the difficulties suffered by her and her family. Instead, she is frank and insightful in her discussion of her family’s struggles, such as their lack of substantial food as she describes ‘the bread and cheese which was their staple meal’ (5). Her Father, Will Beaven, was a small tenant farmer and ‘Francesca was eleven when she heard her mother reading out the bankruptcy lists in the Daily Mail, and it seemed that nearly all the bankrupts were farmers. In spite of all the hardships and poverty, (Flo used to say “Never mind about church mice, we must be church worms”) life was well worth living’ (7).
Laced with beautiful descriptions of idyllic, rural Sussex during her walks to school, Winifred prompts the acknowledgement that there is beauty and pleasure to be found in life that does not need to be bought. The children and Flo ‘would sometimes stand and gaze at the cornfields, appreciating the golden shimmering of the ripe corn and the bright red gaiety of the poppies’ (16), highlighting one way in which Winifred and her family found happiness during their difficult times.
The second section of Palmer’s autobiography recollects her school days with detailed descriptions of the subjects that were taught, the teaching styles and lesson formats, as well as a brief recollection of school outings to a museum and music festival, May Day and games. Although Winifred excelled during her school years, as she recalls being ‘allowed to skip standard one, and go straight into standard two from the infants’ (19), it is moving to learn that she failed her scholarship examination and was not awarded with the opportunity to go to grammar school. However, despite excluding her employment history from her writing, Winifred hints that her future held a profession in dressmaking, like her mother Flo.
Although Winifred’s memoir recollects a period in which the First World War prevailed, it seems to have had few negative implications on her joyful childhood. Instead, in her typically optimistic tone, she reveals that ‘wars have a way of bringing people together, and this was very much the case in Francesca’s part of the country’ (13).
A content and happy childhood written with an air of mystery, Winifred Estelle Palmer’s enigmatic memoir proves to be an enchanting read.
582 PALMER, Mrs W.E., ‘Memories of Long Ago’, TS, pp.34 (c.12,200 words). Brunel University Library.
‘Mrs W.E. Palmer’ in John Burnett, Davis Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vol. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:582.