Phyllis L. Buss (1902): Habits, Culture & Belief – Writing Lives

Phyllis L. Buss (1902): Habits, Culture & Belief

“To my utter amazement I was the chosen one.” (p9)

 The late nineteenth to the early twentieth century saw the rise of urbanisation, a time when ‘Britain’s towns and cities grew at a rapid rate as people moved from the countryside to the new urban areas’, due to the ‘industrial revolution when industry developed from small-scale cottage industries to large-scale factories employing thousands of workers’1, especially those of the working class. This caused the poor to increasingly be living separately from the richer classes in cities where these factories were situated. Living in such tight yet separate communities, different activities and cultures were devised between the classes. Popular  activities for the working-class included cock-fighting and bear-baiting and bare knuckle fighting, mixed in with a lot of alcohol! Evidently, this was associated with violence, cruelty and rowdiness, which did not give the working class a very good name within the urbanised community of the industrial cities. The middle and upper classes however, were partaking in events such as sports games with set rules, like football, rugby, polo and bicycle races. As the more educated population, they also enjoyed cultural pastimes such as reading, writing, viewing art galleries and theatre performances.


(painting of bear-baiting from 1900s)

Phyllis states in her memoir only a few pastimes outside of her long list of paid job roles, one activity from her childhood and one from her adulthood. It was rare for working-class families to have the time or resources for recreational activities, giving us another indication that her family was of the more privileged minority of the working-class people. She states two major activities that she was involved in throughout her life, however they do not seem to be of the working-class standard that would be expected.

Firstly, during her childhood, Phyllis writes how, along with her brothers, she would go and view some art work in a studio of a man that they obviously knew, and sometimes would be models for his pictures: ‘There was a Studio in Fish St. where an artist work. We were delighted if he invited us to see his work. My brothers and myself often used to pose for him as did some of the other kids of the lane.'(p6) This shows that because it was not only her family that was asked to view the artist’s work, but also the other children that resided in the lane in which they lived, because of their father’s occupation in the Fire Service, that the street as a whole was not of complete poverty stricken working-class. (as discussed further in the Life & Labour post). Having this small yet interesting hobby as a child would shape Phyllis’ beliefs and habits, as she was exposed to cultural art from a young age. This would have helped to form beliefs, not only to appreciate artwork but also to enable her to learn to express her own creativity. From her style of writing in the memoir, her use of word play and comic lines, it can be seen that she held a creative, expressive and fun persona, which may have stemmed from being introduced and personally involved in artwork from a young age.

Age and gender in Phyllis’ childhood did not signify which activities she could partake in and those that she, or her brothers could not. She was labelled a ‘Tom-Boy'(p2), and so obviously took part in the games and activities that were typically played by boys, having six brothers I doubt she really had a choice! Both her brothers and sisters went to view and assist in the art studio, and they were of a varied age range so it seems that this did not affect the segregation of those types of leisure interests. When Phyllis is in her adulthood, she ‘had joined a Concert Group and became a member of the Chorus in the Mayflower Pageant.'(p9) She remembers this to be a time of excitement and energy, where she ‘met lots of nice people’ and ‘had lovely times at rehearsals ‘(p9) Again, gender does not seem to partition the working-class, as her producer was a male, Mr Laurie Toseland, and some of her fellow actors and singers were male also. She writes how, due to an outbreak of the Flu, the lead actress was not able to perform, and so Phyllis was chosen to take her place: ‘To my utter amazement I was the chosen one. I was given extra time to practice…It was all very exciting and once more I felt important'(p9) From being part of this pageant production, Phyllis was able to learn some life lessons and class codes that would benefit her. From team working and uniting as a group of working-class people, breaking the boundaries of what was expected of them to delve into the cultural leisure activities such as art and theatre that was normally for the middle and upper class. I believe that because Phyllis was given such opportunities, that her and her family were significantly more privileged and respected within the community they lived within. The leisure that Phyllis was involved in would also have been very important in shaping her own personal views on life and her own self, as they would have been character building, improving her confidence as a working-class female which enabled her to do extremely well in the world of work and family life.


(Example of a similar theatre pageant Phyllis would have taken part in)



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