Phyllis L. Buss (1902): Life & Labour – Writing Lives

Phyllis L. Buss (1902): Life & Labour

“I really was a good one for doing all kinds of work, some for pay and many more for the joy of it.” (p2)


Phyllis L. Buss describes her life in relation to labour and work throughout her memoir, from childhood to adulthood, from her own job roles to that of her family members. Although Phyllis’ family are of a working class background, her portrayal of her childhood shows how they were a privileged family due to her father’s career as a member of the Fire Brigade and motorman for the Merryweather fire engine. Her family do not seem to be battling against extreme poverty, nor are they very wealthy; they just manage to keep above the poverty level. The house she lived in was available for her family to occupy as an addition to her father’s job, they ‘lived in a three storied house in the centre of town’, Phyllis described how this was ‘our privilege to be tenants in one of the three houses a few spaces from the Fire station’ (p1), where the children of the street ‘seemed to get pleasures that lots of children did not’ (p2). In the Northampton Fire Brigade Handbook, it states that ‘paid personnel were to reside at or near the engine house…firemen were to live in Dychurch Lane, The Riding, Wood Street and other nearby streets’[1]. From the 1911 census I have discovered that the Driver family did actually live at 5 Dychurch Lane, Northampton, a dwelling with 5 rooms. The handbook also suggests that for the position of a fireman, the job pays ’27/- per week’ (shillings), paid quarterly per year, in comparison to the ’42/6 that the Superintendent of the Police that worked with the fire services would receive. ‘Before decimalisation on 15 February 1971, there were 20 shillings per pound’[2], and so Phyllis’ father earned the equivalent of just over £1 per week!

Inside Fire Station

(Inside Dychurch Lane Fire Station)

Being a member of the fire brigade would have given the Driver family, especially her father Harry, a certain amount of respectability within the community. His labour is providing a skill that is significantly for the purpose of keeping members of the public safe, preventing fires and saving lives. Therefore, labour becomes a source of pride for the Driver family, solidarity within the community and although they are of working class, the public would have a level of admiration for their sacrifices for the wider neighbourhood. This is reflected in the way that Phyllis writes about her father and his job role, through her descriptions of her happy childhood, playing around the engines and with the other fire men.


(Merryweather & Sons Fire Engine)

It was apparent during the 19th and 20th century that families were only able to earn just enough to survive. Having no disposable income, all family members including children and the elderly had to contribute to the income and upkeep of the family household. Phyllis endeavors to describe the voluntary and paid work she experiences throughout her life, even though she does not express her family to be majorly struggling, it is evident that contribution from able family members was essential.

In her childhood, Phyllis describes how she, ‘at the tender age of ten was allowed to go errands’ (p2), especially for the elderly, collecting materials they required for their craft like corset making, or picking up medicines. She mentions how her pay was ‘goods in lieu of ready cash’ (p3), she received sweets and sometimes substantial food such as freshly cooked ham for her family. This shows how even from a young age she was given responsibilities to bring in some form of income, in the form of food, to the household for the family. She notes how her Grandma would keep it secret that she ran these errands for goods; ‘we did not wish that folk could think us too poor to buy the best’ (p3). This shows Phyllis’ understanding of her class, as she was aware that being given these jobs to partake at such a ‘tender’ age was due to the fact that they were of working class and required every bit of help, although it was kept a secret how she was being paid as they were conscious that others would look down upon them. It is evident that the Driver family tried to avoid alienation from the bourgeoisie, or just other members of the public as the father had a respectable, public-based job with a certain image to uphold. The census also describes how her brother, at the age of 15, also had a paid job as an office boy at an engineering company, yet her mother did not work. The ages of the other younger children make it obvious that her mother stayed at home to take care of the children, and so her brother was required to earn income for the household instead. This was a common occurrence in the 19th and 20th century for working class families.

After school, Phyllis describes numerous job roles that she had partaken in. She firstly goes into a career of a seamstress, as she states she had ‘always been interested in sewing’ (p8). She worked at the Brook Factory, making ‘ladies flouncy petticoats for the sum of one shilling and sixpence’ (p8) for every dozen that she was able to produce. She prides herself in the fact that she was ‘one of the fastest workers’ (p8) amongst her colleagues, an she obviously felt a lot of job satisfaction from this role as she coins the phrase ‘earning and learning at the same time’! (p8). She then follows, during the onset of the First World War, to another indoor job in a shop, where she learns all about credits and rationing; ‘I learned alot about the ways of life then and how some money was made easily to come by’ (p9). Next, she felt as though an outdoor job would benefit her, and so began delivering Telegrams from fighting soldiers to their families for the Post Office. She becomes emotionally involved during this job role, as she realises that some of the telegrams would bring unfortunate news of death and injury. Her final occupation listed in the memoir is of Handbag and Wallet making, where she met her best friend, the lady that was training her in leather work. She tells how when old expensive handbags came in to be refurbished, ‘we wondered what kind of stories these would tell of their owners if that could have been possible’ (p11). Phyllis does not simply just complete tasks set for her, but uses her imagination, becoming emotionally involved with customers and colleagues she is introduced to.

Factory - Leather

(example of the inside of a Leatherwork factory, Northampton, 1900c)

It seems as though Phyllis did not stay in a certain position for long, she transfers from indoor to outdoor jobs to experience different types of work that women could partake in during the 20th century. She obviously developed as a person from the different positions she found herself in, as opportunities arose for her to take on extra learning out of work hours, an she learnt from the customers she served and her fellow colleagues, giving her life experience that is reflected in how highly she speaks of her own children’s careers towards the end of the memoir; Brenda who was her ‘pride and joy’ (p12) chose the nursing profession and trained to be a midwife, delivering children in an African Hospital. Her second daughter got a degree in art at Northampton and Bristol College, and taught at the Wiggidon Girls School at Leicester and at a school in London.

Phyllis’ upbringing was obviously more privileged than other individuals working class memoirs that I have come across. During her childhood her family was lucky enough to live in housing especially kept for members of the Fire Brigade, and throughout her life it seems that she was ambitious and financially stable enough to switch from different job roles that she wanted to experience. Her children, going to a respectable school and given the opportunity to work in Africa, shows that they were of the higher financial proportion of the working class.






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