Family life in the early phases of the 20th century was a daily battle for Britain’s working class. Harold Gill’s experience was no different. His memoir tells us how even commodities as essential as food were hard to come by: ‘Very little imagination was needed to vary the diet – it was either chips or mash’ (Pg.3). Survival was dependent on a strong sense of community and neighbourliness, which Harold describes as an ‘eleventh commandment’ (Pg.3). But in spite of the struggles that Harold and his family faced, he reminisces on his childhood with a cheerful tone, and looks back with fondness.
As Harold’s memoir progresses, different relationships within the family are explored and unearthed. He speaks about how he and his sister would argue over being the ‘7th child of a 7th child’. And he tells us how he sneakily tricked his youngest brother into helping him fly a kite: ‘I think I bribed him by promising him an ice-cream cone if he came’ (Pg.7). All of these memories are recalled with humour and jest, and so it is clear that Harold had strong relationships with his siblings.
Harold draws particular focus to his relationship with his mother. He remembers how she would skilfully refashion ‘hand-me-downs’ and ‘cleverly disguise’ them ‘as to defy detection’ (Pg.3). These domestic skills were vital for working-class families like Harold’s to get by. Bourke writes: ‘the increased prosperity of working-class households from the late nineteenth century was created not only by higher wages, but also by improved housewifery’. Harold clearly still feels a strong bond with his mother, even writing in the present day he refers to her simply as ‘mother’. The mother and son affinity is really epitomised though in the final part of the memoir. Harold returns home from war and the reunion with his mother is ‘too sacred to print’ (Pg.68). It is apparent that distance, time and the trauma of war could not dilute the love that Harold and his mother shared.
The relationship between Harold and his father is quite different though. From the memoir we can deduce that is a hardened relationship but a loving one nonetheless. Harold writes: ‘A most welcome voice, without a trace of emotion, and un-accompanied by hand-shake, or other physical contact’ (Pg.68). Harold’s father is typical of a working-class fatherly figure in the 20th century. He masks his emotions well, not even revealing a chink in his armour at his own son’s return from war. Harold doesn’t reveal much about his father, but he does recall how he often struggled for brick-laying work and endured a ‘life-time of imbibing alcoholic beverages’ (Pg.68). This was the case for many blue-collar working men in the 1900s. With the burden of a hungry family and the unreliability of manual work, the pub was a welcome escape from the hardships of life. In The Classic Slum, Robert Roberts proposes that ‘fear was the leitmotif of [working-class] lives, dulled only now and then by the Dutch courage gained from drunkenness’ (Pg.88). Although Harold looks back with pleasant memories, his father’s drinking habits perhaps reflect the adversities of working-class life.
Harold learns important values and lessons from his family life, and carries them with him through the horrors of war. He offers to help his friend Sam ‘find the Japs who had beaten him, and mete out the same treatment’ (Pg.35). Clearly, there is a sense of loyalty and fellowship bred into him by his hometown community. Steedman suggests that ‘class is a learned position, learned in childhood, and often through the exigencies of difficult and lonely lives’ (Pg.13). These working-class values are taught by his friends and family, and remain pillars of Harold’s character throughout the memoir.
Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity. London: Routledge, 1994
Gill, Harold, Untitled, TS, pp.66 (c. 31,000 words). Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. Brunel University Library, July 1987, 2:316
Roberts, Robert. The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1973.
Steedman, Carolyn. Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. London: Virago, 1986
Image of ‘1920s Housewife’. Accessed 05/03/2019.
Image of ‘Drinking in the 1930s’. Accessed 05/03/2019.