Mary Denison (1906-1997): Home and Family (2/2) – Writing Lives

Mary Denison (1906-1997): Home and Family (2/2)

‘Did the baby come last night? – with the unbelievable statement that the baby had indeed come but had died’ (53).

Mary Denison’s memoir Church Bells and Tram Cars: A Vicarage Childhood is enriched with details about her childhood home and her family life. In my last blog post I wrote about how I would be splitting this topic into two posts. Last week I looked closely at the home that Mary grew up in and how this shaped her life. However, this week’s blog post will look at the family that she shared this home with and how her family had shaped the person that she became. Mary talks about her family throughout the memoir in a positive way, but what Mary’s memoir lacks is detail about her family beyond her childhood. One source which looked at the absence of detail is David Vincent. Vincent notes that ‘At first glance the most striking characteristic of the autobiographers’ treatment of their family experience is not what is said but rather what is not said’ (1980,226). Vincent says that as a researcher we can investigate why an author chose to limit their writing to one time period and what the gaps in narrative say about the author. One example of how Mary has gaps in her memoir is that she never reveals her parents’ names. I believe that this is because she writes her memoir from her childhood perspective, a time that her parents went only by the name of ‘mother and father’.

Charles Marshall death record taken from

Mary starts off her chapter on family by talking about her father, Charles C Marshall. Charles Marshall was the vicar at St Chad’s vicarage and dedicated the majority of his time to religion and to his parish. Mary comments on how her father was different to other fathers she knew. Mary said that ‘for most children, father leaves the house in the morning for his work, and returns in the evening – weekends expected, of course. It’s a different matter, however, if your father happens to be the Vicar.’ (9). Mary here is referring to the fact that her father’s job as a vicar meant that he was absent on the weekends, restricting their time together. This section is the only time that we read about Mary’s father and this has made me wonder why. I believe that Mary intended to mirror the absence of her father during her childhood through the absence of him in her memoir.

Image of Charles Marshall. Provided by

However, over the course of this research project I have been in correspondence with the St Chad’s church in Leeds. They have informed me that Mary’s father was also known as Canon Marshall. Canon Marshall remarried to a Miss L K Bowling after Mary’s mother Ethelred died in 1946. This has potential connotations that Mary and her father had a strained relationship following her mother’s death and this is reflected in his absence of him throughout her memoir.

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Taken from the twitter site

Mary then goes on to tell readers about her mother, Ethelred Hope Marshall. Ethelred’s maiden name was Havelock, and this became Mary’s middle name. When I first saw this, I thought that it was unique to have a mother’s maiden name as a middle name. However, another writer on this site, Beti Thomas, also discovered that her author had also done this for her children. It is possible that this was considered popular during the 19th/20th century. However, Mary’s mother differs from others on the Writing Lives site as she was originally born in India and moved to the United Kingdom as a young girl, making her a unique character in Mary’s memoir.

As previously mentioned, Ethelred died in 1946 and this reflects in the way that Mary speaks about her mother. For example, ‘mother – did you realise how beautiful she was?’ (9).  In addition to this, Mary also makes a comment on the clothing that her mother wore and how ‘you remember her blouses with huge sleeves narrowing to the wrist, and dresses falling to the ankles from a trip waist’ (10). I have interpreted Mary’s description of her mother as being a tribute to her as she reflects not only on her clothing but also on her appreciation of her mother’s beauty. This has connotations that Mary has chosen to remember and reflect on her mother’s presence in her life.

A copy of Charles and Ethelred’s marriage records. Taken from

However, Mary does engage with another side of her mother’s personality as she talks about the ghost stories that her mother used to share with her. I found this particularly interesting as Mary’s father was incredibly religious and I would expect that talk about the supernatural would be frowned upon in such a religious home. However, I believe that it is Ethelred’s background in India that allowed Mary to hear about the supernatural through the folklore that Ethelred was taught as a child. I think this is one of the most interesting aspects of Mary’s family life as she had two contrasting parents, one who focused heavily upon religion and another who, although religious, had opened a world of the supernatural into Mary’s life.

Mary briefly mentions that she had four younger siblings but never talks about them in her memoir. However, Mary does talk about how she remembers a period of time in which her mother was pregnant and how one night she was awoken to cries and panic within the house. The following day Mary asked the nurse, ‘Did the baby come last night? – with the unbelievable statement that the baby had indeed come but had died’ (53). The baby had died during childbirth. Mary goes further to describe how ‘the little coffin was carried up to church for the burial service while you were at school’ (54). This to a modern reader is a shocking revelation. However, throughout my research I have discovered that this was traditionally the way in which death through childbirth was handled. Tragically the death rate for children was incredibly high due to the poor health care. Therefore, still births became a common feature within the family households.

Despite Mary never revealing details about her siblings, I have been able to discover facts about one sibling, Michael Marshall. Through I have been informed that there is a memorial outside the church revealing that Michael Marshall was killed in action in World War Two. Therefore, I believe that the absence of Michael within the memoir is down to the fact that Mary found it difficult to reflect on her siblings as it reminded her of how much she had lost.

Overall, Mary includes no detail about her home or family life beyond her childhood. David Vincent said ‘when autobiographers were faced with the challenge of writing about the more intense and private incidents in their emotional lives, their command of language frequently proved inadequate’ (1980, 227). If we apply Vincent’s argument to Mary’s memoir it is arguable that Mary chose not to address her family life beyond childhood as this was a greater challenge for her. To go beyond childhood would mean that Mary would have to address the death of her parents and brother Michael. It is easier to focus on the happier memories from her childhood than to dwell or reflect on the tougher times in her adult life.

Works cited.

Denison, Mary. ‘Church Bells and Tram Cars; a Vicarage Childhood’. Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection.

 ‘Mary Denison’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:250

Vincent, David. (1980). ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2.

Images cited.

Image taken from

Image taken from Twitter page

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