MOLLY KEEN (B.1903): LIFE & LABOUR – Writing Lives


As with the majority of the other themes within her memoir, Molly Keen details more of the working lives of her immediate and extended family than her own. Information of her career path is included but unfortunately is minimal. However, we are able to grasp a sense of the ambitious work ethic shared by various family members as well as the necessity to work together and help each other out in times of difficulty and need, reinforcing the strong familial bonds between the members of the Keen family.

From the information provided in her memoir, I would describe Molly’s family as being upper working-class. With the omission of any family members struggling in poverty and no mention of any of the Keens ever having been in the workhouse or worked in manufacturing, which would have been very common for working-class families at this time, we can conclude that Molly’s family were in a more comfortable, stable position than the lower working-class families of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, this lifestyle did not come without hard work or effort.

Molly’s father, a master Sign Writer, “trained for career prior to marriage.”(p.1) Working long hours and travelling far to and from work on a push bicycle, demonstrates commitment and dedication to his job. He was a positive role model for his children to aspire to: a family man devoted to his wife and children, doing all that he can to provide as much as possible within their circumstances. I assume that Molly and her siblings acquired their ambition from their hard-working father, and mother who worked continuously and efficiently within the home despite suffering from “much ill health” (p.1).

Moreover, as well as being “very clever at graining” (p.1), Molly’s father “did work in local churches both Roman Catholic and Protestant,” (p.1) on one occasion completing work in Westminster Cathedral. This demonstrates his heart for serving others within the community, regardless of their religion.

Westminster Cathedral in the 1950s. Molly Keen's father, Charles Keen completed work here occassionally.
Westminster Cathedral in the 1950s. Molly Keen’s father, Charles Keen completed work here occassionally.

Both Molly’s parents were active voluntary workers: her father also volunteered for the Red Cross and worked at West Middlesex hospital on top of his signwriting job; during the war her mother took in soldiers and “cared for them as if her own”p.27). This work or what could be called acts of service is key not only to their identities but also to Molly’s identity. Undoubtedly influenced by her parents compassion for others and contribution to society, Molly later goes on to embark on a nursing career, attending to others following the example of her parents.

With regards to class identity, Molly is aware that she is in the fortunate position of being more secure than the lower working-class families, but is less privileged than the middle classes. Her consciousness of poorer families is formed by the admirable occupations of her father and relatives: her paternal grandfather having his own undertaking business; three of her uncles establishing their own undertaking businesses; her maternal grandfather David Higgs producing goods for Covent Garden; and her brother who inherited her father’s natural talent for signwriting, becoming a Sign Writer upon returning from the war.

David Higgs - Grandparent market gardener
David Higgs, Molly Keen’s maternal grandfather who was a market producer and owned over 50 acres on the Bath Road.
Lydia Higgs - grandparent - wife of David
Molly Keen’s maternal grandmother Lydia Higgs; wife of David Higgs.

All of Molly’s close and extended family appear to have been very hard-working and keen to use their assets and skills to provide a noble upbringing and satisfactory lifestyle for their children. Her cousin Albert Edward Ray, “the first-born child of Albert Edward Ray, mineral water maker and Emily Grace Higgs, market gardener, living on Staines Rd near Hounslow, Middlesex”[1], was privileged in being “well placed”[2] in society. His parents were fortunate as the growth of London meant that the demand for food and drink was increasing, so their market garden and mineral business flourished. Therefore, class is related to labour and the ability of Molly’s father and the other men within the family circle to be able to provide for their families.


Albert & Emily Ray
Albert and Emily Ray, Molly’s aunt and uncle; the parents of Albert, Sid and Doll Ray.
Molly Keen's cousins Albert, SId and Doll Ray were able to wear the fashion of the day.
Molly Keen’s cousins Albert, SId and Doll Ray were able to wear the fashion of the day.


Molly’s home in Hounslow was a mixed class community but which was dominated by the working class. The main forms of employment for working-class people in the area were industrial work; craftsmen; retailers; bakers; metalsmiths; goldsmiths; ironmongers; saddlers and “corn and seed merchants” (p.11)

A trade card for John Appleton, a Hounslow metalsmith and retail ironmonger.
An advertisement for Crisp’s, a Hounslow draper’s shop.
Robinsons of Feltham High Street, 1849-1960’s. A craftsman’s business for a horse-drawn era.
In 1891 William Whiteley bought Butts Farm and Glebe Farm at Hanworth and turned them into model farms supplying produce to his London store.


As much as Molly appreciated having a profession in a period where women were more than likely expected to remain at home and keep the home in working order, Molly soon realised at the railway she was not “finding work interesting or satisfying” (p.30). An ambitious character with a daring but wise mind-set, having given it much thought and deliberation, Molly decided a nursing career was what excited her. Perhaps Molly was influenced by the positive effects of the First World War for women. The “War had given women a more prominent status in society and increased expectations of what was open to them.”[3],Therefore, many women swapped poorly paid domestic jobs for better wages in factories and services. Furthermore, “increased demands on the medical services due to the heavy casualties of war saw a huge increase in the numbers of women involved in nursing work.””[4], It is evident that Molly took advantage of the fact that women were gaining more social freedom and able to choose more ambitious careers. However, prior to commencing her nursing training at West Middlesex Hospital, Isleworth, she remained at the railway for another two years, enabling her “to save some money first,” (p.34) knowing she’d earn practically nothing during period of training. Molly chooses to conclude her entire memoir by stating how she “commenced on nursing career in March 1926 and found great satisfaction in the work” (p35).

Although the subject of work and labour may not seem as central to the memoir as her home life or her education and experiences at different schools, the fact that the memoir ends with Molly remarking on her career implies the importance of work within her life. With the first mention of her new career ambition to be a nurse surfacing after the death of her mother, I think Molly developed a new focus and purpose in life. Her work and labour was of great significance given that it enabled Molly to proceed and advance in life after mourning the death of her mother.


Image 2:

Image 3:

Image 4:

Image 5:















Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.