Wilhelmina Tobias: An Evaluation – Writing Lives

Wilhelmina Tobias: An Evaluation

Choosing a working class memoir to write about from the entry in the Burnett working class archive was challenging to say the least. The entry gives a small summary of the author with a few details about the interests and activities, occupations mentioned, and main themes and references. Combined with the fact that we were the second year group to look at the working class memoirs, this resulted in a limited choice and, with little to go on, resulted in my choice of Wilhelmina Tobias.


Her entry in the collection reads:

Tobias, Wilhelmina, ‘Childhood Memories’, MS pp.22 (c, 5,000 words). Brunel University Library.

Born 1904 in Wallsend. Father a shipyard worker. 1 younger brother. Started school at age 4. No mention of marriage. Lived in Newcastle upon Tyne for period covered by the narrative and still living there later in life.

No details of occupations.

No details of interests or activities.

Childhood memories from the period leading up to World War I, with recollections of being victimised at school due to her father’s socialist politics; customs (new dresses at Easter and ‘pace-egging’); the Coronation celebrations of 1910; itinerant traders, singers and entertainers; gas lighting; visits by ‘the midden man’; washdays; ironing days and baking days; the role of women (‘… in all our working class neighbourhood I never knew one mother who went out to work …’); children’s games; the cinema; Sunday School treats; schooling and discipline; policing; christenings, weddings and funerals.”


Although there are no details on occupation or activities or interests, I felt that there would be enough interesting information, especially on the topics of social class and politics due to the prominent mention of being victimised in school due to her father’s socialist politics.


I found this not to be the case and instead found a description of the life in a community, one which was lived as part of a collective. Ship building provided the male populace with plentiful employment opportunities for unskilled and skilled labourers whilst wives and daughters ran the household. A factor in my choosing of Wilhelmina was the fact that she was female. Wilhelmina lived in a revolutionary time for young women, and in fact the period covered by the memoir coincides with the inception and activism of the suffragette movement. Despite the correlation between the two time periods, there is no mention of the suffragettes in Wilhelmina’s memoir and so was another blow.


Despite these setbacks I was able to uncover a connection between an air raid described by Wilhelmina and a famous raid by a zeppelin on Newcastle at the beginning of the war. Taking small elements of the memoir and being able to expand upon them within a blog post was something that I enjoyed immensely. I was able to do this on a number of occasions thanks to the content of the memoir including researching penny theatres and film serials with famous movie stars.


Overall, I felt it was difficult to get a real connection with Wilhelmina. This was mainly due to the impersonal writing style and also the content included within the memoir. It reads more of a recollection of memories and events from her childhood and as a result lacks any personal insight or reasoning. In many ways this is a trope of the unskilled writer, one which was always likely to be present in the memoirs of a working class author, however due to the time period and subjects covered I felt that this was not as much of a problem as it could have been when analysing it.

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