Hillingdon Literary Festival takes place on Friday 6 – Sunday 8 October 2017, with a theme of Ordinary people – exceptional lives. There’s a whole weekend of activities planned, and Special Collections will be playing a part on Saturday 7 October with a workshop on life writing and Special Collections.
We’ll be exploring life writing using autobiographies from the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. You can explore other creative writing ideas using Special Collections in other posts on this blog.
You can book your place here on any of this weekend’s workshops.
When she was ten years old, May Owen (b. 1895) moved with her family to a small mining village near Sheffield, in South Yorkshire. In an autobiographical letter she wrote some seventy years later, she still vividly remembered her initial shock at a particular custom in the community: “If a woman misbehaved herself,” she wrote, “the colliers used to perform a certain act. They would take a large barrow, build an effigy of the woman and wheel it round the parish, and stones and mud would be thrown.”
I believe this account fits well with what most people imagine sex and gender relations to have been like in Yorkshire in the early twentieth century. Within popular imagination, Yorkshire working-class culture, with its industrial history and its mining and steel workers’ communities, conjures an image of sexual conservatism and gender antagonism. While this image may correspond to reality in some parts of Yorkshire at the time, this generalisation also obscures a great deal of variation in experiences and behaviours. Helen Smith’s recent book on same-sex desire between working-class men in the north of England in the first half of the twentieth century provides a much needed antidote to these kinds of generalising assumptions. As Smith also explained in a NOTCHES post, work, region, and class defined working-class masculinity in a way that was not incompatible with casual sex with other men.
As I was reading surviving personal stories of Yorkshire working-class women who lived in the early twentieth century (most of which came from the valuable Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies), I was faced with accounts of gender relations and sexuality that ranged from very conservative, patriarchal attitudes, to far less rigidly policed sexual experimentation. After all, ‘Yorkshire working-class women’ were in no way part of a homogeneous group, and just as their lives were shaped by their work, gender, class, and region, so too were their sexual lives. For this reason, I argue that looking at occupational patterns and cultures, and exploring their impact on gender and sexuality, can shed light on these overlooked variations and forgotten experiences, and contribute to a better understanding of working-class sexuality in the past.
If we take the example of mining communities, as well as towns organised around heavy industry such as Sheffield or Middlesbrough, what we get is a picture of a primarily male-dominated culture. An all-male working and social environment fostered a culture of virility, which depended on the systematic exclusion of women and a patriarchal social structure. Men did not see their spouses as companions with whom they could discuss ideas, and preferred the company of their mates. In this context, it is possible, as some historians have suggested, that husbands and wives lacked the tools to communicate on issues such as birth control. And yet, this does not mean that women refrained from sexual experimentation before marriage: a young Bessie Wallis (b. 1904) once warned her older brother, “You’ll be in trouble with Pops if you land a lassie with a bairn!”, only to be answered by the fifteen year-old that, “[t]he lasses egg us on. (…) Anyhow, they like it.”
Towns organised around mills and factories, and in particular textile towns such as Bradford and Leeds, provide an interesting contrast. While it was commonly expected that women would leave the workforce after marriage, economic necessity meant that they tended to stay longer in employment. The higher rates of female full-time employment produced a female occupational culture that shaped sexuality and gender relations in different ways. For instance, because most women worked the double-shift of wage and domestic labour, they supported access to birth control. The workplace also facilitated the creation of informal networks of information and emotional support for women. Mrs. Brown (b. 1895), from York, remembered how her mother told her that there was “[n]o need to tell girls anything,” as they would get to know all they wanted when they started working at Rowntree’s factory.
In the mills and factories, women usually worked alongside men, which created different possibilities, as well as potential dangers. Workers engaged in courting and sexual play, and remembered weddings of pregnant brides as a matter of fact. At the same time, anxieties about male predators and the consequences of sexual promiscuity also fed into this female occupational culture. Maggie Newbery, who was twelve years old when she started working in a mill in Bradford in 1913, recounted in her autobiography how “Old Harriet” warned her on her first day to be careful around machinery, and “cheeky buggers.”
Female solidarity against sexual exploitation sometimes took on extreme forms. The Bradford mill girls, in particular, were renowned for their sexual aggressiveness. The tradition of ‘sunning,’ a ritual form of sexual humiliation, was one of the ways in which these women used their sexuality to reverse the power relations which put them at risk of sexual harassment. J.B. Priestley, who lived in Bradford before the war, remembered in his memoir, Margin Released, how he felt intimidated by the crowd of loud women leaving the mill on his way home from work: “something (…) would set them screaming at me, and what I heard then, though I was never a prudish lad, made my cheeks burn. And it was still the custom (…) for the women to seize a newly-arrived lad and ‘sun’ him, that is, pull his trousers down and reveal his genitals.”
These accounts could be compared with those of farming villages in the countryside, where “everyone knew everyone else’s business,” or with port towns such as Hull, with the infamous reputation of the docks and their sailors and casual prostitutes. It would be impossible to go through an exhaustive list here, of course, but my point is that because sexuality never happens in a socioeconomic vacuum, the study of working-class sexuality can gain much from a regional approach, which allows us to get a richer understanding of these people’s concerns, opportunities, and experiences. Engaging with social history by looking at occupational patterns and cultures can be one way of producing a more nuanced account of sexual attitudes in the past.
Claire Martin is a PhD candidate in modern history at the University of Leeds. Her thesis focuses on Yorkshire working-class women c.1900-1940 and examines the relationships between knowledge and experience in relation to menstruation, sex, pregnancy, and menopause. She tweets from @claireplmartin
12 May, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth, is International Nurses’ Day, when people around the world celebrate the contribution that nurses make to society. We thought we would join in by sharing a story from our Special Collections about nurse training in the past.
A few of the autobiographies in our Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies recount experiences of nursing, including that of a male nurse in the 1930-50s, plus women who worked as nurses and housemaids at different times in their lives. This post will focus on Winifred Relph, who was born in 1912.
Winifred worked firstly as a housemaid after leaving school, then as a nurserymaid. She tried applying for nurse training at several London hospitals, but was told that her education wasn’t good enough, and advised to try small, provincial hospitals instead. Eventually she was accepted for training at Todworth General Hospital on the borders of Kent/Sussex.
As a probationer nurse she earned a salary of £20 a year and also had to supply much of her uniform, including:
14 linen aprons
6 stiff linen collars
6 stiff linen cuffs
black woollen stockings
flat laceup black shoes
She lived on-site in the Nurses’ Home and shared a room with another probationer. Nurses’ rooms were inspected by the matron and expected to be kept as neat as on the ward. In the evenings the senior nurses played the piano and sang in the nurses’ sitting room.
She describes some of her typical tasks, such as starting each day with making thirty beds, with 90 seconds allowed for each bed (including removing the patient from it and putting them back again!). Nurses worked 12 hour shifts, including two hours off each day and three meal breaks. After six months of learning practical skills on the wards (Winifred worked on both the Children’s and Men’s wards) lectures on nursing theory were started, but unfortunately Winifred never got this far, as she became ill with acute rheumatism and was unable to carry on nursing.
Nursing only forms a small part of Winifred’s autobiography. You can find out more about different aspects of her life and writing at Writing Lives. Find out more about our other autobiographies on this blog.
One of the Burnett collection of working-class autobiographies held at Brunel is that of William Belcher (1884 – 1961). He served in the Navy 1903 – 8 and 1914-19, and was an electrician from 1919 onwards. Much of the interest in his autobiography lies in the supporting documents that accompany the notebooks: his school certificates, shorthand qualifications, and his naval career record.
Here are a selection of the documents in question, giving insights not just into Mr Belcher’s history but into the history of education and into the record-keeping of the Royal Navy.
The collection of documents on Norah Elliott is number 2:242 in the Burnett collection of working-class autobiographies, held in Special Collections.
Norah was born into the Pilch family in 1903, and writes of her early life and her memories of her grandparents. Disaster struck in 1913 when her father was drowned; the family went to the workhouse, and Norah was adopted. She recalls her work as a teacher, and her life in Australia, sending food parcels home to her siblings in the UK, during the second world war.
Norah’s poem on her Aunt Susan
Her file includes several handwritten workings not only of her own story, but also of substantial research by her and other family members into her family history. The writing is interspersed with maps, copies of primary sources, family trees, and poetry by Norah, and accompanied by original documents including a birth certificate, a union card, and burial records.
Another interesting aspect of this collection is the insight given into Norah’s writing and editing process: there are several drafts, with footnotes and amendments, and a few comments on the writing process. A late diary entry states “I’ve finished last night’s crossword and got up to date with this mish-mash. I don’t think I want to read what I’ve written”. She may not have wanted to, but the file is well worth reading.
The Burnett archive of working class autobiographies is home to over 230 items. These range broadly in format, content and timespan. The archive documents the lives of working class people in England, Wales and Scotland between 1790 -1945. The autobiographies vary from verse like Kathleen Hilton-Foord’s thirty-six page Grannie’s Girl to extensive prose like James H. Mackenzie’s Strange Truth: the autobiography of a circus, showman, stage & exhibition Man. McKenzie’s 50,000 handwritten words include a contents page so you can flick easily to one of the many “weird, pathetic, amusing, tragic and informative incidents” in his life.
But just as interesting as Mckenzie’s promise of outlandish stories are the accounts of people with less exotic occupations such as Charles Lewis Hansford’s Diary of a Bricklayer, 52,000 words on the construction industry, life in different towns, pubs, trade unionism, the London lockout of 1914 and unemployment. Dig a little deeper in the collection and you find much more fragmentary and brief, but still fascinating, accounts.
One such account is that of Alice M. Collis, written in retrospect about a strike at a printing firm in 1911. Collis writes “I’ve often wondered if I was the youngest trade union representative ever”. At 15, she began working on envelope machines for low pay. Two years into working at the unnamed firm, Collis along with “other girls” who worked on the machines decided to go on strike “although [they] had no idea what this would mean”.
The girls did not belong to any trade union but soon received support from the compositor’s union once word had gotten around the firm about the strike, and then from Mary MacArthur, an important figure in the labour movement. The direct action resulted in a 50% pay rise for the girls. Following their success, they formed a branch of the National Federation of Women Workers (the general women’s union founded by MacArthur 3 years earlier), with a 17 year old Collis being elected as their representative.
The Burnett archive contains many first-hand accounts of the development of the labour movement in England, told by workers, people who, like Collis, are often left out of mainstream historical narratives. The archive is a valuable resource where you will also find details of people’s domestic lives, insights into the popular culture of the time, descriptions of factory and farm work as well as people’s experiences of unemployment and poverty, stories that might otherwise go untold.
Earlier this year, postgraduate students from Brunel University London’s Creative Writing and Creative Writing: The Novel masters courses did some work in the Special Collections section of Brunel Library. This was part of a module called ‘Writers at Work’ (EN5540) which explores creative writing projects in education and in the community, giving students the skills needed to design, run and evaluate writing workshops and other activities, as well as exploring the opportunities that exist for writers in educational and other contexts, such as archival research and residencies. The module is taught by Tony White, author of novels including Foxy-T (Faber and Faber) and visiting lecturer at Brunel. White has also been writer in residence at the Science Museum and Leverhulme Trust writer in residence at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
Brunel Library’s Special Collections is located on the top floor of the library, and is home to a varied range of collections, used by undergraduate and postgraduate students and to support teaching. They cover a wide range of subject areas, including transport history, the Channel Tunnel, poetry and dialect, equality and advocacy and South Asian literature, art, theatre and music. You can read descriptions of them on the Collections page.
For ‘Writers at Work’, the creative writing postgraduates focused on the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, which contains,
over 230 autobiographies. […] The criteria for inclusion were: the writers were working class for at least part of their lives; they wrote in English; and they lived for some time in England, Scotland or Wales between 1790 and 1945.
The Burnett Archive is a fascinating resource, and the autobiographies that it contains are rich in day-to-day detail of family lives and relationships, expressive language and dialects, and the gritty realities of poverty and working class lives in the UK during the 19th and 20th centuries. Here you might find a tale of running away to join the circus, or a grim account of institutional life and injustice that might have made Dickens blanch. The Burnett Archive provides unique source material for Brunel researchers like Claire Lynch from the Department of Arts and Humanities who has written about the lives revealed in these manuscripts. For Lynch, “the Burnett Archive is one of Brunel’s treasures, I’m impressed each year by the innovative approaches our students take to the letters, diaries and memoirs held here.” Sociologists and historians from across the UK and beyond have also drawn on the archive. One excellent example of this is the Writing Lives project by students at Liverpool John Moores University. For Tony White, the opportunity to introduce creative writing postgraduates to the Burnett Archive is also a reminder that working class and other marginalised voices are often excluded from literature and mainstream culture.
By using creative writing as their research method for the ‘Writers at Work’ module, Brunel postgraduates have been able to respond to the literary qualities of these historical texts, but also to use them as the inspiration for new pieces of creative writing, which in turn might offer opportunities to create new kinds of insights and focus, as well as finding new ways to relate the historical accounts to contemporary life. In the selection of stories offered here, Samreen Shah’s powerful ‘Madam Button Queen’ connects experiences of the 19th century textile industries to garment factory workers in contemporary Bangladesh, while in ‘Home for Friendless Girls’ and ‘Market Night’, Lucy Jane Gonzalez and Suzanne Bavington-Drew respectively offer dark tales of orphanage life, and of domestic violence in the shadows of the old Smithfield Market. Laura Brown uses the epistolary form—letters—to allow a young female character called Maggie to tell her own story of the harsh consequences of a brief love affair. Reflecting on the process, Laura writes:
Working with the archives was really interesting. Throughout my degree we’ve read fictional pieces and responded to them in creative ways, but this is the first time we’d had the chance to engage with real people’s stories, and it meant that the work we created somehow felt more personal and more meaningful. It was a great experience and I’d like to try it again in the future.
Students’ engagements with the Burnett Archive can also be irreverent and playful, as in this excerpt of a longer prose poem by Chukwunonso Ibe, a ‘joy full roasting’ inspired by Edward Baker’s untitled account of his life in the 1920s (Vol. No. 2:865):
You can read a selection of the Creative Writing postgraduate students’ stories here (all works are copyright the authors, and all rights reserved):
Lucy Jane Gonzalez, ‘Home for Friendless Girls’
The ones I love aren’t here anymore. I’d like to say they passed at the end of long, fulfilled lives, but that is not so. They were taken unjustly. As for me… [VIEW/DOWNLOAD PDF]
Laura Brown, ‘Letters from Maggie’
Joe, I miss the mornings we used to spend together. Mother says you left for a job in the city and I’m so very happy that you found employment, even if it is… [VIEW/DOWNLOAD PDF]
Samreen Shah, ‘Madam Button Queen’
My name is Nabila and I am 10 years old. I used to live in Khulna, my village, but four years ago we came to Dhaka. We came to make money. My baba says that one day… [VIEW/DOWNLOAD PDF]
Suzanne Bavington-Drew, ‘Market Night’
It was Sunday night. Johnny wouldn’t sleep. He never did, not with the racket going on outside. It was so loud he couldn’t even hear the… [VIEW/DOWNLOAD PDF]