Tag Archives: autobiography

Industrial heritage month: urban housing

A blog post by Emma Smith, history student and Special Collections volunteer.

In light of our focus on Urban Environment as part of the 2018 Industrial Heritage theme months, we have delved into our records here at Brunel Special Collections in pursuit of details about urban housing. One common theme present throughout the majority of records is the sheer variation in accommodation: the juxtaposition of the slums and poor institutions of the penniless, and the mansions and townhouses of the affluent, accentuates the considerable difference in housing within urban localities.

Mckenzie slum to mansion

‘It was a complete transition from slum to mansion’ – extract from McKenzie 1:473

James McKenzie’s account emphasises the stark contrast between deprived and luxurious dwellings within urban London (an extract of which is shown above). McKenzie details his childhood experiences of the slum housing of Battersea adjacent to a river ‘poisoned with waste’ from surrounding factories; undoubtedly symbolising his housing conditions. Due to orphan-hood, however, McKenzie soon finds himself residing in a ‘rather weird old mansion’ in Kensington, only a stone’s throw away over the old Battersea Bridge. With its ornamental gates, fashionable Victorian drawing room and antique paintings, such a mansion was a world apart from the destitute Battersea slums, despite its geographical closeness.

Castle goal

‘More like a goal than anything I could imagine’ – extract from Castle 1:134

John Castle also illuminates another prevalent type of urban housing: the workhouse. Castle certainly harboured strong opinions toward Leighton Buzzard Union workhouse as an abode, as shown above. By producing a detailed structural plan of the workhouse, including the location of the Master’s House, Board Room and segregated living quarters of men, women and children, Castle’s memoir provides a personalised vision into the construction of one of the most recurrent, yet often ill-defined, urban living abodes throughout Britain. Emphasis on the presence of factory equipment within the institution arguably highlights the industrial nature of nineteenth-century housing and living areas.

Balne Greenford

‘Lovely leafy lanes of Greenford’ – extract from Balne 1:137

Similarly, Edward Balne provides insight into another, relatively rare, category of urban housing. Residing in a Hanwell ‘Cuckoo School’ (a Poor Law School, officially!), Balne emphasises the juxtaposition between the urbanity of this institution and adjacent ‘lovely leafy lanes of Greenford;’ highlighting the presence of both rural and industrial influences in urban living quarters. Though inferring that the School was superior in comparison to other housing, citing its swimming bath, onsite hospital and ‘large and lovely garden;’ Balne contends that it was still ‘pretty grim.’ While pupils were cramped into dormitories (ten allocated to each side of a room and another ten to the centre), their designated dormitory nurses enjoyed private ‘comfortably furnished’ cubicles. Any luxury in urban living, again, seemed to remain in the hands of those more well-off.

You can see any of these autobiographies or our other collections by contacting Special Collections to arrange an appointment

Burnett Archive
1:473 J. H. McKenzie
1:134 J. Castle
1:37 E. Balne

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Explosion in a WWI munitions factory

100 years ago, on 1 July 1918, there was a devastating explosion in a munitions factory in Nottinghamshire, where shells were filled for use in trench warfare. The disaster killed 134 workers and injured many more. One of our autobiographies, part of the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, contains an eye-witness account of the explosion.

The munitions factory had been set up in 1915 at Chilwell, which had good road and rail links, and supplied over half of the shells fired during the war, including most of those used at the Somme. Lottie Barker, the author of our autobiography, had joined the factory in April 1916 with a friend, Polly. They were known as ‘Canary Girls’ because the chemicals involved in the manufacture turned their skin yellow and their hair green.

Barker canary girls 1

The explosion was the biggest loss of life during a single explosion during the First World War but was downplayed at the time, less it lead to loss of morale. At the time it was only reported in the newspapers as “60 feared dead in Midlands factory explosion”. Most of the dead were buried in a mass grave in Attenborough without being named, and a memorial wasn’t erected for fifty years. The cause of the explosion was never made public.

Barker coffin

Lottie had, fortunately, been at home doing the washing up when the explosion happened, and her autobiography describes the house shaking, and what she found when she ventured out to the factory.

You can find out more about Lottie Barker’s autobiography on the Writing Lives website and in this account in the Independent newspaper When corpses fell from the Nottinghamshire sky. There are further accounts of the canary girls in Edith Hall’s autobiography Canary girls and stockpots, also part of the Burnett Archive.

Burnett Archive
2:37 Lottie Barker ‘My life as I remember it, 1899-1920’
4 Edith Hall ‘Canary girls and stockpots’

Disability: a taboo area of Britain’s past

Blog post by Joe Woodhouse-Page, student volunteer, for UK Disability History Month. This is an annual event which runs from 22 November to 22 December, covering HIV/AIDS day (1 Dec), International Day of People with Disabilities (3 Dec) and International Human Rights Day (10 Dec). Its aim is to raise awareness of the fight for equality that has been taken up throughout history by and for those whose lives are affected by disabilities

Whilst skimming through many archives you’ll find little reference to Britain’s disabled population, however, delve deeper into Brunel Library’s Special Collections and you’ll find stories of those people, stories that should not go untold.

Only in recent times have we, as a society, stopped treating disability as a taboo, when it is told in historical accounts it is often limited, masked and ultimately brushed over. Although, in Special Collections you’ll discover texts both detailing the experience of having a disability in the past and the impact that disabled people had on those around them and society.

One such text is the autobiography of Charles William Esam-Carter recounting the period of 1899-1903. Carter recounts his early childhood, when his severely disabled sister was born he was 4 years old. With a disabled sister and parents in dispute Carter felt like an outcast, displaying that the disabled were not treated as members of normalised society. Carter recounts the most upsetting aspect of the treatment of his sister; “She was dependent on us and we rejected her.” Perhaps selfishly, Carter even suggests that his childhood was ruined by the birth of his sister. The account provides evidence of the rejection of the disabled in past society and is well worth a read.

The account entitled ‘My life’ by Annie Lord also provides some worthwhile insights, dated in 1943; Lord propagates like Carter the rejection of disabled people in society. Annie Lord was deaf in one ear, although she did not discover this until she was 16, narrating; “Age of 16 years old I was taken for a different and ferocious weirdo… but they found out it was deaf,” it’s clear that Lord did feel like an outcast in society, portraying that she just had to “Carry on the best she could.” Although it has been said to be poorly written, Lord’s account gives us a rare first-hand account of what being disabled was like in 20th century society, certainly deserving of further exploration.

In Brunel’s Special Collections you’ll find details of disabled people in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, seeing how far we have come as a society in terms of treatment of disabled people over the last century is fascinating, and a great way to spend an afternoon. In addition to this archive, we also have a modern collection of transcription poems, Neglected Voices, written by a former poet-in-residence at Brunel University, Allan Sutherland. These poems were created from life-interviews which Sutherland carried out among six individuals with different disabilities. The audio recordings and the full transcriptions of these interviews are held in Special Collections alongside the poetry collections themselves. ‘Proud’ is a poetry collection based on the words of Jennifer Taylor, who has a learning disability. ‘In Memory’ is formed from an interview with Catriona Grant, whose life was affected by a stroke at a young age. The collection, ‘This Hearing Thing,’ is based on the words of Wendy Bryant who gives an account of living with a hearing impairment, and lastly ‘Dan Dare Braces’ is a collection of poems on the life of Peter Moore, a survivor of abuse.

References:

Annie Lord, My Life (1943). Burnett Archive, 2:486.

Autobiography of Charles William Esam-Carter (1946). Burnett Archive, 4.

 

Ordinary people – exceptional lives

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.

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