Hilda Swettenham (b. ~1907): Habits, Culture & Belief – Writing Lives

Hilda Swettenham (b. ~1907): Habits, Culture & Belief

Filled to the brim with visceral and intimate memories, Hilda’s memoir is a catalogue of various sensory experiences from her youth. Her autobiographical writing ‘relate[s] vivid episodes, images and memories from childhood in passages marked by sharp visual and sensory detail’ (), absorbing readers into the details of her narrative. In the final pages of her autobiographical writing, she includes an interesting and unique sections which focuses on the distinctive smells and sounds of Collyhurst. The author creates a ‘smellscape’, which refers to ‘the totality of the olfactory landscape, accommodating both episodic (fore-grounded or time limited) and involuntary (background) odours’ (). This allows readers to feel fully immersed within the narrative, providing them with an opportunity to ‘smellwal[k]’ () through the streets of her hometown by ‘map[ping] the nuance of childhood [experiences]’ (). Hilda similarly creates a textual atmosphere by detailing the distinctive sounds of her young adulthood, enabling readers to assimilate into the world of her memories.

‘What a subject!!’ (13), writes Hilda as she explores the many good and bad smells of the Collyhurst she grew up in, charting the distinctive qualities and locations of each scent. She begins within her own home, which ‘always smelled of fresh [b]read’ (13), creating a homely image of comfort and warmth inside her happy and cosy family home. Recalling further memories of the ‘individual smells [of] ribs and cabbage […] leather […] sawdust […] flour’ (13), ‘t[o]bacco […] par[a]ffin […] food stuffs and sweets […] “Jackson[’] Febrifuge” […] “Fletcher[’]s” pork’ (14) and ‘toffee’ (15), the author constructs a scene of village life in early-twentieth century Collyhurst. Conversely, Hilda also refers to the less pleasing smells, of which ‘there were plenty’ (16). Listing the scents of ‘stale beer […] stale cabbage […] orange peel, sweating bodies and urine’ (16) and ‘manure’ (17), the author brings to light the more odious smells, exposing the unfortunate reality of working-class life in Northern England in the 1920-30s. She also uses comical anecdotes to specify the perfume scents of ‘“California Poppy”’ (17), ‘“Essence of Senna”’, and ‘“Syrup of Figs”’ (18) which she particularly disliked, as well as reminiscing about ‘a particular item of clothing [which] had a most offensive smell’ (18), alluding to the ‘cord[uroy] trousers [that her] three brothers had to wear’ (18). While these smells seem terrible, the author’s humorous tone suggests that they were only unpleasant rather than outright repellent, confirming that ‘as we grew up with these smells[,] it did not seem to bother us much!!’ (18)

Another odour that Hilda ‘intensely disliked’ (18) was ‘known locally as “Levi[’]s Stink”’ (16). This refers to the fetid fumes which ‘came from the I.C.I.’ (16), a dyeworks facility based in Blackley, a suburban area of Manchester near Collyhurst. In 1918, the chemical plant ‘began a relationship with Levinstein, Ltd.’ (), hence its nickname. The author emphasises the strength of such a repugnant smell, writing that ‘you could have cooked “ham and eggs on the odour” (16). Her comical tone here is interesting, as it ‘ameliorate[s] suffering and provide[s] a medium for expressing complaint […] operat[ing] as a site for the navigation and negotiation of power’ ().

The memoir also touches upon the pleasant noises she heard while living in Collyhurst in the early-twentieth century, recalling sounds of the ‘clatter of clogs […] the [“chig chug” of] trams [and] trolley buses […] the clip clop of horses hooves’ (20), and ‘“children[‘]s happy laughter”’ (21). In addition, she describes the ‘rag and bone business [men] carry[ing] a bell, or even a trumpet [and] “Barrel Organs”’ (21), as well as the ‘“Salvation Army” band […] the local “Boy Scouts” [and] “Church Lads Brigade” all with their bands [and] “buskers”’ (22), who acted as a ‘form of entertainment’ (21) on the streets of Collyhurst. In describing this auditory commotion, Hilda evokes a scene of a bustling town filled with busy workers and playing children, all living amongst a soundtrack of music and singing.

One particularly happy noise, Hilda suggests, is the sound of ‘dancing and singing in the streets’ (22) during the Whit Week walks, ‘Manchester’s annual Whit celebrations transformed the city centre into a spectacle of colour’ (). These yearly celebrations were held to encourage a sense of community, yielding the participation of working-class people from all over Collyhurst and surrounding areas. The author describes the Whit Week walks as a ‘jollification’ (22) using humorous anecdotes, highlighting her fond memories towards the event. This anecdotal evidence are intriguing, as the comical tone works to generate insight into alternative languages of feeling’ (), allowing the reader to experience Hilda’s affectionate emotions with her. Her light-hearted recollections are brought to a close by her final bitter-sweet statement on the matter, writing that ‘all these street noises contributed to a happy time, which alas has gone now’ (22).


Primary Sources

Swettenham, Hilda. ”Early Working Life from 1921 to 1936′, and other autobiographical fragments’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 1790-1945 (3 volumes). John Burnett, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds.). Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989. 2:0750. Available: /uncategorized/hilda-swettenham-b-1907-biographical-entry

Secondary Sources

‘British Dyestuffs Corporation and ICI’. Colorants History. 2015. Web. Accessed: 24th April 2021. Available:

Henshaw, Victoria. Urban Smellscapes: Understanfing and Designing City Smell Environments. London: Routledge, 2013. Available:

Rogers, Helen and Cuming, Emily. ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant Reading of Working-Class Autobiography’. Family & Community History 21:3 (February 2019), 180-201. Available:

Strange, Julie-Marie. Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Available:

Wildman, Charlotte. ‘Religious selfhoods and the city in inter-war Manchester. Urban History 38.1 (May 2011), 103-123. Available:


Fig. 1: Fox, M. R. (1921). Blackley Works of British Dyestuffs Corporation, 1921. Available:  

Fig. 2: Kaye, L. (1958). Blackley Works, View from ICI Building, 1958. Available:

Fig. 3: Kaye, L. (1972). Blackley Works 1972 Crumpsall Hospital on Skyline. Available:

Fig. 4: Kaye, L. (1974). Blackley Works 1974. Available:

Fig. 5: Kaye, L. (1974). River Irk Passing through Blackley Works, 1974. Available:

Fig. 6: Archives+. (1910). Albert Memorial Church, Whit Walk, Harpurhey 1910. Available:

Fig. 7: The Wentworth Collection. (c. 1900). Manchester Road, Mossley, Ashton-under-Lyne, near Stalybridge, Lancashire, England. Whit Friday Ladies Procession from Abney Church. Available:

Fig. 8: St. Catherine’s Church [Collyhurst] taking part in a Whit Walk. (c. 1900). Available:

Fig. 9: Potts, Bob. (1947). Spread Eagle, Rochdale Road, Collyhurst. Available:

Fig. 10: General Photographic Agency. (c. 1935). A group of girls from Manchester and Salford participate in a Whit Monday march. Available:

Fig. 11: Whit Walks 1964 Rochdale Rd, Collyhurst, outside the Swan Inn and May’s pawnshop. Available:

Fig. 12: Walker. (1963). Whit Monday walks in Collyhurst, Manchester. A demonstration of affection between Terrance Coltan, aged 7, and Deidre Cairns, aged 7, walking with St Oswalds, 3rd June 1963. Available:

Fig. 13: Watford. (1960). Whit Walks Manchester: Patrick Rooney aged 4 tries his hand at a “big blow” whilst waiting for his Sunday School to move off. Watching is bandsman Dennis Barlow. Greater Manchester, 6th June 1960. Available:

Fig. 14: Watford. (1960). Father and daughter take part in the Whit Walk June 1960. Available:

If you enjoyed this, you might be interested in Jess Brandwood’s blog post about Fun and Festivities in May Jones’ provocative memoir, where she contemplates the Whit Walks that took place in Manchester and Salford in the early-twentieth century. Available: /uncategorized/may-jones-fun-and-festivities

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