Bessie Wallis (b. 1904) Habits, Culture & Beliefs – Writing Lives

Bessie Wallis (b. 1904) Habits, Culture & Beliefs

‘A gradual reduction in working hours and a higher level of disposable income for many people throughout the twentieth century created the demand for places and facilities where people could relax, enjoy each other’s company and actively pursue mutual hobbies and interests.’ (Leisure and Entertainment. Dartford Archive)

The 1900s did not only bring a new century but also exciting times ahead for many. The twentieth century was seen to many as a time for change and as seen in the quote from the Dartford Archive it was a time of change in working-class culture.

Bessie’s memoir is very informative when looking back at both Bessie’s and her family’s culture and beliefs. Her everyday life was influenced by her class background although she did not let this affect her achievements in later life and used her memoir as a podium to express her success in not letting twentieth century class structure define her. Bessie’s memoir is an extremely helpful read when trying to picture life for a working-class female in the new century.

Like many working-class families, Bessie’s were huge lovers of music and looked forward to summer when their local musicians all joined together and put on a concert for the community. ‘Never missed a concert if I could help it because music has always been my great love’ (1, f). Bessie’s love of music was not created far from home; her father was a fantastic musician. Together with his ‘nice baritone voice’ and the fact he was able to play ‘many of the ‘stringed musical instruments’ (1, g) her father was the reason for her learning the piano and gaining her love of music. Bessie describes her and her family as being very musical, their talent being used to earn a small fortune in the local pub.

Live Music.
Live Music.

Along with music, friendship was something Bessie appreciated throughout her life. She talks fondly of Alice, a railwayman’s daughter who she spent many hours with in her childhood. ‘I had a good friend called Alice’ (2, 4). Although they had such a close bond, their friendship was something seen as rather strange in the early twentieth century due to their family’s class differences. ‘In reality it should never have existed because between the children of the miners and the railwaymen was a deadly rivalry’ (2, 4), but this was not going to stop Alice and Bessie. Bessie’s father was a miner and Alice’s a railwayman. The difference in hardship of labour caused the rivalry as railwaymen were defined as lazy by miners. Luckily for both the girls this rivalry was not adopted by the pair and their parents had no problem with their friendship either. Bessie recalls how she spent many hours in the railway box with Alice’s father and felt privileged to have seen such sights of the upper classes. Although their friendship was allowed, Alice’s mother did not allow Alice to play out with the other miner’s children as ‘the miners children were too course and ruff’ (2, 5). Bessie was seen as superior to other miner children as her mother’s parents owned their own business.

When it comes to religion Bessie’s grandparents were very religious. The local parish was a home from home for Bessie as a child. Despite it not being her favourite place she cannot be said not have not enjoyed it. As Bessie’s grandparents were strict Methodists there were many occasions when all the family would be grouped together to help at church events. Bessie expresses how the church was approached as an occupation to many. Older ladies are described to have ‘worn dresses almost uniform’ (2, 8). This image described by Bessie fascinates me as throughout the memoir Bessie does not talk about religion itself, rather she just describes the happenings within the church. Bessie continually appreciates the charity given to the church for happenings such as the Sunday school, but sadly fails to express if she herself was a religious person.

Brampton Parish Church
Brampton Parish Church

Bessie may not of been religious herself, but ‘love your neighbour’ (Mark, 12.31) was something which was always close to her heart. Throughout the memoir she describes how she was always fond of people, ‘I liked this part very much. It was fun to visit the old people’ (2, 8). Bessie loved to help others and took great happiness from being a helping hand to anyone who needed her.



Dartford Town Archive. Leisure and Entertainment. Accessed 20/12/2015

Matthew. 12.31. The English Standard Version Bible:  Containing the Old and New Testaments with Apocrypha. Oxford:  Oxford UP, 2009. 

 Wallis, Bessie. Yesterdays, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:0794


Image References

Hudson on Mercer. Piano Night with Brian Pope. Accessed 19/12/2015

Nekropole. Brampton Parish Chruch. Accessed 19/12/2015


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