Henrietta Burkin (born 1904): Habits, Culture and Beliefs – Writing Lives

Henrietta Burkin (born 1904): Habits, Culture and Beliefs

St. Matthew’s Church, Stepney – the church Henrietta and her mother attended

Henrietta’s memoir reminisces on a variety of hobbies and cultural activities in her community. These activities are heavily influenced by her beliefs and religion which acts as a predominant theme throughout. observes that religion in Britain from 1860 to World War I was undergoing a change. He states that, ‘Protestantism was still one of the most important components of national identity… but the nature of the Protestant faith was changing, and new foundations for national identity were emerging’ (McLeod, 44, 1999). McLeod acknowledges the prejudice and widespread dislike of the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century (McLeod, 56, 1999) and Henrietta also raises this issue in her memoir.

From the beginning of the memoir, it is clearly stated that Henrietta and her family are Protestant. Henrietta and her cousins all attended church schools and also went to Sunday school where she was told that she, ‘had a good “grounding”’ (1.14). The rivalry between the two denominations of Christianity is highlighted through inter-marriage and school children becoming friends. Henrietta states that she was rejected by her friend’s Grandmother because she was not Catholic and not considered as ‘one of “us” (meaning Catholic)’ (1.17). She also shares that there was a dread of intermarriage amongst families and she experienced her mother and father refusing to accept her relationship with a Catholic boy. Henrietta states,

 “Mum and Dad were most unhappy about it, as they thought it might become serious, and Mother, with all her knowledge of life, could see we were most unsuited… and to add her forbodings, he was a Roman Catholic, and when it finally petered out, I can imagine the first thing she did – go on her knees and thank the Almighty!” (2.14)

 Although Henrietta does not display strong opinions about Religion, she shares the ongoing battle between families for her readers. The only opinion she voices was that a Catholic Church service, ‘seemed endless to all us Protestants’ (1.14) and I suggest that despite her religious views, the memoir stands neutral to offer all perspectives to her readers. Although her family have strong views, Henrietta displays no prejudgement of other children as she interacts and participates actively with all other children. She reminisces playing cricket, hide and seek, diabillo and hopscotch in the street (1.15) and particularly highlights her best friend May. They attended theatres together, celebrated Easter together and frequently visited Hyde Park to listen to bands (1.11). From childhood to adolescent, Henrietta is outgoing and throughout her life she enjoys socialising with friends. Although modes of her leisure alter with age, it is evident that she thrives by mixing with other individuals.

Limehouse Town Hall 1937

Stefan Ramsden states that there was an, ‘increase in the freedom of working-class people to choose friends and define their own social identity in the latter half of the twentieth century’ (Ramsden, 18, 2014). Henrietta was involved with a variety of personal hobbies and cultural activities in her local community. She had access to ‘beautiful parks’ (2.5) and visited the National Gallery where she could admire the ‘Dutch interior paintings’ (2.5). She also sung at concerts including singing with an orchestra in Italian and hired Croydon Town Hall to perform to the public. Her musical talents were endless and used her knowledge of music to learn the piano and violin. These leisure activities were heavily influenced by her mother and father as they encouraged her to pursue her talents and circulate with others. Henrietta draws particular attention to a significant community event at the Limehouse Town Hall where family and friends gathered for a ball. She states that, ‘we wore our Sunday dresses and our hair in ringlets’ (1.12), displaying an opportunity to dress finely and share memories with those closest to her. These cultural activities are significant to her personal and class identity as they demonstrate that despite not having endless amounts of money, others alike to her can socialise, celebrate and carry out their hobbies. I believe that Henrietta thrives on life and her upbringing allowed her to appreciate simple pleasures.

Croydon Town Hall

Her family always made use of public and personal holidays and Henrietta highlights her excitement for Christmas, Bank Holidays’ and family holidays. As a child she remembers that Christmas ‘began to get exciting’ (1.10) when she helped prepare the food with her mother and a time for all her relatives to come together (1.10). This excitement for Christmas is also displayed at the end of her memoir in 1973, where she reminisces about the Communion Service and emphasises that Christmas is a time for people to celebrate together (5.2). Her upbringing allowed Henrietta to appreciate the religious aspect of Christmas and encouraged her to celebrate it as passionately as she did during childhood. A predominant theme throughout her autobiography are family holidays. She states that, ‘Mum and dad usually tried to take me away for a week in summer’ (1.12) and I think these are the highlights of her year. The extravagance of these holidays coincide with the rise in her step-father’s wage. During her younger childhood, they enjoyed visiting other suburbs of London then after moving to Charing Cross, they enjoyed holidays in the Lake District, Isle of Wight and even Holland (2.10). Henrietta was undoubtedly led a more privileged life than many others in her social class. However, I also believe that she created her own luck and optimised the opportunities given to her, ensuring that her life was fulfilling and rewarding.


Burkin, Henrietta, ‘Memoirs of Henrietta Burkin’, TS, pp.86 (c.50,000 words). Brunel University Library. 2:118. Extract published in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.306-312. Brunel University Library and Ruskin College Library, Oxford.

McLeod, Hugh. ‘Protestantism and British National Identity, 1815-1945’ in Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia by Peter Van der Veer. Princeton University Press: New Jersey. 1999.

Ramsden, Stefan. ‘Remaking Work-Class Community: Sociability, Belonging and ‘Affluence’ in a Small Town, 1930-80’ in Contemporary British History. Routledge: London. (2014): 1-16.

Image References

St. Matthew’s Church – http://www.religionandplace.org.uk/placesofworship/buildings.php

Limehouse Town Hall – http://secret-cities.com/2011/09/16/limehouse-town-hall/

Croydon Town Hall in The Guardian– http://secret-cities.com/2011/09/16/limehouse-town-hall/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.