Bessie Wallis (B.1904) Home & Family – Writing Lives

Bessie Wallis (B.1904) Home & Family


‘I realise now we were one of the luckier families’ (1, J)

When it comes to family relationships Bessie withholds little information. Bessie recites her life in detail, referencing her family throughout. Bessie lived with her father, mother and brothers. Throughout the memoir there is constant reference to family opinions and traditions which expresses how family approval was in her earlier years very important to Bessie.

Crittenden, J. Keeton Family Portrait- family portrait from 1900 which represents Bessie's family.
Crittenden, J. Keeton Family Portrait- family portrait from 1900 which represents Bessie’s family.

In chronological order from her childhood through to her adult life Bessie expresses both her fondest memories and also life experiences she would rather forget. Although it is apparent Bessie had a happy childhood, her teenage years were where her life changed as Bessie became aware that life in the early twentieth century as a woman was not going to be easy. Although Bessie held her family close, growing up with only brothers as siblings put strain on her relationship with her mother. It was sadly apparent to Bessie that she was not the favored child.

Unlike most working- class memoirs Bessie does not show an idolizing sense of affection towards her father but rather that of her elder brother. Bessie states how her father would often be distant from the family home: ‘we children would go long periods without seeing him’ (1, K). This was until her mother reined in his straying being back to the household or as Bessie humorously puts it, ‘my tiny mother would put her size 3 foot firmly down’ (1, K). Bessie’s father and his distancing from the family is something which is not expressed explicitly in the text but due to a continuous repetition of Bessie stating this information, I believe it was something that saddened her greatly. His straying ways are stopped when he becomes ill with Tuberculosis. This sense of distance from her father portrays Bessie’s family dynamics with an image of Bessie keeping both parents at a distance.

Although her father did not have a huge role in Bessie’s upbringing the theme of disappointing males stopped with him. Danny, Bessie’s brother had a huge impact on her as they went through life together. Bessie references Danny the most when talking about her family life. Danny worked down the mines as a ‘pony lad’ (2, 1) which he had done since the age of thirteen. It was often normal for boys to work in the coal mines from a young age. Throughout the memoir Bessie recites their adventures together and the fun they always had. Their relationship is highlighted when, nearing the end of the memoir, she tells readers how ‘dear Danny, now we had to help him. I knew he must get away from the pit’ (6, 31). This section comes after Bessie had returned from her Aunt’s house after being a skivvy for two years. This quotation can be seen as Bessie now being aware of life outside the working-class community and being made aware of a more luxurious life. Bessie no longer saw the mines as a positive career and wished for her brother to work in a safer environment.

Bessie’s grandparents ran a shop shop where her mother also worked. As a girl, Bessie also helped out as well as assisting older neighbours with daily chores. Bessie talks fondly of her grandparents and the time she spent with them. She would fetch the beer for her grandad but could only buy a certain brand of beer and from a certain shop as he was a staunch Methodist who she did not disobey.

Although her relatives owned their own small business Bessie was aware of her immediate family’s class position. As Carolyn Steedman states, ‘class is a learned position’ (Landscape for a Goodwoman,15).  Class was something which Bessie understood but did not understand why it existed as it simply made division in life.

Selwyn Kete:Places of Interest-St Pauls Church: West Melton
Selwyn Kete:Places of Interest-St Pauls Church: West Melton

When looking at Bessie’s extended family, her younger life was surrounded by family members as she expresses how mining families were one big family which stuck together. ‘We were such a small tight-knit community’ (2, 1), Bessie talks of when tragedy struck in the mines and sadly a life was lost it was like she had lost a brother.

Daily Mail. Relaxed Picture of Miners
Daily Mail. Relaxed Picture of Miners

Although Bessie had lots of fond memories from her childhood as she grew older and had to leave school due to financial issues her family life became strained. Her mother and father allowed her distant Aunt to take her on a servant. She expresses the difference in lifestyle between her home and that of her Aunt’s: ‘to me, it was another world’ (4, 19). Her years of being ‘just another skivvy’ (4, 20) are depicted as years of sadness for Bessie. When Bessie left her house her feelings towards her family changed as she felt she was not wanted by her mother. Her feelings were expressed due to her being female. 

‘I knew my mother wanted me out. Although I was the only daughter I had always been the odd one out. Mother preferred her sons… my feelings were right- even though I was only thirteen years. I never did live there again apart from brief holidays. Something ended on that yesterday’ (4,20).





Steedman, Carolyn. Landscape for a Goodwoman: A Story of Childhood. London: Virago, 1986. P.15


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


Image References

Crittenden, J. Keeton Family Portrait around 1900. J Crittenden Imaging. Accessed 08/11/15


Burrow, J.C. Relaxed picture of Miners. Daily Mail. Accessed 08/11/15


Selwyn Kete:Places of Interest. St Pauls Church: West Melton. Accessed 08/11/15




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