Katherine Henderson (B.1908): Life and Labour – Writing Lives

Katherine Henderson (B.1908): Life and Labour

In the early 20th century work dominated working class people’s lives and many had little time for leisure and worked long and hard hours for minimal wages- similarly to the life Katherine lived. In her memoir Katherine touches on the occupations of her family but I will focus mainly on her own working life as this is a current theme throughout.

Katherine had little time to enjoy her adolescent years as her family needed the extra source of income which meant she had to leave school at the age of fourteen dreading the ‘evil day she definitely had to leave.’ (7). Like her siblings she was brought up to do agricultural work. Katherine did not appreciate this type of work as she did not find it challenging and she confides in her memoir how she ‘used to pray to God to protect’ (5) her from working on her family’s farm as she knew ‘this was not the life she wanted.’ (8)

Katherine seized the opportunity when it arose to go out to work. Her next job was as an under-Nannie, a job which imposed a great deal of restrictions. Katherine recalls how she was able to ‘clean the pram but not push it!’ (8) It was at her first job away from home that she felt ‘terribly homesick’ (8) and encountered first hand exploitation by the upper class. Katherine makes aware the mistreatment of lower classes within society,

‘We were supposed to have bread and cheese and cocoa for supper, but cook felt this was unfair, that if the family needed two hot meals a day in order to do nothing, then surely we, who were working from 6am to 10pm needed as much, if not more.’(8)

The staff in Katherine’s first job recognised their exploitation and rebelled as they deemed they were entitled, due to their long hours in comparison with the leisure of their employees, to equal amounts of hot meals. As historians such as Edward Thompson have argued, shared experiences of work and especially exploitation, led many working people to identify their shared interests as a class. Many historians, however, have not viewed servants as a class conscious occupation. [1]Katherine’s memoir, however, provides evidence that class consciousness could be found in the servant’s quarters. Another incident occurred as to where Katherine and staff felt their integrity as working class citizens were disputed. The staff found that the Governess of the house often deliberately left money in peculiar places, solely to test their honesty and work ethic to make sure they were cleaning the house properly. This did not bide well with the staff and particularly with Katherine’s friend Winnie, who decided to teach the governess a lesson. Winnie nailed down a half crown to the floor as she stated she had ‘had enough of their methods to test her honesty’ (9). Needless to say Winnie was reprimanded and dismissed. However she was happy with this outcome as she had ‘satisfaction that she had got even.’ (8) This illustrates the view of the working class during this era as attitudes towards the poor were often characterised as dishonest, idle and undeserving – all stereotypes that Katherine demonstrates are not true throughout her working life.

crown money
Half Crown, 1927.

Soon after, Katherine left this job and joined the Thompson family in London. Katherine went on to numerous jobs as a nanny, which she enjoyed as she was treated as part of the family as opposed to staff. Being part of a family also enabled Katherine to socialise and travel, which is how she met her husband to be, John Dudley, when she visited Norfolk with the Macdonald family. Katherine acknowledges her time with the MacDonald’s was one that ‘left nothing to be desired, and passed a good many expectations’ (16) as she had ‘never knew what real happiness was until then.’ (16)

After marrying John on ‘a cold October day in 1937’ (24) Katherine recollects they ‘settled down quite happily, though managing on a very limited income, having thirty shillings a week to pay for everything.’(24) Katherine felt this hardship as she had no awareness of the cost of living as previously she had always had her food and boarding provided for her. Katherine’s resolution to her financial problems and her loneliness, as John went away to fight in the war, was to open her home to visitors during the summer months, which would also help them to survive in the winter months when they struggled the most.  Katherine ‘gave them three good hot meals a day and early morning tea, and packed tea to take on the beach.’ (26)

Throughout her working life, Katherine always takes pride in her work, a quality she obtains from her father. In her early memoir Katherine ‘gives credit where credit is due, father was a hard worker, and took pride in his work. (7) The Wightwick family all live for work. It is a hardship for them, yet they never dwell on this. Work for Katherine is central.

After the death of her son, work, and especially taking on the role of a nanny became for Katherine a kind of salvation, and the nature of her work enabled her to grieve over the death of her son. Work kept her busy and active and the families she worked for were almost substitutes for her loss. For the rest of her working life, she was employed as a nanny by upper class families, yet she never felt exploited but rather felt a member of the family.

Katherine’s memoir is one of personal triumph through hard work and dedication. Katherine experiences hardship and conflict within her early life within domestic service, however as her career progresses as a nanny she has a good relationship with her employees which enables her to move on from her work. Katherine throughout her working life gained control over her work. Many working class people would not have the option to select who they worked for, but Katherine was fortunate enough to be in control as she was respected within her working sphere. Katherine’s respectable nature throughout her working life is appreciated as she states,

‘I had a glorious surprise one morning, when, on opening a letter, found a cheque for £1,000 from the MacDonald family. I could hardly believe my eyes, and thought it must be a dream, but no, it was a wonderful reality.’ (81)

Katherine received this great sum of money as a gesture due to her hard work whilst working for the MacDonald family as she remained in contact with the family all the way through her life and made a lifetime impact on the growing up of their children and this was the family’s way to show their appreciation.

[1] Thompson Edward, (1963), The Making of the English Working Class.


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