Kathleen Hilton-Foord (1903-1908): Life & Labour – Writing Lives

Kathleen Hilton-Foord (1903-1908): Life & Labour

Changing policies in the early twentieth century with regard to compulsory education, such as The 1902 Balfour Education Act, meant that unlike children in the nineteenth century, Kathleen didn’t enter the labour market until she was twelve years old and had passed the Labour exam.  Although Kathleen was extremely eager to leave school and find a job, she struggled to find work because she was small for her age. In ‘Leaving School’ she writes:

‘The next few months I did little

No training of any sort at all:

The School-Board man stopped me once

He thought I was a truant, being so small.

I don’t think it did me any harm though

I was learning the hard way;

With no-one to advise me,

Only Grannie who could have no say.’

(Grannie’s Girl)

Living with her grandmother distinguishes Kathleen from her other siblings, who have to go to an orphanage when their father passes away and learn a trade. In this sense, Kathleen is given more time to experience her childhood and isn’t expected in the least to go to work and support the family. Although Kathleen’s grandmother advises her to stay at school, she begins to need Kathleen’s help as she gets older, as Kathleen says in ‘Leaving School’:

Now I was looking after her

Before she would not let me do anything,

Now she did not demur.

(Grannie’s Girl)

Taken from Grannie's Girl - 'Leaving School'
Taken from Grannie’s Girl – ‘Leaving School’

In The Survivor Kathleen details some of the jobs she had. She says that her ‘first job was at a printers next to Olbys the builders Merchants in York Street’ (p.5). When her father died ‘neighbouring shop keepers’ gave her and three of her older siblings ‘little Saturday jobs delivering newspapers, meat, grocery and fish’ (p.5). At the age of fourteen she became ‘a girl telegraph messenger, walking in all weather and the blackouts, to Camps, Naval Bases and Ships’ (p.5). She also talks about her experience of delivering ‘civilian telegrams’, which she did not like ‘because of the stricken looks on some of the faces, told only too well what message’ she had brought (p.5). After her grandmother passes away and she is living with a family found by the Rector and her aunt, she gets a job with a stamp collector. She says:

‘my pay was 12/6 a week, once or twice, if it was a bad week, my wages were made up with pennies and half-pennies, and once four farthings, but it was pleasant and interesting work and we were always laughing. Later he went into business with two other gentleman, and I became a typist. They taught me on an old machine, and when business prospered they got me a new one. Our offices were in Castle Street.’

(The Survivor – The Memoirs of a little Dover Girl – Born 1903, p.6)

It doesn’t seem to matter to Kathleen how much she got paid as long as she enjoyed her work and was doing something useful. Her job with the stamp collector appears to be one she may have kept for a while by the fact that she was there to witness the business prosper.

Merely listing her jobs suggests that they were a source of pride for Kathleen and that they were a significant part of her maturity. Primarily her reason for getting a job was to help with her grandmother and with the war, but following her description of her job with the stamp collector she says how she was ‘very lonely and did not go out much’ (The Survivor, p.6). Having a job may have been a distraction to her loneliness and a way of supporting herself as her closest relatives (her grandmother and father) had passed away.

Kathleen’s memoir The Survivor ends when she meets a ‘young sailor’ who she became engaged to on her 21st birthday (p.6). There is no evidence to suggest that she carried on working once she was married. Hugh Cunningham has identified that there was a notion that ‘married women should not participate in the formal labour market’[1] in the early twentieth century. It is likely that Kathleen would not have been expected to work once married; this may have been particularly the case considering that her husband was a sailor, possibly at war. In her poem ‘Bridging the Gap’, Kathleen considers her experiences whilst she was a ‘P.O. messenger’. By identifying the time she spent working as something to bridge ‘the gap’ suggests that she was working until she met her husband.

I am reluctant to describe Kathleen’s family as working class, as in my mind this conjures up an image of hard manual labour in a factory or workhouse– especially when discussing the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Kathleen’s father, in fact, owned a taxidermist and pet shop, which appeared to be a thriving business until the First World War. My hesitation to discuss Kathleen’s family as working class is therefore derived from the fact that they were not ‘selling the labour’[2] in Marxist terms.  Kathleen herself is aware of her class and points out that circumstance lead her family to ‘dire straights’, she says ‘we did not come from a poor class but the war, a large second family and aged crippled him [her father] financially (The Survivor, p.4).

Kathleen is conscious of her class and those of other children during her time at St. Mary’s School. For instance, there is a lobby where Kathleen says ‘better off families’ paid for their clothes to be hung up (Handwritten memoir, p.1). She also describes how children were mostly in their bare feet when they were playing on their makeshift stage, but for some this was through choice and their shoes would be put back on when they went home; she firmly states ‘I was in this category’ (Handwritten memoir, p.2). Her class identity and awareness of poorer families is shaped by the occupation of her father and by the fact that she has relatives with important jobs, such as her half-sister who was a landlady and her father’s half-brother who was a councillor. Class, in this sense, is therefore related to labour and the ability of Kathleen’s father to be able to provide for his family.

Kathleen illustrates one of the jobs involved in being a P.O. messenger during WW1. Taken from 'Bridging the Gap' - Grannie's Girl
Kathleen illustrates one of the jobs involved in being a P.O. messenger during WW1. Taken from ‘Bridging the Gap’ – Grannie’s Girl

The various jobs Kathleen has aren’t as central to her memoirs as the subject of life with her grandmother and her time at school. However, her jobs were important to her as they allowed her to repay the care her grandmother had given her and contribute to the war. Her job as a P.O. messenger gave her a purpose whilst she was mourning the death of her father and worrying about her grandmother’s health. She seems proud of this job and wears her uniform with pride, she says how this was a ‘great thrill’ (‘Bridging the Gap’, Grannie’s Girl). Kathleen acknowledges that she had been ‘useful’ and had done her part for the war, although she feels sad when she leaves her telegraph messenger job.



‘Bridging the Gap’ gives an illuminating insight into her reasons for working and her experiences of jobs during World War One:

Starting life in earnest

Barely fourteen;

I became a P.O. messenger

Looking after Grannie in between.

The Telegrams we delivered

Were important – good and bad.

Some faces lit up with joy

Others stunned and sad.

We had a special permit

To where others could not go,

Miles and miles we seemed to walk

In blackout, wind and snow.

For my father I was in mourning

Dressed all in black;

I wore a wide straw hat,

With black ribbon down the back.

Once I went to the top of the Castle,

Up steep winding steps, under armed guard.

The General I think he was

On reading his message, looked at me very hard.

I see you are in mourning!

Is it your father that’s gone?

When I said ‘yes he had died’

In a kind voice he went on;

You are a good little girl

The sort we are fighting for;

Not only helping your family

But helping to win the war.My next great thrill was my uniform

Navy blue, piped with red

I didn’t like the hat though,

Perched upon my head. Sometimes on delivering a Telegram I knew that it was wrongBut I’d call into home;

To see how Grannie was getting along.

Stoke up her fire, make her a cup of tea,

For rushing on my journey

I felt a little free.

Hospital ships alongside

The Admiralty Pier:

The dreadful sights I saw there

I could not describe them here.

Men were laid along the platform

In a pitiful array;

I had to step between them

Mustard gas had had its way

But also there was a lighter side

A gambling officer at one camp,

If it was a ‘Winner’

Would send us to the cookhouse

And order us a dinner.

We always watched his face as he read

If he looked a little ‘sick’

No dinner for us today we’d think

And got out quick.

The docks were crowded with minesweepers and drifters

Many others we saw;

But the battlescarred ‘blooded Vindictive’

Was my second terrible glimpse of the War.

The time came for we girls to be leaving

We were rather sad at heart:

But we knew we’d been quite useful

And felt we’d done our part

Grannie was now bed-ridden

Give her all my time I ought;

Earning a little sometimes

Helping a collector

His stamps to sort.

I knew then, as I know now

I was growing up fast,

The next memoirs of my childhood

Would be my last.

But again I was sent to London

Aunt now had three children of her own

Mother and stepfather, sent me up to help

Ignoring my plea, that Grannie would be alone.

Soon I became ill with fretting

Doctor said home would be best for me,

Aunt too worried about her mother

So sent me back where I longer to be.

Works Cited

[1] See Hugh Cunnigham’s discussion on p.421 of the contribution of children and wives to the family economy in the early twentieth century and his illustrative statistics.

Cunnigham, Hugh. ‘The Decline of Child Labour: Labour Markets and Family Economies in Europe and North America Since 1830.’ The Economic History Review, New Series, 53:3 (August 2000): pp. 409-428 (p.421)


[2] Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960: Gender, class and ethnicity. London: Routledge, 1994: p.2

‘Hilton-Foord, Kathleen’. Grannie’s Girl in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Vol 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987 (2.398a)

‘Hilton-Foord, Kathleen’. The Survivor: The Memoirs of a little Dover girl – Born 1903 in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Vol 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987 (2.398b)

‘Hilton-Foord, Kathleen’. No title (handwritten memoir) in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Vol 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987 (2.398c)

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