Kathleen Hilton-Foord (1903-1998): Home & Family – Writing Lives

Kathleen Hilton-Foord (1903-1998): Home & Family

Copy of illustration included in 'The Survivor' memoir.
Kathleen’s first home at St. James Street, Dover

Kathleen’s identity as a poet is derived from her experiences of family life. Her relationship with her grandmother has a significant influence on her writing; this is proven by the fact that she titles her book of twelve poems Grannie’s Girl. It is without question that Kathleen cherishes the relationship she has with her grandmother; who is a mother figure providing her with love and affection. In the poem ‘The Beginning’, Kathleen writes how she and her grandmother ‘were company for each other’, and that her grandmother ‘took the place of my mother’ (Grannie’s Girl). Grannie’s Girl contains poems about Kathleen’s childhood up until the death of her grandmother; this alone shows how much she values her childhood life with her grandmother, no other part of her youth seems as important as this to tell her readers about in any great detail.

Kathleen has no trouble in expressing her feelings about her grandmother and about her family in general. When Kathleen is told that her grandmother has been taken to hospital she says:

‘To say that I was heartbroken

I needn’t tell you that;

I shut myself up in the room

Just hugging Judy, the cat.’

(‘The End’, Grannie’s Girl)


In The Survivor, Kathleen considers how lonely she felt whilst living with another family following the death of her grandmother. It is through the family she is living with however, that she comes to meet her sailor fiancé (The Survivor, p.6), who she was incidentally sat in front of when she took the ‘Labour’ exam:

‘We were seated a yard apart, in a row;

One sitting behind, in later years I was to marry

But of course then I did not know’

(‘Leaving School’, Grannie’s Girl)



There is a sense of rejection from Kathleen’s mother that can be felt whilst reading Grannie’s Girl and her memoirs; she explicitly refers to this feeling in the poem ‘The Beginning’: ‘In later years I had, A feeling of rejection’ (Grannie’s Girl).  Kathleen doesn’t go into very much detail about her mother and acknowledges that she ‘never really got to know’ her (‘The Beginning’, Grannie’s Girl).

At the turn of the century there was a focus by the Religious Tract Society on the role of men within the family home. Men were expected to have more involvement with their children and to share domestic responsibilities. As Stephanie Olsen suggests, this would have ‘certainly complicated gender relations in the home’[1]. To some extent, this would have affected the domestic and motherly duties of women who may have surrendered some of their responsibilities in the expectation of the man taking over. Whilst it is not referred to in Kathleen’s writing, her mother may be an example of the changing attitudes of women to their parental duties at the fin de siècle; although, the Religious Tract Society were not advocating the rejection of all maternal responsibility.

Reading about Kathleen’s relationship with her mother in an age of mental health awareness, I question whether her mother had post-natal depression. Being working class would not have helped Kathleen’s mother to comprehend or even act upon her lack of motherly instinct towards her. Carolyn Steedman discusses Kathleen Woodward’s autobiography Jipping Street. According to Steedman, Kathleen Woodward ‘knew as a child that she was a burden to her mother, that she need never have been born, that mothers could indeed kill children’[2]. This same feeling is sentimentalised in Kathleen’s Grannie’s Girl and her memoirs, she says ‘in fact my mother prayed for me to die’ (The Survivor, p.1). Thus, similarly to Jipping Street, Kathleen’s writing serves as a ‘salutary reminder that class circumstances alter psychological cases’[3].


‘my father, a tall old gentleman with silver hair and a Van Dyke type beard understood me, he was sixty three when I was born, but my mother did not [and] I could never understand why she did not love me as much as my brothers’

(Handwritten memoir, p.5)

Despite feeling that her mother didn’t love her, Kathleen says ‘In later years, when old enough to understand; I felt sympathy for my mother’ (‘Father’, Grannies Girl). Her father was 30 years older than her mother and had five other daughters from a previous marriage who were ‘as old or older than she was’ (The Survivor, p.1). I imagine this would have confused domestic responsibility within the household. Kathleen acknowledges that her mother ‘was between vastly different ages, Turning from one to another’ (‘Father’, Grannie’s Girl). Having such older sisters meant that Kathleen was ‘laughingly’ an Aunty (‘The Beginning’, Grannies Girl). There is a general sense throughout Kathleen’s writing that her family wasn’t typical of working-class families at the time because of the age of her father and her half-sisters:

‘Our family was rather strange

The generations, in disarray.

Father was born in eighteen-forty

Grannie the same year, just six months away.

(‘Father’, Grannie’s Girl)


Although she doesn’t feel loveKathleen's own illustration from the poem'Father' in Grannies Girld by her mother and lives away from the family home, Kathleen says ‘My father, I know loved me dearly’ (‘The Beginning’, Grannie’s Girl). She seems to have a close relationship with her father, who owned a taxidermist and pet shop. In her poem ‘Father’, Kathleen describes him as being ‘tall, With a white pointed beard’ and that he ‘seemed old’, as he would often be mistaken for her grandfather (Grannie’s Girl). Kathleen describes how she would go with her father to catch butterflies for his collection. When her father passes away, Kathleen says ‘I missed him sadly’ (‘Father’, Grannie’s Girl).

In addition to his taxidermist and pet shop business, Kathleen’s father ‘had his own Orchestra, Double Bass, Cellos and Violins’ (The Survivor, p.1). As she says in her handwritten memoir, her father ‘had taught the first family of girls to play the piano [and] other instruments, but by the time we were old enough there was only one violin left not even the piano’ (p.7). Although Kathleen’s father was trying to educate and develop his children, their class position, the size of their family and the restraints placed on her father’s business because of the war, meant Kathleen and her younger siblings missed out on being musically tutored by their father. Her half-sisters benefitted from their father’s  lessons as she says that ‘one or other of my half[-]sisters played the piano at the Town Hall Dances, Balls and other functions, also in the pit of the Old Market Square Theatre, and the Hippodrome in Snargate Street’ (The Survivor, p.1).


In The Survivor, Kathleen states that her parents transferred their taxidermist business to Folkestone Road, at which point her house was ‘overcrowded with four boys’ (p.1). Her grandmother saw how overcrowded the house was when she came down from London and took Kathleen into her care when she was three years old. Kathleen’s half-sister, who she called “auntie Kit’, was a ‘landlady of a very large house, No 73, which had belonged to gentry and had serv[a]nts quarters’ (p.1).  This ‘rooming house’ had different families, or people in each room. The ‘rooming house’ is exemplary of the changes to housing and living standards which one critic claims was a ‘widespread reaction to economic recession’[4]. Working-class families, particularly those with more than two children were ‘not seen as ‘good’ tenants’ so would have struggled to find housing[5]. In ‘The House’ poem, Kathleen describes how ‘The ground floor rent the steepest, Each floor up a little less, The attics were the cheapest’ (Grannie’s Girl). Kathleen and her grandmother were lucky that one of their family members was a landlady; otherwise they may have struggled to find a room at all. As ‘auntie-Kit’ moves to London, Kathleen and her grandmother have a different landlady. Children were no longer allowed in the house, but with nowhere else to go Kathleen has to sleep in a cupboard which was ‘kept conveniently open so that I could get in quickly and hide’ (The Survivor, p.2). Luckily, Kathleen says ‘the landlady turned a blind eye to me as we were never harassed’ (p.2).

‘Rules were strict for the little girl

She had to make no noise;

So she’d slide down the bannisters

One of her secret joys.

On the top stair of their landing

She’d sit and softly sing;

Doors would slowly open

To hear a touch of Spring.

It mingled with the other sounds

No-one could say her nay;

For she was known as Grannies Girl

And so they let her stay.

(‘The House’, Grannie’s Girl)


Kathleen describes some of the characters living in the house throughout her writing, such as the ‘grand lady with blonde hair called “Bogey”’, who she says ‘wanted to adopt me and teach me’ (The Survivor, p.2). She says how in each room there ‘lived a ‘loner’, Mostly old and poor, Some were just eccentric, Behind their own locked door’ (‘The House’, Grannie’s Girl).

Kathleen’s experience of living with her grandmother in a ‘rooming’ house provides her with memories worth talking about in her writing. In retelling some of these memories, Kathleen’s charming and thoughtful character is revealed; she never seems to let her circumstances affect her morality or her enjoyment of being a child.

‘Many years have passed away

The house itself has gone;

The little girl herself is old

But memories linger on.’

(The House, Grannie’s Girl)

Works Cited

[1] Olsen, Stephanie. ‘The Authority of Motherhood in Question: fatherhood and the moral education of children in England, c.1870-1900’. Women’s History Review, 2009: 18(5), p770

[2] Steedman, Carolyn. Past Tenses: Essays on writing, autobiography and history. London: Rivers Oram Press, 1992: p.124

[3] Ibid p.125

[4] Kemp. Peter. ‘Some aspects of housing consumption in late nineteenth century England and Wales’. Housing Studies 2(1), 3-16: p.9

[5] Ibid, p.13

‘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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