Martha Martin (b.1871): An Introduction – Writing Lives

Martha Martin (b.1871): An Introduction

“For they say we are all on this Earth to fill our own individual Places and to do perhaps what someone else could not do”

Martha Martin, ‘The Ups and Downs of Life’ (p.1)

Born in 1871, Martha was the eldest of ten children. Her 36,000 word memoir is rich with personal detail, focusing on family life (through stories of caring for her siblings and stories of them exploring the various places they lived), religion (she attended Sunday School during her childhood), later touching on working life (she worked in various hotels throughout her adult life) and concluding with her thoughts on marriage.

Map of Tamworth during the 19th century

Martha comes from a ‘very poor family’ she reveals in the opening page of her memoir and ‘The Ups and Downs of Life’ explores her experiences of being from a poor family (her Father worked various jobs, her Mother was a housewife) and later her experiences of being a working-class woman. It was interesting to see how her family circumstances affected her.

‘The Ups and Downs of Life’ is a handwritten memoir, making it more personal, something Martha suggests she started to ‘let you see the ups and downs’ (p.239). In this memoir Martha provides the reader with an intimate insight into her life and the journey she has underwent.

Whilst it did prove difficult to decipher at times, the fact that Martha’s memoir was handwritten makes it more personal than others I have read and encountered on the Writing Lives module.

A particularly tricky part of Martha’s memoir (towards the end, at least!)

There are a few reasons why I chose to write on Martha’s memoir. Firstly, I was captivated by the simple title ‘The Ups and Downs of Life’ as her memoir is full of personal details and anecdotes of a life she describes as a ‘funny one’ (p.1). Secondly, I loved the fact that I would be able to collect snapshots of her life in different places in England (she also emigrated to America in 1914, which she addresses in her memoir), places I have not visited myself. I also knew that I wanted to look at a woman’s autobiography, as studying women’s experiences as represented in writing and literature has been something of interest throughout my degree.

Martha’s memoir is incredibly positive, filled with kind comments about her family, lovely anecdotes about the places she has lived and the memoir itself has a funny, light-hearted tone. I found Martha relatable as I also have a close relationship with my family, so the stories she told about her family were incredibly moving, especially when she recollects her brother’s abuse at the hands of her Father and the deaths of her siblings throughout her life.

I have not yet been able to uncover when Martha wrote this memoir, or indeed what happened to her when it was completed. What I do know, though, is that ‘The Ups and Downs of Life’ provides an insight into working-class life in Britain, through the strong focus on family life and the various locations she lived. What was particularly interesting about Martha’s memoir was  the fact that it explores working-class life from a female perspective, something I had little knowledge about.


Martha, Martin. ‘The Ups and Downs of Life’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library 1:499

‘Martha Martin’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds.) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:499

Further Reading:

Bourke, Joanna. Working Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity (London: Routledge, 1994)

Burnett, John ed. Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from 1820s to the 1920s (London: Routledge, 1994)

Cannadine, David. Class in Britain. (Hamondworth: Penguin, 1990)

Cuming, Emily and Helen Rogers. ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant Reading of Working-Class Autobiography’ Journal of Family and Community History, 2019

Frost, Ginger S. Victorian Childhoods: Victorian Life and Times. (UK: Praeger, 2008)

Gagnier, Reginia. ‘Working Class Autobiography, Subjectivity and Gender’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987) 335- 363

Hall, David. Working Lives: The Forgotten Voices of Britain’s Post-War Working Class. (London: Bantam Press, 2012)

Jones, Ben. The working-class in mid-twentieth century England: Community, identity and social memory. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012)

Light, Alison. Common People: A History of the English Family. (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 2015)

Myers, Janet C. ‘Performing the Voyage out: Victorian Female Emigration and the Class Dynamics of Displacement’ Victorian Literature and Culture vol 29, no.1, 2001 pp. 129-146

Rose, Jonathan. ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 53.1 1992: 47-70

Seabrook, Jeremy. Working Class Childhood. An Oral History, Victor Gollancz, London, 1982

Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247

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