For many, reading can be seen as one of the most enjoyable pastimes there is. It is also a common view that reading books and involving oneself in literature is imperative to the development of our culture and education.
However, in comparison to current times, literature was not so easy to come by for the working-class people at the turn of the 20th century.
Alice Pidgeon spent her youth in an orphanage, along with younger sister Doris. From the age of seven and her sister from the age of three and a half, the girls were sent to live in John Grooms orphanage in the South of England.
The fact that the girls no longer belonged to a family home and lacked guidance from their own parents, could quite easily have meant that the girls missed out on stories and children’s books, literature and novels. But Alice, Doris and the other girls of John Groom’s Home were exposed to literature and books possibly more so than other, more fortunate children of the time.
Alice and the girls called the lady who cared for them in the orphanage, ‘Mother’. On Sunday evenings, the girls would gather in a circle in Mother’s sitting room after service and listen to her read. Mother would read Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop and other titles such as A Peep Behind the Scenes. This seems like a very homely and comforting scene. Perhaps this is what the owner of the orphanage, John Groom, was attempting to do. Or maybe it was that Mother liked the educational and cultural benefits literature had for the girls. But either way, this reading experience must have been one of comfort and bonding for the young girls who sat circled together on those evenings.
The importance of exposing the girls to literature during their time in the orphanage is further impressed when Alice reminisces about Christmas time.
Alice remembers Christmas as a happy experience in the orphanage, a day packed full of singing, dancing, eating and drinking. She notes how they each received presents on Christmas morning;
‘I have a doll, picture book or storybook, a trumpet and various other things.’ (Memoir. P8)
As a way to encourage their own reading, the girls would receive books as presents.
In current time books are so easily accessible, and in so many different formats, that it is difficult to understand a time where people may not have had the opportunity to develop their own taste in books.
Looking at John Pateman’s text about libraries and the working classes, we can see the influence public libraries had on society and how this idea developed. The text describes a time period that ranges from the mid nineteenth century, through to the Second World War.
For the upper class society in Great Britain, a large collection of books and journals would have been seen as a mark of money and intelligence, however, for the working class or the ‘deserving poor’, libraries were designed to manage their idle time and develop and control their reading habits. Libraries, for some, were there to progress the working class society into a more developed and established order, as some thought.
But the working-class libraries were incorporated in working-men’s clubs and other certain societies. It served as something both social and educational to the working class.
Religious text would have been an obvious part of many people’s lives during the early twentieth century. Alice makes frequent reference to religion and her Bible throughout her memoir.
‘I had once been sitting in the dining room while they were out, which I often did studying my Bible with the us[e] of the grudens condordance [cruden’s concordance], a thick heavy book’ (Memoir. P10)
The religious text is something Alice frequently pondered, with the aid of the concordance.
The implication is that the religious influence in Alice’s life came from her upbringing in the orphanage. There is no significant mention of her parents being religious, and in general, religious ideas and themes in Alice’s memoir are often alluded to rather than being discussed with a heavy importance.
I thought, before reading Alice’s memoir and researching into the topic more, that reading would have been one of the most accessible hobbies during Alice’s time. After all, books have been written and read over hundreds of years.
It shows great initiative on the behalf of John Grooms orphanage, however, that the little girls enjoyed literature as youngsters.
 Pateman J. Public Libraries and the Working Classes. Library History [serial online]. November 2005;21(3):189-194. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed April 25, 2013