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

Kathleen Hilton-Foord (1903-1998): Reading & Writing

‘I was a prolific reader, and would do anything for a book’

(Handwritten memoir, p.4)

In Kathleen’s memoir and poetry there are no specific individual reading experiences she recalls. She describes her grandmother’s reaction to reading about her pension in Lloyds Weekly Newspaper; this was in relation to the Old Age Pensions Act in 1908[1]. Kathleen describes herself as a ‘prolific reader’ but doesn’t name any of the texts that she reads. She mostly got her books from the Band of Hope Sunday School, which suggests her reading would have been religious. I think Kathleen excludes the titles of books because they were not from the literary canon. Although, not reading high class literature may not have been through her own choosing. I have discovered through my own reading of Joseph McAleer’s exploration of the nature of popular fiction and its readers between 1914 to 1950, that during the First World War there were restrictions on trading and paper supplies, which he claims ‘accelerated the trends towards […] cheaper priced fictions’[2]. Kathleen would have had limited access to texts from the literary canon and may have been embarrassed to admit to reading typically working-class books, perhaps believing that it would affect the perception of her intelligence.

The dominant religious tone of Kathleen’s writing is symbolic of the Religious Tract Society’s objective between 1870 and 1914, to “replace’ the popular dreadful publications with ‘wholesome’ papers, often with specifically religious leanings’[3]. Although religious writing was considered as ‘wholesome’, Kathleen dramatizes her recitations of poems about the ‘Demon Drink’. She says:

‘the more harrowing the sufferings of the drunkards wife and children, or the downward slide to the gutter of a poor gin soaked woman, the better I would recite! and if I forgot my lines would improvise […] until I would cry myself!’

(Handwritten memoir, p.4)

The way Kathleen uses her imagination to exaggerate the effects of the ‘Demon drink’ suggest that she may have also been reading the sensational fiction contained within newspapers and magazines. Her visits to the cinema every other Saturday would have also contributed to her theatrical recitations of warnings against the ‘Demon Drink’. Despite her grandmother not being able to afford the penny that it costs to go, Kathleen is enticed by the serialisation of the shows she watches. This social activity is done with friends as she describes how ‘we shouted and cheered the ‘goodies’, Boo-ed loudly at the bad’ (‘Our Parish’, Grannie’s Girl). Although Kathleen doesn’t mention her cinema visits alongside her reading, they influence her writing which is somewhat serialised itself; aspects of her life are separated under headings such as ‘The Beginning’, ‘Storm Clouds Ahead’, ‘Leaving School’ and ‘The End’.

 fetching grannies pale ale


Kathleen’s Sunday school reading influences and impacts upon her writing. In ‘Signing the Pledge’, she fictionally describes the depressive and suicidal state of one woman who drinks gin but who gives up ‘her life of sin’ and signs the pledge. Kathleen advises:

‘So heed this dreadful warning

Be not by Strong Drink led

Keep to the straight and narrow path

Think of what lies ahead.’

This example of Kathleen’s poetry reflects the type of warnings she would have been reading about in the books given to her in Sunday school.

Kathleen’s religious moral readings affect her social and cultural views. In her memoir and ‘Our Parish’ she describes how guilty she feels when she has to pick up her grandmother’s ‘half pint of pale ale’ because she has signed the pledge herself. Although picking up the ale makes her feel ‘full of apprehension’ and her nerves are ‘all on edge’, she still gets it for her ‘Grannie’, who was ‘unable to fetch it herself’ (‘Our Parish’, Grannie’s Girl). This shows how influential her reading was to her moral standards and the extent to which reading about the ‘Demon Drink’ reaches into the relationship she has with her grandmother.

I discussed Kathleen’s access to reading through the Band of Hope Sunday School in my post about her education and schooling. I think these two areas are closely related and my discussion here of Kathleen’s way of writing and the books she would have been reading is further evidence of how important the Sunday school was in shaping Kathleen’s ability to write and use her imagination.

 ‘I was a highly imaginative and perceptive child’

(Handwritten memoir, p.4)


Works Cited

[1] For more about the Old Age Pensions Act 1908 see

[2] McAleer, Joseph. Popular Reading and Publishing in Britain 1914-1950. New York: Oxford UP, 1992: 7

[3] McAleer, 12

‘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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