Book: The Girl from Hockley by Kathleen Dayus

Book: The Girl from Hockley by Kathleen Dayus

What struck me early on is the tagline ‘growing up in working class Birmingham’ is not the working class I recall. I grew up in Bedford, some 70 years behind the author but my idea of working class is someone who needs to work as they don’t have any other means of income.

However Katy was born into poverty. This is something else all-together and her story is about the people who lived with her in the slums and yet still pay rent for the privilege of sharing washing and toilet facilities and living in two rooms. This is poverty class, or the cruelly termed underclass.

The slums were in the Jewellery Quarter, which has been my home for eight years and often (annoyingly) a frequent visitor on best-places-to-live-in-the-UK type lists.

However, it’s not so much the poverty that I found so upsetting reading this book, it’s the abuse. The real tagline should be growing up in the slums with an abusive mother. It was almost inevitable some of this would continue into her first relationship too with the man who became her first husband. I can’t get past the children getting scraps while the parents have a better meal AND go to the pub. Ever.

No-one knows about contraception and this is pre-NHS where midwives need to be paid for sometimes fatal home-births.

To give her credit, after four children from a destructive marriage, Kathleen is a widower by 29 and makes drastic steps to end the cycle of poverty her family has endured. She wants to learn a trade and her mindset is to be in a skilled job.

The most heart-breaking part of this book on top of the various abuse, many deaths and constant set-backs is learning about how the Dr Barnardos charity treated when she was desperate for help. I had to put it down for a rest at this point. It’s hard to imagine what people put up with now, never mind then.

Undoubtedly it felt all too real reading about the streets around me and the state they were in. It made me wonder if there’s anyone living in poverty here by today’s standards and are we doing enough to help?

The Girl from Hockley gives a detailed insight into how people below the poverty line lived before and during the war. But also how a gutsy woman managed to single-handedly get herself out of the slums, build her own business before becoming an author. Put together from her individual books, it is tempting to go back and pick up the originals. I’ll need a little break from bleakness first.


Found this great definition of working class on an old Guardian posting:

THE difference between the classes is in their relationship with society’s institutions. The working classes do what the system sets out for them. The middle classes invent, operate and belong to the system. The upper classes tolerate the system but know the right people to speak to if they feel the need to bypass any part of it. The underclass (often overlooked) don’t have any relationship with the system at all. Similarly, for example, working-class attitudes on school are: “Keep your head down and your mouth shut – if they don’t notice you, then you can’t get into trouble.” Middle class on school: “Your school is there to help you learn, and teachers are there to answer your questions.” Upper class on school: “It’s a pity you have to spend your time with second-rate people but you’ll get the real lessons of life here, when you come home for the hols.”

J Nieman, Muswell Hill, London N10


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