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My family tree diary by Donald Norfolk

ENTRY 9: February 2005

r^n A Victorian childhood

What my mother Learned from her father, and how she took advantage of changing social attitudes to women in the workplace...

Most family historians are anxious to learn about their distant forbears, but I'm equally keen to learn about my mother and father, who were born towards the end of the 19 th century. What circumstances, I wonder, brought them together and shaped their lives in those far-off days? This is a question that can't be answered by delving into government records, but only by reading private letters kept and treasured, and by talking to surviving family relatives.

For years I've idolised my extrovert father, and thought of my mother -Ellen Myatt - as being, by contrast, rather formal and unadventurous. He was the out-going public figure, she the hard-working, dutiful hausfrau. As a result of my researches into my matrilineal kinsfolk I now realise the error of this superficial evaluation.

Ellen was the youngest of a family of seven, and seemingly much influenced by her father, who was the subject of my last diary entry. He served for many years as the butler to the banker Robert Barclay, but beneath his dour outward appearance he concealed an ambitious and artistic temperament which he passed on to his children. As a youngster my mother was made acutely aware of her place in the pecking order. But while she accepted her subservient position, and curtsied dutifully to her superiors, she also shared her father's hope that she would one day climb a little higher in the social hierarchy.

During her formative years she acquired some of the social graces of the Barclay family, copying their dress and aping their deportment. This she did with such good effect that she was once mistaken for the Duchess of Portland, who at the time was one of the wealthiest society hostesses in

Britain. This was to prove a problem when the family moved to London in search of better paying jobs, where her smart clothes and posh talk became objects of ridicule rather than admiration.

The Myatt family were thought to be snobs. One of their cockney neighbours told me that my father's family were people of natural quality who had been laid low by a cruel twist of fate, whereas my mother's folk were merely 'successful servants'. (I've yet to identify the 'twist of fate').

At school my mother studied hard, rising eventually to the rank of head girl, a fact I only discovered a few months ago while chatting to my elder

"While she accepted her subservient position, and curtsied dutifully to her superiors, she also shared her father's hope that she would one day climb a little higher in the social hierarchy"

BY HAND: Data storage in offices before the arrival of the computer. My mother is seated on the right sister. As a bright and pretty teenager she caught the eye of my father, four years her senior, who, whenever possible, left work early so he could escort her home from school. At first she spurned his approaches, put off, I'm told, by her family's firm belief that he was beneath her, but eventually his persistence paid off and they became engaged after a long courtship.

This was the age of the 'New Woman', when liberated ladies smoked, drank and played games. But my mother didn't smoke, and the only game I saw her play was Happy Families. As a young girl she signed the pledge to remain a life long total abstainer, and often repeated the campaign slogan: 'Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.' In my youth I helped her keep that promise by making a firm practice of kissing her on the cheek rather than on the mouth. However she did take advantage of one of the new freedoms granted to emancipated women of taking a job in an office rather than work as a governess, servant or shop assistant.

She became one of the very first 'lady typewriters', a job description which was first recorded in 1897. Her employer was a German businessman, known to his staff as 'the Kaiser' because of his Teutonic accent, walrus moustache and autocratic manner. When World War I began he was interned as an alien subject, but beforehand he published a textbook on office management which included a photograph of my mother. The autographed copy of the book she received has since been lost, but the photograph remains among our family memorabilia.

When the War ended my parents married, and my mother exchanged the freedom of an office worker for the traditional ties of marriage, motherhood and domesticity. But she still found time to play the church organ, lecture, compose hymns and found and conduct a lady's choir. Her father would have been proud of her - and so too is her youngest son, now that he knows a little more about her early beginnings.


Having discovered more about my mother, I'm now eager to learn more about my maternal grandmother.

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