'They had to bear hardship often, and tragedy always'
Throughout my time researching the past of Birmingham, the incredibly moving stories I have found and read of the people who came before have truly gone onto inspiring a zine I am currently making, alongside a group of fellow students for this months visual communication module.
One person I found who truly opened my eyes to the kind of lifestyle people were experiencing particularly during Birmingham's formative years in becoming the now famous 'workshop of the world' is a lady called Kathleen Dayus. Writing two emotive and humorous biographies about her life growing up in the slums around Camden street, reading her novel was like opening a time capsule. It was a fantastic source of information, and it was clearly a hidden gem of a book as well- they both hadn't been checked out since 2008!
Born in 1903, in Hockley, Birmingham the life Kathleen grew to knew was one of hard labour and hard living. Living in the remainders of the many 18th century slums which were built to house the growing population during the industrial revolution, she remembers vividly the dirt and squalor which surrounded both her childhood and adolescence:
' They were dirty old houses; everyone had vermin or insects of some description. There were fleas, bugs, rats, mice and cockroaches- you name it, we had it.'
Living with over seven siblings alongside her parents, the cramped nature of life within a slum house left little room for privacy- every argument, every ounce of laughter, every boring conversation meant that there was no room to breath- you existed as a unit of people, and the idea of privacy was a far off dream. No conversation could be said without more than three ears overhearing it, and the chance for breathing room upstairs was equally unlikely- packed into one room, Kathleen shared a bed with her sister Liza, and at the end of the mattress slept her elder brother, Frankie. The squabbles which arose from living in such close proximity to each other were numerous to say the least, and as an unwanted addition to an already struggling family, Kathleen was often the target of these frustrations. Whether it be her sister kicking her out of bed and leaving her to sleep on the floor, or her own mother hitting her for the slightest infraction, it was a hard read at times, simply because of the suffering you could feel in Kathleen's voice, decades after she had moved on from her life on Camden drive.
Money also seemed to be a constant worry on Kathleen's mind, even when she wrote about her early days of childhood. Vividly describing the poverty of her district, the rush for parish relief still rings clearly in her minds-eye as she remembered the run for being the first in line:
'Everybody got up early on Fridays- it was parish relief day and if you wanted to get your share you had to be fast. Each person had a card for coal, bread, margarine, a tin of condensed milk, tea and sugar but what we received was insufficient to feed us growing children, let alone our parents as well. We never knew from where or when our next meal was coming.'
As you can see, life within these types of conditions was not one led in ease- the fact Kathleen had survived into adulthood at all is a miracle considering that seven siblings previous to the ones she later grew up with had died young- on average a child born into a life such as Kates had a one in five chance of making it to their first birthday. Illness was rife, and death was common- you didn't expect to reach a great age, and considered yourself lucky if you even made it into your twenties. There was work to be had, but none of it paid well, and even after marriage, Kate still struggled within conditions of poverty. With two children lost to miscarriages, one killed by a van, and a husband dead also, as a widow without work or money, she decided that it was best to put her children into care:
'In my desperation I made one of the most heart-breaking decisions I had to make; I resolved to put my children into care where they could be fed and well cared for, until such a time I could provide a proper home full of love and affection which they deserved'
Eventually the family did reunite- working as a successful enameller, Kate had worked tirelessly throughout their separation to begin a new life for them all, and by the time they were again a family, she had built her own business, and was employing women who -like her- were struggling to get by and needed a place to work that didn't eat away at the time they had with their children. Surviving a whole war together, and seeing her son live to fight another day after surviving as a soldier in WW2, she ended her days in a house of her own, existing in comfort well beyond what she knew during her formative years.
To see the harsh reality of Kathleen's story was incredibly inspiring- and its an inspiration I want to take into this zine I am designing at university. its only thanks to people like her that Birmingham became what we know it for today- and its a privilege to be retelling their memories, within a zine that will celebrate the past and future generations of Birmingham.