‘I had an intense desire to get free’ (47)
‘Alf Ireson had run away…I had gone to Cambridge by the first train’ (48). It seems that Alf realised his path was unlikely to unfold within the comfort of his country family-home, even at the cost of deserting his family without so much as an explanation. ‘For long years my dear mother would not lock the door at night’ (48) Alf reveals, a price that his poor mother had to pay at his expense. Alf undertook stonemason work in Cambridge, on a weekly pay of around £1, working on the college and public buildings of the ‘clean, nice town’ (50). This was not Alf’s image of complete career contentment, with the last day of his mason work falling upon 27th November, 1882 with Alf exclaiming ‘That’s the last stroke I hope ever to take as a stone-mason’ (92) at twenty-six years old. So the next object of Alf’s ambition? The great city of London, of course!
The escape from a comfortable family home, led him into the arms of Wesleyan missionary work in the smoke and ash-flavoured London. ‘A town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it’ (2001,16) as Dickens describes it in Hard Times, London could be seen as ‘a place of backwardness, ignorance, limitation’ (Williams, 1975, 9); the perfect place to find Alf’s next calling. Above all, travelling to spread the word of his Wesleyan chapel proved to be the largest passion in his life, and one of his greatest achievements, and one that his mother could again, take pride in.
His work located him amongst the public-houses, ‘Gin Palaces’ (96), of the markets of the ‘New Cut’, Lambeth, to advise on the matter of temperance, introducing himself ‘to these poor people as ‘“Your new friend”’ (96). The moral argument of his temperance word saw ‘people as demeaning themselves by being enslaved to drink, and often drew on Christian or biblical principles’ (Demon Drink, n.p.) to encourage. You can find out more about temperance and the working-classes here. Many times at work though, he found ‘many good hearts’, but that ‘religion was little use…A kind act was what they needed’ (96), lending a hand to the elderly, in one instance, brought great joy to his life and no doubt his Lord. Where many look on work as a chore, Alf seemed to look upon his missionary work as a joyful passion that could override any pay check or fancy new toy. He seemed relentless in making his work one of care for humanity, as though he was ‘concerned with (his) image and status as an atom of the masses’ (Gagnier, 1987, 340), unsatisfied to settle for menial labour work that seemed to benefit no one but those of the higher classes. But it seems that even the fiercely independent Alf still yearned for the basic human instinct of being a part of community, which came in the form of his missionary community.
Alf never seems to struggle with his own class identity, admitting that the wages he earns have not limited his ability to live the life that he desires. No revelations of destitution, nor any criticism that food was never on the table have arisen. Vincent’s concept that ‘the less (the writer) was involved in specific activities of self-improvement, the greater his preoccupation with the details of his life as a worker’ (1981, 62) once again proves Alf to be somewhat of an anomaly amongst his working-class writer peers. His time as a worker is what, ultimately, assured his quest for self-improvement. I am pleased for Alf’s ambitions and achievements and all that has brought him happiness and peace in his soul.
Ireson, Alfred. ‘Reminiscences’, TS, pp.175 (c.35,000 words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.82-8. Brunel University Library.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. New York: Dover Publications, 2001
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363
‘Spreading the Message’ www.DemonDrink.co.uk. N.d. Web. Accessed 16th January 2016.
Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography. London: Europa Publications, 1981.
Williams, Raymond. The Country and The City. St. Albans: Granada Publishing, 1975.
London as Text: London Pubs. Web. Accessed 3rd January 2016. http://honorslondonastext.blogspot.co.uk/
Demon Drink: Spreading the Message Archive. Web. Accessed 7th January 2016. http://www.demondrink.co.uk/spreading-the-message-archive/