While Mrs Jones reveals her account of working-class life throughout her autobiographical letters, she also provides a narrative on the working conditions of miners during a time of political turbulence regarding unionisation and the rights of workers as she unveils her father’s experience with unemployment. Without outlining a specific political standpoint, we can infer that Mrs Jones and her family to be of leftist inclination due to her strong working-class identity, alongside the notion that “the whole sample [of working-class autobiography] is skewed to the political left” (Rose, 1992, p.51). As she explores the working life of her father, Mrs Jones’ autobiographic writing becomes “as much the story of a parent or a family, as of the author’s life” (Rogers and Cuming, 2019, p.5), as she details his personal experiences and feelings as though they were her own.
While her father worked at the Marston mine, a terrible accident transpired, “as the marston mine got flooded with water suddenly.” (1). This event was heavily documented at the time of its occurrence and the story has been preserved since by West Cheshire Museums, referred to as a ‘catastrophic collapse’ by reporters observing the disaster retrospectively. Experiencing the catastrophe first-hand, Mrs Jones reports on her father’s observations stating, “One night workmen were repairing the shaft at the cylinders, when water gushed in + [and] could not be stopped. My father was called in to help + [and] to save as much as the men could, before the mine flooded with water, this was tools etc.” (2). What is incredibly shocking about this event, is the corporation’s concern for ‘tools etc’ as opposed to the safety of the workers who risked their lives when entering that perilous environment.
The miners risking their lives for equipment after being ‘called in for help’ were in imminent danger of drowning. Yet, according to Mrs Jones, “The worst job my father said, was sending for a man to shoot the ponies as they had to leave them down, for there was not time to bring them to the surface + [and] there was now only one shaft working instead of two because of the water going down the other.” (2). It is harrowing to consider that lives of those miners may have been considered just as disposable as the horses that were killed.
As a result of this event, the Salt Union- that employed Mrs Jones’ father- was taken over by the I.C.I, and because of this her father faced unemployment at sixty-five years of age. Mrs Jones reports on the lack of support her father was given after losing his job to a ‘catastrophe’ that was out of his hands, stating “My father had worked for 51 years + [and] there were no pensions then only 10/- [10 shilling] Ld George pension + [and] as my mother was eight years younger she was not entitled to it. My father said he was thrown away like an old brush” (3). This is supported by Burnett as he highlights “The unemployed got 10s [10 shillings] a week from the union for thirteen weeks” (Burnett, 1994, p.180). Many large employers and politicians that the time queried the cause of unemployment, often assuming that the unemployed were out of work due to a lack of motivation while only “A minority view, even among organized labour and trade union leaders, was that the only remedy lay in revolutionary transformation of the economy and society to public ownership and control over the means of production” (Burnett, 1994, p.157). Mrs Jones’ father went on to become delegate for the mine, hopefully improving the conditions for miners that followed him.
Jones, N. ‘Two Autobiographical Letters’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 1790-1945 (3 volumes). John Burnett, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds.). Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989. 2:0444.
Rogers, Helen and Cuming, Emily. ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant Reading of Working-Class Autobiography’. Family & Community History 21:3 (February 2019), 180-201.
Rose, Jonathan. ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences’. Journal of the History of Ideas 53.1 (1992), 47-70.
Burnett, John. Idle Hands: The Experience of Unemployment, 1790-1990. London: Routledge, 1994.
Figure 1. Workers at Marston salt mine, 1900. Available at: https://www.cheshireimagebank.org.uk
Figure 2. Figure 2. The horses killed during the Marston mine flooding, 1900: Available at: https://www.cheshireimagebank.org.uk
Figure 3. Remains of the Marston flood disaster. Available at: http://lionsaltworks.westcheshiremuseums.co.uk/about-us/history-stories/the-great-canal-burst/