Harold Gill (1919-2003): Class Matters

Harold Gill immediately identifies himself as a working-class man. This is seen through his account of childhood and the hardship that his family faced. He writes: ‘Clogs, which were then the vogue for children, more from necessity than fashion, were hard wearing and lasting provided the worn irons were renewed when wearing thin in order to avoid the repair of “clogging”‘ (Pg.4). Harold, in the early parts of his memoir, even has the appearance of a working-class child. Money must be smartly saved in all areas, including clothes, because his family is so poor. We learn that his father was a manual labourer, and as a result Harold’s family often struggled financially in the colder months. As a brick-layer, a ‘severe winter imposed varying degrees of hardship on the entire family’ (Pg.2). As a result of these often difficult winters, Harold’s family had to pull together and support each other, something which is in the fabric of working-class culture. Harold recalls ‘frequent trips to a farm’ accompanied by ‘my brother Vin’ (Pg.3) in order to collect cheap food in bulk for the family.

Harold’s working-class identity is further confirmed by the surrounding neighbours and villagers. Harold notes: ‘Good neighbours were everywhere in those days and the many acts of kindness in these situations are too numerous to relate here’ (Pg.3). The poverty of Harold’s village was countered by the neighbours looking out for each other. This epitomises working-class communities in the twentieth century. Harold also mentions the abundance of pubs in his childhood village, joking about the ‘predominance of pubs to churches’ (Pg.2). Drinking in pubs is a classic working-class tradition, and Harold’s town of Wesham certainly follows it.

In spite of the struggles and problems that accompanied Harold’s working-class childhood, he reminisces on it pleasantly. He remembers the good times as well as the hard: ‘In June 1929 I was given a kite by a Mr. Tomlinson who lived on Weeton Road’ (Pg. 7). Again the solidarity and neighbourliness of the working-class community prevails. Although children like Harold were poor, they were happy with the gift of a kite. Harold’s childhood was riddled with hardship and financial trouble but it didn’t seem to phase him, he was still an extremely happy child. He recalls: ‘As for myself, I enjoyed my days at school so much that I was reluctant to leave and would, had I been allowed, have postponed indefinitely the prospect of employment in an adult world’ (Pg.10). Harold’s working-class identity is epitomised by his happiness in the face of poverty.

Children in the 1920s.

When Harold finally did leave school to find employment, it was in serving his country. He was called up to fight for Britain along with millions of other working class men. Harold remembers his first wage: ‘At the end of it all my pay was fixed at sixpence per day, and duly: recorded in my army pay book (A.B.64). My future seemed now financially secure’ (Pg.13). Harold’s service in the army could be seen as a working-class victory in many ways. Harold fought bravely among his friends for the safety of his country. Other working class people have worked in mills, mines and dangerous factories, earning little money or recognition. Harold, however, worked to protect his people and his way of life, rather than the pockets of a wealthy businessman. Selena Todd suggests ‘The history of the last century is in many ways a story of millions of ordinary people pursuing greater control over their lives’.

Perhaps though, Harold wrote his memoir as a way escaping the hardship and adversity that his working class life has exposed him to. Harold mentions the struggles of growing up, such as ‘doctors bills’ being a terrifying aspect of a large family’ (Pg.3). His years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp were clearly traumatic ones. He writes: ‘A combination of dysentery and malaria often proved fatal. All in all it seemed a harsh, vindictive world we had encountered out there in the east’ (Pg.37). Perhaps Harold’s memoir serves as a break from the pain he has suffered. Gagnier proposes that ‘These texts were written by people with lives of unmitigated misery and hardship, for whom writing is a form, more or less successful, of therapy. Unlike the authors of the confessions, they are not trying to sell their work so much as to analyse and alleviate their pain’.

Works Cited:

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987), 335-363

Gill, Harold, Untitled, TS, pp.66 (c. 31,000 words). Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. Brunel University Library, July 1987, 2:316

Todd, Selina. ‘Afterword The State We Are In, 2011–15’ The People… (2015)

Images Cited:

Image of ‘Children in the 1920s’. Accessed on 24/04/19.

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