Harold Gill (1919-2003): Life and Labour

Harold’s memoir only covers his childhood and his time spent serving Britain in World War Two. During the war Harold was captured and sentenced to hard labour in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Harold recalls the brutality of this labour. He writes in his memoir: ‘If the work was in the quarry they picked up rocks and threw these at any prisoner they considered was not working hard enough. When one man dared to remonst with the Jap he was hit upon the head with the butt of a rifle and as he fell the guard jumped on him and called on the other guards to do the same’ (Pg.34). The gruelling work was made worse by the meagre diets Harold and his fellow soldiers were fed: ‘The lack of nourishing food, and the hot and humid climate served only to make any task more exhausting’ (Pg.31).

Constructing the Railway of Death

Many forms of labour in the twentieth century were dangerous, none more so than Harold’s labour in the prisoner-of-war camp though. Harold recalls how his fellow soldiers and himself were treated like animals in Singapore. He writes in his memoir: ‘We were herded into trucks, metal box-like structures at Singapore station. There was insufficient room to lie down, or even to sit in comfort’ (Pg.32). The dire conditions of the work camps are summed up by Harold’s friend Jack, as he jokes: “I’ve so much dysentery in me that the flies will get it from me,” “They’ve already given me their full quota, and I can’t possibly hold anymore.”

Harold’s labour in the camps was not entirely unpaid, but he remembers ‘this pay was of such a low currency that we could not have bought one egg per day had they been available, – and eggs were the cheapest food commodity in Thailand’ (Pg.42). But despite this maltreatment, Harold’s labour was perhaps a source of solidarity and comradeship. He muses: ‘Though selfishness flourished, and the ‘I’m alright, Jack” policy was prevalent, generosity, acts of kindness and personal integrity were often displayed by those few rare characters who kept their faith whole’ (Pg.39). Even in such destitute times, acts of selflessness and friendship often prevailed. Harold’s friend Alf exemplified this, he ‘shared everything he obtained of an edible nature, acquired either by stealth or cunning from the Japs, or from his legitimate labours elsewhere’ (Pg.39).

In terms of work and labour, Harold discusses his fathers profession as a brick-layer. This work was unreliable though, particularly in treacherous conditions. Harold recalls that ‘The occupational hazards of my father’s were winter’s elements of rain and frost’ and ‘To be “rained off”, or “frozen off”, unless indoor work (such as the removal or installation of fireplaces) was available, meant part, or sometimes the whole of one weeks income was lost to the family, and could not be regained’ (Pg.2). This highlights the financial insecurity that working families faced in the early 1900s.

Working-Class Men in the 1920s

Harold also remembers the degrading benefits system, which he refers to as ‘t’Lloyd George’ (Pg.2). Harold writes in his memoir: ‘The whole procedure of application for this meagre pittance was both extremely degrading and humiliating. One had to appear before a panel of “referees” and submit to a “means test”‘ (Pg. 2). The distasteful system put in place was an insult to the pride and dignity of working-class men and women. Their working-class identities were tarnished and stripped as they were forced to prove their poverty, and in turn their integrity.

Works Cited:

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

Images Cited:

Image of ‘Constructing the Railway of Death’. Accessed on 12/04/19.

Image of ‘Working-Class Men in the 1920s’. Accessed on 13/04/19.

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