The title of Charles Hansford’s autobiography, ‘Memoir of a Bricklayer’ implies that he viewed the construction industry as his most significant purpose in life. In the early twentieth century, for many occupation and status were key working-class identities. I feel that in his autobiography Hansford tries to capture his working life, speaking for a group as opposed to just himself and about his personal life, depicting honestly the tribulations of being a part of the labouring classes.
The narrative style of Hansford’s memoir is demonstrated through nineteen chapters which are split across six sections; Childhood, Travelling, Struggles, World War II And After, The Firm, and Last Lap. Each title is presented with the dates and set out in chronological order, reflecting the development of Hansford’s life and career. I feel that the chapter titles within the sections do reveal the different stages of Hansford’s life efficiently and we can see a progression within simply the titles: they begin with ‘Forester’s Arms’, ‘Woolston’, and ‘First Jobs’ which are very simple and undetailed titles portraying the beginnings of Hansford’s working life. They then progress to more specific titles such as ‘Work and Beer’ which captures Hansford’s young working life, to ‘One Pot of Jam’ and ‘Slump’ which are included in the section ‘Struggles’. I feel the Chapters and their sections show a clear connection, consequently illustrating the detail, accuracy and effort of Hansford’s account.
The memoir is broad as though to give justification for his chosen career and Hansford explores deeply the struggle of his journey, and like many working-class writers, states his ordinariness. He says it is ‘strange’ he should be a part of the construction industry, as he was born amongst rural tradespeople, assuring the reader that he would have been capable of following a different path if circumstances had have been different.
Although Hansford’s memoir was not published, he appears to have written with an audience in mind. He focuses throughout his memoir particularly on his career, rather than his personal life. This leads me to believe that the text was aimed specifically at tradesmen and people a part of the working-class. However, he also briefly mentions the Titanic disaster, “Four years before (i.e. 1912) Southampton had been a town in mourning following the loss of the Titanic. Streets through which I passed, such as Albert Road and Marine Parade, suffered badly, with each terrace losing men.” (Hansford, p.13) This extract may suggest that he was also writing for people interested in the local history of Southampton. He states the streets he walked through, and throughout his autobiography he indicates the geography of his location where possible, “He [his step-father] now rented a small terrace house in Mortimer Road; this was at Woolston, an industrial suburb separated from the main town by the River Itchen.” (Hansford, p.5) This demonstrates the accuracy and detail that Hansford provides for the reader.
But despite the account being open about his thoughts and experiences, it is cautious: he does not capture his relationships, and briefly mentions the deaths of his father and sister without commenting on how this affected or potentially changed him. In addition to this, Charles talks about the history of the Titanic in his town, but again does not choose to elaborate on how he felt about this event or give any insight into how he felt about it personally. However, he was just ten years old when these circumstances occurred and so he may feel he was too young to ever make sense of these events and the emotions that accompanied them.
I feel it is important he included these experiences in his biography, however brief; as they are a part of the person he grew to become. But as well as the emotional strain he would have felt, he may not have elaborated because he wanted to maintain dignity, focusing on his writing that explored his work ethic rather than his personal life, in mind for an audience that may have been above him in terms of class.
Crowds waiting for the Titanic to return, Southampton, 1912.
Hansford also contrasts the beginnings of his childhood growing up within a village, to his later life as an outsider moved to the bigger and rougher world of townspeople. He recollects spending his village life spectating people working: “Next to the Forester’s Arms was a butcher’s shop, which had its own slaughterhouse. I delighted in climbing onto an outhouse, from where I could just see terrified cattle being pole-axed.” (Hansford, p.2) It is in these descriptions that the seeds of his interest in labour are planted.
However, when moving outwards and in to the city he sees a much vaster life and more opportunity to gain work, which shows his commitment to working for a living. He explains the tribulations of working in the construction industry, including working his way up as a tea boy to the reoccurring fear of becoming unemployed.
But he also explains the excitement that accompanied this working life as he was able to travel without the responsibility of providing for a family in the early stages of his career: “In many ways that first period of travelling constituted the happiest and most exciting time of my life. Young and unencumbered by family responsibility, I enjoyed the constant found of strange and fresh jobs.” (Hansford, p.40)
In chapter six, ‘Work and Beer’, he describes how working life revolved around earning money in the day and spending the evenings drinking with work pals. He weaves humorous stories into his account which make the memoir light-hearted, and feel real to the reader, such as drinking through the day in order to kill time and consequently getting told off for being intoxicated when clocking on to the night shift, “By the time our night-shift commenced,we had become pie-eyed, keeping walls straight to the plumb-bob proved no easy matter. […] Eventually the plant manager caught us, ‘right you buggers,’ he scolded, ‘that’s the first and last time you work on a nightshift’” (Hansford, p.38). As well as funny anecdotes, “As soon as we’d been at work for a couple of hours they started their little games. ‘What would you fancy for dinner tonight, Sir Charles?’ These lunatics then launched into a catalogue of delicatessen foods which no-one could pronounce” (Hansford, p.87). This quote highlights class differences but Hansford is able to describe them in a comic way: for example when explaining that nobody could pronounce the names of the food.
The humour that can be found in Charles Hansford’s memoir suggests that although he often found his trade arduous, he also found it enjoyable and is not bitter about writing about it for his audience. The autobiography gives a bold and sincere insight into working-class life directly from experience, and frames the struggles that this class was faced with.
Hansford, C. (1980) Memoir of a Bricklayer. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:745
Vincent, D. (1981) Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A study of 19th century working class autobiography. Europa Publications
Fig 1. Hansford, C. (1980) Contents [Photograph: Print screen of contents of memoir] At: Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:745 (Accessed on 28/11/2013)
Fig 2. Ronk, L. (2012) Titanic Survivors 1912 [Photograph: Crowds waiting for the Titanic to return, Southampton, 1912] At: http://life.time.com/history/titanic-one-hundred-years-later/attachment/awaiting-survivors/ (Accessed on 1/12/2013)