Charles L. Hansford (B. 1902): An Introduction

Charles Lewis Hansford was born on the 13th November, 1902. He wrote a large and detailed but unpublished memoir titled, ‘Memoirs of a Bricklayer’. It looks back over a fulfilled yet turbulent life, carefully constructed into chronological chapters from childhood to his conclusion, humbly named, the ‘Last Lap’.  His son adds in the Preface, ‘Unlike actors, politicians, or eminent military men, bricklayers have not made it in their practice to write memoirs.’ This immediately strikes me as an interesting memoir to explore because it implies to me that the voice of the working-class is just as important as any other voice.

The reason why I was initially drawn to Hansford’s autobiography is simply because of the many twists and turns that his life seems to endure. He explains at the beginning of his memoir that it is strange he should dedicate fifty years to the construction industry, considering his quiet upbringing in a close village community. Hansford began his life journey in the small village of Brockenhurst in Hampshire where he was raised amongst rural tradespeople and living in his grandfather’s pub, the Forester’s Arms, with his parents, grandfather and two sisters.

As a young boy, Charles Hansford explains he attended a small private school run by one woman in a cottage. He reminisces about the many simple activities he enjoyed such as playing in his yard, and watching people go about their everyday jobs, as well as recalling the fond memories of his mother cooking in the kitchen. However, he also expresses his shared dread and dismay of the children that would travel on the train from the poorer districts of London to visit, who in the community’s eyes were invading the village. At this time he states that he was sent to stay with his aunt in order to be protected from the “rougher” children from the outside.

But in contrast to his happy and comfortable childhood, I was stunned by the abrupt changes in the fortunes of Charles and his family, which begin in 1912 when he is just the tender age of ten. Charles’s life and destiny dramatically change when the family are suddenly faced with the two losses beginning with the death of his father through sudden illness. Hansford seems to emotionally detach himself from the incident describing only the funeral where he wore his “first pair of long trousers”. The second loss, the death of his elder sister Blanche, but again he does not elaborate on the experience apart from to mention that she passed away sadly at the age of fifteen due to Meningitis. Charles and his sister are forced to move with their mother into their future step-father’s terraced house, situated in Southampton. A bricklayer, Hansford’s step father sets the foundations for Charles future occupation far from the pleasant upbringing of Brockenhurst. Charles describes attending school in Woolston, where poverty was visible and uncleanliness hard to control.

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High street in Southampton, 1903

Throughout his life Hansford suffers many tribulations due to the hard nature of his chosen occupation in the construction industry, as well as the losses he experiences at a very young age. He describes being a teenager and planning a trip to visit his hometown of Brockenhurst. On his arrival he is tormented and shouted at, and soon comes to the realisation that he is an outsider, giving himself his own personal label: a “townee”.  The main thing that I can grasp of Hansford’s autobiography is the many changes he experiences throughout his life. He travels around with his mother and sister from an early age, and seems to develop a sense of personal awareness, recalling the First World War that occurred during his teen years. He gains independence from an early age mentioning many friends and giving accounts of adventures he embarked on. This attitude carries him through to adulthood when he begins to build himself a career in construction, and he describes the significant moment he finds his “faith” and “identity”. Overall, what I gain from reading Charles’s memoir is a sense that he has lived, and that he has gone through a journey. Scratch below the surface of this autobiography by a bricklayer and it reveals a broader and colourful view of the struggles of working-class life. At the start of his memoir, Hansford claims that due to “the conditions of employment and the physical nature of the work itself, only two results were possible; either it killed you, or you would survive.” The author proudly states that he survived.

Hansford, C. (1980) Memoir of a Bricklayer, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:745

Fig 1. Old UK Photos [Photograph: Southampton High Street, 1903] At: http://www.oldukphotos.com/hampshire_southampton3.htm [Accessed 14th November, 2013]

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