When families and communities face economic struggle, mainly because of unemployment, people have to rely upon each other to get by. Solidarity was a characteristic of community life as a whole for the working class people in the early 20th century, not just in the War or in the workplace.
Joe Ayre proves how that when discussing the habits and practices of an individual in the beginning of the 20th century, the question of class should always be considered. For a solid Socialist like Joe, his memoir shows how the cultural life of a working class person lays no resemblance to that of a middle or upper class person.
Attending Sunday school every week at the age of six was Joe’s first experience of cultural activity. “On a Sunday we had to go to Sunday school and on Sunday evening we went to ‘The Band of Hope’.”(8) This was a developing popular culture for the working class children where many religious groups campaigned to help get working class children like Joe kept off the streets. Joe and the other “poor kids”(8) attended ‘The Band of Hope’ every Sunday and they “would spend almost two hours singing hyms.”(8) Joe’s memoir shows how this religious organisation was still run under strict measures. “If you did not attend regularly they would not allow you to go to the picnic.”(8) Having sufficient food meant everything to the working class children. Joe says in his memoir that depriving the working class children from their food was punishment which would only make them more determined to attend these Sunday school sessions.
Despite being “an atheist”(107), Joe discusses how Religious denominations were a way of uniting the working class people in practice, even after their education. He talks in his memoir about how these denominations were also appalled by the set up of politics. He even says how “On one occasion we did start to organise a March to Ottaura but the police were ready to put a stop to it.”(95) Ottaura was just on the outskirts of Canada. Joe had strong cemented socialist beliefs so it is not surprising that he had wanted to protest against capitalism, even if this meant that he would be supporting Religious denominations.
This was not the only time when Joe recalls the working class community coming together in solidarity to stand up against exploitation. Working class culture at this time was embraced by patriotic imperialism. The Police in Liverpool going on Strike in 1919 meant that the working class people were able to “help themselves”(17), which temporarily removed the class barriers that had always been present as a way of exploiting the working classes. Joe talks about this strike and says how “it was a common sight to see working class women wearing furs and fashionable clothes.”(17)
Alcohol consumption is a factor in Joe Ayre’s life which destroyed his family as a whole. Joe’s earliest recollection of his mother was seeing how her life had drastically deteriorated because of an excessive amount of alcohol. Sadly, many years later, his father’s life began to decline in the same way.
His mothers problems first came about because, unfortunately, she did not resemble an ordinary woman of that time. Joe Ayre’s mother did not attend typical clubs for women which were brought about to emphasise domesticity, bringing women from the Home Front together in unity. She however turned to drink. This echoes Liverpool’s statistics from the early 20th century which show how the North West of England was the area which had the highest percentage of alcohol intake.
With working class people beginning to have a disposable income of which they were able to spend in a way to suit their own interests, this tended to be used to purchase alcohol. Joe’s sister Edie was “15 years old by this time. She had a job washing dishes in a restaurant and she had to give most of her wages to my dad and he would use it for drink.”(16) Although Joe was not old enough to participate in this sort of cultural behaviour, this is significant to his own personal identity in the future when he does not turn to the drinking community to socialise in the same way as his parents had.
Joe’s constantly mobile life is far from stable. His restricted childhood meant that he was controlled in almost every sense. Two people in particular who had a largely negative impact on his childhood were his father and his evil stepmother. It is because of the way that he was treated by these two figures which encourage him to build an independent life elsewhere.
Class identity was a measure which united Joe and the other working class men who were also attempting to build a life in Canada in order to escape from the horrors of England. Many single working class men socialised in Hostels. “Three days was all you were allowed to stay at the hostel then you had to move on.”(89) These were not friends for life, but they were people who were in a similar position to Joe. Hearing that there were other people suffering in the same way as him, was something that he found rather comforting.
In 1934, Ayre met Walter Stuart. Walter became Joe’s close friend who accompanied him on his travels. His childhood mirrored Joe’s. He too “had some trouble with his father.”(95) Around this time, sport was targeted at men in order to distract them from their poor quality of life. Talking of Walter, Joe says that “we played chess together and done some boxing in the gymnasium.”(95) This is extremely significant to both his personal identity and his class identity as living in poverty meant that their way of entertaining themselves could not have been costly.
Socialist bodies were able to use sport as an effective instrument for resisting the ruling interests’ domination and for articulating and achieving their members own needs, interests and aspirations. (Stephen G. Jones)
Sport was a factor which united the working class community. Despite being a young English schoolboy playing for a hockey team in his Canadian School, Joe says that “I often heard kids on the opposing teams say get that English bastard and I got many a hard knock.”(40) This did not affect Joe. Since living in the gutters of Liverpool, fighting his own battles was something which Joe was more than familiar with.
John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds), The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989) 2:029
Joe Ayre ‘The Socialist’, MS, pp.178 (c.43,250 words), Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, no. 29, Brunel University Library.