Harry Alfred West (b.1880): Habits, Culture & Beliefs

When Harry Alfred West wasn’t working, teaching or reading he was still keeping himself busy, and he used a variety of hobbies to keep himself active. As a child one of West’s favourite past-times was to explore the natural world around him. He tells us:

One occupation I discovered and used will illustrate how episodes, and experiences in life link up and become part of one’s mental furniture. This was to follow all the variations of the course of a brook from its source to the confluence with the river. Also to note the moods of the flow. (…) About eight years afterwards, I was a member of that institution called “The Wesley Guild” at Wesley Chapel, Bristol. One evening a young and capable woman teacher gave a very good talk on Alfred Tennyson. She concluded the talk with an excellent recital of Tennyson’s “The Brook”. To use a phrase from Wordsworth “My heart leapt up”. Tennyson has apparently described my brook, and had a similar experience.(20/21)

This insight into West’s hobby demonstrates both a love for nature, and a sharp wit which would find ways to link and examine the many events of his life.

Indeed, it seems that West was never happier than when he was given the freedom to run about in the fresh air. At the age of 12 he was not only taken to the beach for the first time, but given seven weeks to “run wild by the sea” (23.) West and his father took the train down to the seaside, and the sight of the water was a new and remarkable experience for the young Harry: “Although living in Bristol, I had never hitherto seen the sea. I glued my eyes to the window and was thrilled when I saw the various craft riding at anchor in “The Bight” off the Warren.” (23) The trip also provided an opportunity to discover the local wildlife, as West admits that he was happiest ““roaming about, peering into rock pools at sea anemones, periwinkles, mussels, crabs etc.” (24)

Alongside his love for nature, West developed a passion for music. He talks of it at length in his autobiography, stating that attention should be given to a subject which has occupied much of my leisure time and interest, namely music.” (32) West saw an almost mystical quality in the organ music that he heard at church, and confesses “I nearly worshipped the organist who seemed to wield and control so much power.” (32)  When finally an Organ was brought into his local Church, he yearned to learn to play it:

“I was, as usual, taken with the music and longed to be able to get instruction in organ playing. I could at that time, play hymn tunes on our small harmonium, but could not afford lessons, and would not inure my parents in the expense as I know that they had economic struggle.” (33)

As with his education, West’s journey as a musician is a story of self-improvement in the face of challenging circumstances. His father acquired the harmonium and said to him “I will tell you all about the notes, their values etc., you see what you can do.”(33) West was “delighted”(33) and although he felt that his lack of a teacher had left him with an awkward technique, he admits that “If I had waited until I could get professional instruction (…) I should never have learnt.”(34) Finally, the hard work paid off, and as an adult he was able to play the organ for services at the church he attended. 

West’s other love is something which he never discusses explicitly, but which becomes evident throughout his writing – psychology. He muses often about the ways of the world, and his beliefs on them:

The past is not dead and done for, but is still alive and effecting our present living, sometimes with dire results as the psychiatrist knows. (…) [G]ood, bad or indifferent, the past is there. (…) Happy the person who can confront this experience without remorse for wrong done, folly practiced, and wasted opportunities of mental and spiritual development and service to others. (42)

Elsewhere West offers his opinions on Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, discusses the friction between science and religion, and even muses along philosophical lines when he considers the difference between past and future: “The past was real, definitely here. The event have taken place, the books have been read. The acts have been done. The people have been met. The future, however, has no reality yet. It is one great note of interrogation, merely problematical.” West’s writing is at its most lyrical when he considers these kinds of abstract issues, and it seems to be where he is the most confident.

In many ways it seems that West undertakes such a wide number of hobbies out of a sense of duty; a duty to improve himself. He writes: “Since my early manhood I had felt that every man should, if possible, practice an art, and a craft, beside his normal business and profession, during his leisure and retirement.” (39) However, duty or not, West expresses real love for his many leisure activities as he explores them through the pages of his work.


West, Harry Alfred, ‘Autobiography of Alfred West. Facts and Comments’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:745


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