Joe Loftus (1914-1998): Habits, Culture & Beliefs

Joe’s life was fuelled by a simple idea, which I have mentioned in posts ‘Life & Labour (Part 1)‘ and ‘An Introduction’:

“My expectations were high, because we had always been encouraged as a family to strive, to get on. Getting on in our way of talking meant bettering oneself. I translated that to mean a better job, better money, better living conditions and a better, ever improving fuller life in every sense. To be able to appreciate the wonderful world which existed apart from work and ‘whom’. Getting on meant becoming a skilled and respected craftsman. And craftsmen were respected in the community in those days. Convinced as I was that joinery was my vocation, backed by my aptitude and drive, all I needed was opportunity” (181).

This common working-class discourse of self-improvement motivated Joe and enables him to secure a job as a joiner, a vocation he was passionate about since he was a boy. (Read more about this in posts ‘Life & Labour – Part 1‘ and ‘Part 2‘.)

‘Collectable cig-cards that Joe used to play with’

Joe’s happiest memories are in the town of Leigh where he grew up. In his memoir, he describes the street games he played as a child: “Thrilled by the spinning-tops and racing the sleek peg-tops, spun on a special stretch of level flagstones. Clutching a pack of treasured cig-cards we knelt on the edge of the kerb, skilfully skimming our cards from between first and second fingers across the pavement at the target cards reared against the wall” (17). But even the innocent act of playing is ingrained with class differences, as Annette Lareau notes “Because children in poor neighbourhoods have relatively few possessions, creating entertainment from make shift sources is common” (2003, 101). As a result, middle-class children would generally play with toys in their home, while working-class children often played out in the street and improvised using their imagination. Joe is one of these children as he remembers “skipping games, ball games, counting out games…group games where you could all join in if you played fair. ‘Giant strides’ ‘Lion in his den’ ‘Piggy in the Middle’” (18).

Although the 1870s saw a rise in mass entertainment for the working classes, the Loftus family don’t benefit from this because money was tight. Instead, Joe’s siblings would choose inexpensive activities in their free time: “recreation as with many other young people included walks to the country, visiting friends in the town and cycling excursions to outlying villages” (40). However, Joe does state “Now and then there was the excitement of a visit to the pictures or even the Theatre Royal” (40). Also, Joe suggests that whatever activities teenagers engaged in, it always revolved around meeting a potential sweetheart: “There was always the church-dance as a second chance follow up, plus socials and amateur dramatics and choir rehearsals where girls and fellas could meet, as meet they should” (39).

‘Poster advertising a show at the Theatre Royal, Leigh 1940’

Ultimately, what people chose to do in their leisure time is shaped along class lines and can be a class indicator. For example, “Drinking in pubs, playing in brass bands, singing in choral societies, betting ‘on the dogs’, pigeon fancying, all were instances of popular cultural practices that could be understood as being inscribed with class meanings” (Croll, 1984, 402). Joe refers to this stereotypical perception as he remembers seeing in Leigh, a working-class town: “boozed half-senseless folk, even in daylight wasn’t uncommon. I saw with wide-eyed wonder the stray man or woman come from nowhere lurching along the pavement after the pubs had chucked out” (16). But Joe, even in his later years, does not associate himself with these typical working-class pastimes, and instead loves to read and is fascinated with nature, the two going hand in hand. He says “But newts – they were substitute lizards or baby crocodiles to me, far from the warm gulf stream. I could watch their graceful movements in or out of water for hours, almost” (47), and as his interest grew, he keeps them as pets: “I adapted the old pot and kept it as an aquarium complete with pebble island, water-weed and snails to keep it clean, and kept it in the back yard” (47). This subverts the unfair notion that working-class individuals tended to engage in leisure activities that were associated with cruelty and rowdiness.

‘Teenagers at leisure – enjoying a picnic in the woods 1930s’

In terms of beliefs, religion plays a big part in the Leigh community. Joe recalls, “Mothers generally scrimped and saved their pennies for months to buy the virginal dresses and veils for their daughters to wear in the spring procession as the brides of Jesus. Dresses that were altered later for Whit-Walking-Day when each of the various true faiths walked in strength along the main streets of the parishes” (78). Joe remembers the consuming mass schedule:

“Sunday school and confirmation was followed by Benediction on Sunday evenings. I surely should have been ready to be measured up for my halo and a pair of wings. Yet it all had the reverse effect on me and made me critical until rejection set in around thirteen…it was all a bit too much” (77).

As well as thinking religion was forced upon him, one of the teachings that makes Joe sceptic about the Catholic faith is God’s apparent omnipotence. Confused, as a boy Joe would contemplate “He [God] must of predestined every minutest thing. Free will for me and God could not co-exist. And if there really was free will for man there could be no God” (80). This idea that humans have no free will conflicts with Joe’s core belief that people are active agents who can lift themselves out of poverty and lead a better life if they so wish. Theses doubts Joe had as a boy stay with him in his adult years and result in him completely rejecting the Catholic faith.

‘A Church Whit-Walking-Day in Leigh 1940s’


Works Cited:

‘Joe Loftus’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:484

Loftus, Joe. ‘Lee Side’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:484.

Lareau, Annette. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. California: University of California Press, 2003.

Andy Croll, ‘Popular Leisure and Sport’ in Chris Williams (ed) A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984).


“Collectable cig-cards that Joe used to play with” Web. Accessed 26/04/2017

“Poster advertising a show at the Theatre Royal, Leigh 1940” Web. Accessed 26/04/2017

“Teenagers at leisure – enjoying a picnic in the woods 1930s” Web. Accessed 26/04/2017

“Church Whit-Walking-Day 1940s” Web. Accessed 26/04/2017

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