Researching Writing Lives – Harry Alfred West

Initially choosing a working-class autobiography to write about this term was something of a lucky dip, as there were only snippets of information describing each piece of work and its’ creator. However, as soon as I saw the short sentence accompanying Harry Alfred West’s entry in the index of the Burnett Archive I was hooked. It read: “discusses spiritual and philosophical matters with some sections on ancestry and village life.”  Intrigued by the reference to philosophy, an interest which I share with West, I found several other snippets in the short biography included with the index to make me certain that his work would be a fascinating read. Described as an “unusual narrative” which portrayed his “deep interest in literature and music” and contained “useful descriptive sections”, it seemed that the piece of work would be both interesting and informative.

I was not disappointed, and reading West’s autobiography proved extremely rewarding, as did researching his life and times. I was particularly interested to learn about the reading habits of working-class people in the early 20th century, and to see how West’s own experiences tallied well with the experiences documented in essays. It was also extremely interesting to learn that, far from being a mark of disinterest, the fact that Harry West barely mentions his wife or daughter in the autobiography is simply a convention of the times – family life was often not seen as a serious enough topic to write about. Writing about West’s life was a chance for his story to be shared with the world, and a chance for me to contribute information about conditions during his life time. In particular, I feel that the details he shares about religion and schooling could prove useful for other researchers.

Although I have had experience blogging in the past, and have used WordPress as a blogging tool before, this is my first experience of collaborative blogging. Sharing this blog with so many other students gave me an enormous sense of responsibility, both in terms of keeping the appearance of the blog consistent and updating it with new content. Blogging has proved vastly different to any other academic writing I have done to date, and keeping my work easy to ready, informative and relatively informal has been an exciting challenge.

My favourite part of this process has been the research element. Never having done anything similar in the past, I wasn’t prepared for the buzz of excitement that comes from finding some new information – whether it’s a simple entry on a census sheet, or images which give extra insight. I have found a real love for sifting through the wealth of information that is out there to come out with those small pieces which help to illuminate my understanding of Harry West’s world. 

One of the earliest images I found – a toll house in Stanton Drew from the period West lived there.

It was important to me to include as much research as possible in my posts, whether this involved reading research by other writers to include, or finding my own information about the companies and organisations West mentions. Unfortunately, there was often far more information than I had time to read, and this helped me learn to prioritise information and skim read where necessary, to find the most useful sections.

Blogging about Harry West’s life has also taught me to use social media as a research tool, something which I had never considered in the past. The use of twitter, in particular, was a fantastic asset – particularly as it allowed me to keep track of what my fellow researchers were writing and learning.

I intend to go on to do further academic research, so my experiences keeping this blog will prove to be invaluable. Many of the research skills which I will need in the future have been greatly developed by the work that I have done to research Harry West’s life. I also feel that my knowledge of the early 20th Century, and specifically working-class conditions in those times, has been greatly expanded – and I hope that I have been able to pass this on to other readers and researchers.

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