Like many working class authors, Joe Ayre adored his family. His autobiography is largely a narrative of his family’s grievance, his family’s sufferings and his family’s future. In his memoir he does not hesitate in criticising them when they suffer with drinking problems but he does not blame them for this. He blames the capitalists. He condemns this structure for the collapse of his nuclear family.
“Perceptions of masculinity that emphasized emotional rectitude rendered male articulations of loss oblique. Conversely, female-centred networks of support provided forums for drawing women together in gestures of condolence and sympathy” (J. Strange)
At just 8 years old when Joe lost his loving mother, his family was no longer a traditional nuclear family. After his eldest brother Tom was killed at the age of nineteen, fighting in “the war to end all wars”,(11) his mother turned heavily to drink. She named the small pension which she received her “blood money”(4) and she would “stay in the pub until she was drunk.”(4) She became violent; smashing windows and causing fights. Joe talks about how the drink had horrendously changed her. She wouldn’t listen to anyone but the priest; he was “the only person she was afraid of.”(4) Joe’s mother would not draw together in grievance with the other working class women at the Home Front. She did not get involved with these small communities.
Watching his family deteriorate after his mother’s death was difficult for Joe but nevertheless, he remains strong for his father and particularly for his siblings throughout his autobiography. At just four years old, his sister Winnie “got her foot stuck under a rocker and sustained a broken bone in her ankle.”(9) This was just the beginning of his younger sister’s sufferings as it was then discovered that tuberculosis had set in her bone. This was the last that Joe seen of Winnie as she was sent to a sanatorium “across the river Mersey”(9) until they met again in 1929 when he was living in Canada. Winnie never did settle whilst living in Canada so she returned to England in 1930.
In 1918, the Armistice from the First World War had been signed which meant that his father and his brother Oliver had returned from the battle and were forced to find work. Joe describes this as a worrying time for his family as his mother had recently passed away and the country was back to being ruled by the capitalists, which Joe resented.
Unemployment figures were continually on the rise, especially for the working class of England. At this time, his eldest brother Oliver and his sister Maggie were old enough to escape from Liverpool in an attempt to search for an improved stable life, and most importantly, for employment. This meant that his sister Edie at just fourteen years of age was left to look after him, his brother Bill and his father. Joe says that; “we helped her as best as we could.”(11) Joe strongly praises Edie for her efforts in his memoir, showing his appreciation towards the responsibilities which were placed upon her at such a young age.
Edie’s position as the motherly role was short-lived when in 1919, their father met their new mother who Joe called the “step mother of Satan.”(18) Edie was devastated by this and she ran away. She burst out crying and “she went to live with friends she knew on Victoria Terrace.”(17) Joe is reunited with Edie in 1932. He is utterly heart-broken when he sees how horrifically she is suffering. He witnesses how Edie and her husband are living in poverty, struggling to provide for their baby boy. Although the Great Depression had left Joe with nothing, out of the very little savings that he was left with, he gave Edie, her husband and their baby son “five dollars and, she cried.”(75) Joe’s relationship with Edie was inspiring. The readers of his memoir are able to see how a determined figure like Joe Ayre is able to disguise his own sufferings and emotion and put other people’s needs before his own.
Joe talks about how his step mother “proceeded to make slaves out of my Brother Bill and I.”(19) Joe’s realistic view on life meant that his resentment towards her was nothing to do with the death of his mother but it was merely because this woman was abusive. In his memoir, Joe does not name her. He talks about how as time went on, his father and his step mother turned heavily to drink. As the day wore on,” she became drunk and more abusive.”(19) This is interesting to research as Liverpool police statistics show that Liverpool during this time was one of the most drunken cities in England, with particular emphasis on the regulation of female drinkers.
However, there were positive outcomes from his step-mothers abusive drinking habits as this allowed Joe and his brother Bill “notice to get out of the house.”(20) Bill was Joe’s closest sibling. Not only were they the closest in age, but their lives mirrored each others. They both suffered dreadfully in a broken family, in a society with a fallen economy and through the hands of an abusive step-mother. It was because of this which encouraged them with their escape to Canada.
The brothers were welcomed in to various different families where they worked on their farms. Joe did not migrate to Canada until a year after his brother Bill had migrated over there. He talks about how he can still remember the intense emotion that he felt when they were reunited after their separation. For one year, Joe had been anxiously waiting to have his migration to Canada accepted. “I will never forget arriving at that farm, my Brother Bill come flying out of the Delahunt’s house and we hugged each other.”(42) Joe talks about their relationship, saying how the “longing and separation had served to strengthen the bond.”(42)
This bond between Joe and his brother was threatened at one point when Bill was “in the crisis stage of Pneumonia.”(60) Immediately, a devastated Joe travelled to the hospital to comfort his critically ill brother. Joe’s optimism kept his brother strong and thankfully, Bill managed to pull through his illness. Joe used to tell his brother; “where there is life there is hope.”(60) Joe’s optimistic attitude is something to be admired throughout his memoir. Although he is realistic, he is always looking at the positive aspects of life.
Joe Ayre’s family Census
Ancestry.com, 1911 England Census (database on-line) Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2011.Original data: Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911. Kew,
Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA), 1911,
eScholarID:1b2346; Strange, J. “She cried a very little: Death, Grief and Mourning in Working–Class Culture, c. 1880-1914.” Social History 27(2)(2002) : 143-161.
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.