‘I felt very privileged at being able to sleep in the house’ (57)
To many, the home and family are perhaps the greatest support systems. No matter what happens family will be there for you, and one will always have a home to go back to. Rarely, will you consider the pair a privilege. Not having both readily available may sound unusual, but life below the poverty line is unusual. Joe Ayre’s chaotic relationships offer remarkable insights into a troubled home and family .
Joe’s mother’s death at an early age proved detrimental in the family’s implosion. The Ayre family’s life leading up to this event however, was anything but stable. With the family’s troublesome economic position they found themselves regularly moving due to unpaid rent. Often, the housing the family found themselves in was reflective of their social standing. Joe lists ‘bedbugs, cockroaches, and the fleas’ (2) as common companions as the family was regularly forced to call a new place home.
Had the family been offered the choice, they likely would have accepted the loss of home over what was to come. Having already had his younger sister Winnie taken away due to a freak accident involving his Uncle’s rocking chair, Joe’s family was torn apart by The Great War. The historian Eric Hopkin’s essay on ‘British Children in Wartime’ focuses on the experience of children like Joe, his poignant work explaining how ‘more and more children woke one day to find their father missing from the house’ (2001, 14). Joe followed his soldier brothers ‘to Lime St station to see them off on the train and we would wonder if we would ever see them again’ (10). In true British war spirit Joe couldn’t even show his emotion at such a life altering event as ‘it wouldn’t do to let people see you crying’ (10).
The family found it impossible to remain emotionally detached from the war’s tragic consequences when Joe’s brother Tom died in battle. Joe’s ‘mother collapsed’ (9) physically and emotionally at the news and her life went into tailspin. She never truly recovered, and after turning to drink ‘died of consumption’ (3). Without its anchor, the family disintegrated. Shortly after his mother’s death Joe’s brother Oliver and sister Maggie would leave home. The introduction of their toxic stepmother would further drive the family apart as Joe’s sister Edie would leave in despair, and unable to take anymore Joe and his brother Bill would take on the world together. Still a child, Joe’s relationship with family became almost non-existent.
It is often said when someone loses a sense that another is strengthened. In the case of Joe it seems great loss helped forge a great bond with his brother Bill. Joe reminisces how his brother Bill ‘would carry me on his back when I cried’ (8). As one of his only supports, Bill would certainly carry Joe through some difficult times throughout his life.
After leaving home Joe’s life would resemble the ‘poverty and unreliability’ experienced by many among the working class, as described by David Vincent (1980, 223). He would first find himself at Miss Birt’s Sheltering Home for Fatherless and Destitute Children. Following a strict routine he at least had a home, but would soon lose his support network. Bill would be sent to Canada without Joe, leaving him alone. Joe himself would be sent over to Canada as cheap labour for farmers or, as the children were told, ‘to try their luck in a new land’ (27).
Once in Canada Joe’s life would involve heavy work and isolation. Always an outsider due to his nationality, Joe would only occasionally see his brother Bill. Joe would live in various farms through his childhood years. Even after turning eighteen his lack of education and skills outside of farming would confine him to a life on farms. Just as things looked to have changed for Joe, The Great Depression would cripple his future. He would lose his job and what little money he had. Returning to the work of David Vincent, when finding oneself in the trouble Joe did, you would look to your ‘own household, then to other relations, especially for temporary loans, accommodation, temporary or permanent’ (1980, 239). With no household and Bill also down on his luck however, Joe received nothing. The next period would involve life as a hobo, with no home at all.
Joe was a simple, strong man, who never complains of his situation. The stiff upper lip mentality he adopted during the First World War seemingly never left him. Thankfully, after hard times walking the roads, Joe’s life would improve. Finding himself back in work, and back in Liverpool, Joe met his wife Dorothy. Joe happily describes her as his ‘wife, my lover, my companion, yes and my connector, my comrade, the mother of my children’ (130). Joe’s passionate description of his wife is perfectly understandable. In her he found the home and the family he had never had before.
The importance of how family and the home define one’s life cannot be ignored. Hannah Tilstone has produced a touching piece on how her author Charles Sanderson felt ‘blessed with splendid parents’ (Sanderson, 1). As a result the ,majority of his memoir recounts a happy childhood and home life. In contrast, the vast majority of Joe’s memoirs tell the tale of poverty and isolation.
I would like to return to the quote I chose to open this blog with: ‘I felt very privileged at being able to sleep in the house’ (57). The reason so many of us may not think of home and the family as a privilege is because we have never been without them. Joe being as humble and unlucky as he was, feels ‘privileged’ (57) to simply have experienced the two. For much of his life he failed to have a relationship with either. He suffered but persevered. After reading his story, I am just happy Joe overcame his struggles and found the family he deserved.
2:29 AYRE, Joe, ‘The Socialist’, MS, pp.178 (c.43,250 words). Brunel University Library.
Hopkins, E. ‘British Children in Wartime’. In John Bourne (ed.) The Great World War 1914-1945. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001. Pg 13-28.
Sanderson, Charles Whiten. ‘Half a Lifetime in the 20th Century’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. University of Brunel Library. Special Collections. 688.
Tilstone, Hannah. Charles Whiten Sanderson. (1906-1990): Home and Family. 8th March 2018. Writing Lives. Web Accessed 26th April 2018.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247 http://www.jstor.org/stable/428497
Liverpool Lime Street Image – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/376824693794358808/
Hoboes Image – http://afflictor.com/2010/08/25/great-photography-hoboes-from-back-in-the-day/