Joseph H Armitage (B.1908): Home & Family

As a child, Armitage lived with his father, Henry, his mother, Rachel and his (step) brother, George who was 14 years older than Joseph. I found this after researching his immediate family, through census records on to discover his parents’ first names, as Joseph only ever talks of George by name. I found this intriguing, to look at the family dynamics involving George as a child from Rachel’s previous relationship. No other information is given about circumstances or George’s biological father in the autobiography. Therefore, I wondered if this was a source of conflict within the family. However, George considered Henry as his father, and in 1914 enrolled in the army as George Armitage.

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1911 census. Armitage family

The home and housing in general is a significant theme in Joseph Armitage’s writing. He talks about each home he lived in, with vivid descriptions of his surroundings and I think endearingly, includes drawings of one. However this may be to help the reader understand the complex layout of the houses and how they actually managed to fit a relatively large number of homes into such a small space.

armitage drawing
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Drawing from Armitage’s autobiography 1974

He expresses his concerns about housing conditions during World War One and has negative views surrounding his own experiences living in, what his father described as ‘This hell hole that we have to live in.’ (p15). I feel that Armitage has stronger feelings about home and his family during his childhood. As he progresses through his life and his memoir, he talks more of traveling around the country, staying in lodges and looking for work. This may be a sign of Armitage’s high value of family and the home during childhood or maybe this is what he believes his readers will be interested in.

There is no mention of Joseph finding a partner or having any children. It seems Armitage holds traditional views of family and gender roles, on numerous occasions through the text he talks about very stereotypical gender roles, in his own family and the families that run lodging houses. One example is his description of the relationship between his grandparents. Armitage says his grandfather ‘ruled his household with despotic strictness’ and that his grandmother ‘was a hardworking woman obedi[a]nt to her husband’ p12. He never met his grandparents, therefore his descriptions will reflect his parents and other’s views that have influenced his own ideas of gender and its role.

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Image from 1914 showing some of the men who died as a result of the explosion

He talks in great detail about his father’s work, in particular when he went to work full time at Bruntcliffe Victoria Colliery in Morley. The colliery was vast and production had doubled by 1897, the owners added more machinery to cope with the growing demand.

In 1913 the colliery experienced a ‘disastrous explosion’ p13. This seems to be a very significant event in Armitage’s early life and it must have affected family life, as Armitage recalls it clearly from the age of 5. Luckily his father was not involved in the accident, but 3 men were killed at the scene and a further 12 died afterwards due to their injuries.

Living near the colliery was a ‘losing battle’ p14, against the grey slag dust as it covered the roof tops. The smoking chimneys, glare from the molten metal and the light from the furnaces at night gave ‘the whole district an infernal appearance that I can still see in my minds eye.’p14. This paints a very bleak picture of life in Leeds during this industrial time, the grey, dullness creating a sense of depression and hardship.

1914 middleton park long chimneys
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Tall chimney near Middleton Park Avenue 1914

Armitage doesn’t talk of his emotions very much, but he does suggest anger and unhappiness between his parents;

‘What I do remember vividly and the nights, mostly Friday and Saturday nights, when beer and bad tempers resulted in things being thrown about, and George and myself being outside in the street until it was safe to go back in home again when all was quiet once more.’p16.

I think it is interesting that he would include this information but no more, no further explanation as to motivation or the consequences of the fights. Straight afterwards in the next paragraph he talks about income for example. This, to me feels like a kind of ‘Freudian slip’, subconsciously wanting to say it but consciously trying not to reveal too much.

In chapter four, entitled ‘War Comes Home’ we discover that George Armitage had been killed in action at Gallipoli in the summer of 1915. He had not served in the army for longer than a few months when this happened. Armitage describes his mother’s face on finding out her son had been killed as seeming to ‘freeze like a mask’ p59. This is obviously a terrible thing to have to experience, but he does not express any of his own feelings of loss or anguish, he solely tells of the event through his mother’s actions and reactions, her changing personality and distrust of neighbours and family.

As time passes, Armitage talks more about his own feelings about the loss of his brother,

‘Sometimes they would say “well it’s a good job you’ve only one, and not three or four young ‘uns”, but it was not that easy for me to get over it.’ p62

Joseph must have had a very strong bond with George and struggled to come to terms with the terrible consequences war had on his family. He tells the reader of his mother’s habit of talking to herself and how if he was not the only child he could have sort some comfort from his brother to talk about his mother’s problem. He also struggles with his mother’s possessiveness and describes family life as ‘stifling and traumatic’ p60. Describing the pressures of becoming an only child is interesting as you would perhaps expect the focus of narrative to be on the death of George. The change in relationship between Joseph and his mother provides thought provoking insight into family dynamics after experiencing loss. Maybe an event such as this influenced Armitage’s reflective style of writing and raises the question how may life have been different?


Armitage, Joseph H. The Twenty Three Years Or The Late Way Of Life- And Of Living (1974) Found at The Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, at Brunel University.

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Image 2 taken from Joseph H Armitage The Tweenty Three Years or The Late Way Of Life- And Of Living 1974

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Image 4 taken from

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