‘This autobiography will cover seven decades of the life of a working-class man, of his struggle to survive, his political life and his work in order to live, and his desperate efforts at times to find work, his efforts to help to organise his fellow man as a shop steward, all the time handicapped by very little formal education’ (3).
This honest, bleak assessment is Joe Ayre’s summary of his own story, covering two continents, and spanning two world wars. From his poverty ridden childhood on the streets of Merseyside, to a young migrant in Canada, and adulthood balanced between manual work and living rough, Joe Ayre’s autobiography is a fascinating tale of the strife of the working class.
Born on the 9th of March 1910, Joe Ayre was the son of a dock labourer, and a mother continually struggling to care for her family of now eight children. Although originally close knit, as victims of circumstance the family began to deteriorate. A freak accident would lead to Joe’s sister Winnie leaving the family home. The First World War brought tragedy. The pride of representing their country did little to console a family who lost their son Tom. Joe cites Tom’s death as a catalyst in the family’s implosion, his mother failing to move on from the trauma and turning to drink. In 1918 she would die from consumption.
In their mother’s absence, Joe’s brother Oliver, and sister Maggie would soon leave home. This would leave Joe, his brother Bill, sister Edie, and his father to navigate through working class life. The journey was not easy as the family moved on several occasions due to their inability to pay their rent. Edie would take up a job washing pots, whilst Joe and Bill did what work they could but often resorted to thieving. The introduction of a new stepmother finally leads to the family’s breaking point. Edie stormed out in tears, apparently not able to move on like her father. Joe and his brother Bill would not last much longer, living with a woman he held a ‘feeling of hostility and sheer hate’ (18) towards. In 1920, aged ten, Joe Ayre said goodbye to his childhood family life and fled with his brother Bill.
The pair wouldn’t get far as police picked them up and took them to Miss Birt’s Sheltering Home for Fatherless Children. Joe goes into great detail describing the strict regime at the home. One of the aims of the home was to prepare the young boys for work in Canada, providing cheap labour to farmers. This was a journey both Joe and Bill would embark upon, though sadly not at the same time. In 1921 Bill would leave for Canada, and what little family Joe had was gone. In 1923 Joe would emigrate to Canada and begin the next chapter of his life.
Once in Canada Joe fluctuated between farm work and unemployment for several years. Although at no point does Joe seem to overly enjoy the work, he does respect it. He also shows an appreciation for his new peers, admiring how they ‘are resourceful people, hardworking and they don’t waste anything’ (33). The inability to waste would soon fade from being admirable, to a necessity. After working both happily and unhappily on farms, the stock market crash would grip the world and Joe. Jobs became few and far between, and Joe began walking the roads looking for work. Adopting the mantra ‘knight of the road’ (80) Joe began a life as a hobo, relying primarily on the kindness of strangers. In rare moments of hope in Joe’s story, this kindness was not too hard to come by. A farmer and his wife, a priest, and his fellow knights of the road all do what they can for Joe. This kindness is not lost on him and, he would think to himself ‘that these people had little enough and yet they were ready to share it with a complete stranger a bum’ (69). Joe’s search for work would take him back to the farms, the World Fair and eventually aboard a ship back to Liverpool.
Life back home would not prove any easier for Joe. The depression had hit England, and especially its working class. Never happy with his position, Joe would take a stand, protesting for better rights for the workman in an attempt to change the life of himself and his peers. This is just one example of his socialist behaviour that he felt so strongly about that, he would base the title of his autobiography on it—’The Socialist’.
Against the backdrop of another world war, Joe would surprisingly have one of the highlights of his life. He and his girlfriend Dorothy chose to marry as they ‘intended to have some married happiness not knowing what the future the future would bring’ (133). The future would bring both agony and ecstasy for Joe. The couple would have a child, but after years of economic uncertainty, Joe would be ordered to work with the Merchant Navy during World War Two, the memories he chose to close his autobiography on.
Joe’s memoirs are an honest portrayal of the struggle of the everyman. Born to lose, Joe’s journey can at times resemble a novel, rather than an autobiography. I hope to do his memories justice, and hope you enjoy reading them.
2:29 AYRE, Joe, ‘The Socialist’, MS, pp.178 (c.43,250 words). BruneI University Library.
Paddy’s Market – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/261771797063748650/
Miss Birts Sheltering Home Advert – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/261771797063748650/
Depression Time Farmer – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/carylhalverson/a-tribute-to-farmers/