From witnessing a shooting as a child, to seeing the likes of Kaiser Wilhelm and Alfonso of Spain buying newspapers from his blind father’s kiosk, Arthur T. Collinson has lived an eventful life.
“I sat by the side of the bed all through the night and as my wife slept, I wept and wept. What madness is war and when will mankind ever learn to express national or international differences in other ways than killing or maiming or blinding their fellows” (33-34). Arthur T. Collinson’s gentle, humanitarian nature is what initially attracted me to his memoir. As this quote shows, The First World War had inflicted much hurt and unrest on him and his family. For Collinson, the constant streams of the Zeppelins, the factory infernos and the bombed-out streets were a painful reminder of democratic failure and trigger-happy dictators.
Born in November 1893, Collinson originally lived in a slum property called ‘Twyford Buildings’ in the north-west corner of Lincolns Inn Fields, in the West London area. Shortly after his birth however, his father was “lucky enough to rent two rooms in Peabody Buildings, Drury Lane” (1). Collinson lived with his father, mother and brother, two years his senior. The Peabody Buildings of Great Wild Street were neighboured by Collinson’s school, the Lambert and Butler tobacco works and the Drury Lane Theatre, which still stands today. Despite the Twyford Buildings being more upmarket than the family’s previous property, Collinson states; “the four groups of buildings are the only surviving ones which existed among the rat infested district surrounding our two rooms in Peabody Buildings” (1). In spite of improved family fortunes, Collinson still highlights the bleak nature of industrial and wartime London throughout.
The Collinson family fortunes improved again, “It was about the year 1903 that the young men’s club of Holy Trinity Church, with the encouragement of the vicar the Rev.J.L.Evans, took a hand in my family’s affairs. They organised a Saturday evening concert in the parish hall and the entire proceeds were handed to a local carpenter to make a newspaper kiosk to start my father in business as a newsagent” (6). This show of benevolence and community-spirit enabled the Collinson family to cross the poverty line, temporarily. It was also here that Arthur T Collinson began to develop his solid socialist views. Indeed, the title of his memoir One Way Only: An autobiography of an Old-time Trade Unionist, is telling of the main themes and views expressed throughout the piece.
Collinson cites the Suffragette movement as all important in the formation of his desires for equal opportunities, collective progress and general fairness for all, “I began regularly to visit ‘Speakers Corner’ at Marble Arch and at this period of time the militant suffragettes were getting well organised. I took part in the 1908(June) mass rally in Hyde Park and saw the treatment dealt out to these pioneers for the rights of women” (14). Whilst I concur with the majority of Collinson’s socialist views, most of his employers opposed them. Many even blacklisted Collinson and any associates for daring to ask for basic working rights. Collinson’s enduring pursuit of even-handedness met violence, hatred, shut-outs, poverty and eventually, disillusionment. Despite all of this, Arthur T Collinson’s beliefs were never doused. He continued to fight the good fight.
‘Arthur T. Collinson’, in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Brighton: Harvester, 1984, Vol.3, no. 30.
Arthur T. Collinson, ‘One Way Only: An autobiography of an Old-time Trade Unionist’ in Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 3:30
1911 England and Wales Census http://www.ancestry.co.uk/