‘I think I was about 6 years old when I was asked to join the choir.
I think that was the beginning of my mishaps’ (3).
In ‘Down Memory Lane,’ Cecil George Harwood revisits the acts of tomfoolery that formed his boyhood. Cecil delivers a detailed documentation of his life, including his service in World War I, his progression in the working world and his later harmonious marriage to Gladys. Written in 1977, Cecil’s memoir is framed by his working-class background. This is made prominent by his relentless work ethic and his fond remembrance of his upbringing in Welwyn, Hertfordshire. Born on the 9th of October 1984, Cecil was one of a family of nine. The family lived at ‘No.7, Whitehill cottages’, but moved shortly after Cecil’s birth, as he explains: ‘when I was about one week old my parents moved into No. 8. It was more suited for a large family… The garden was also larger’ (Preface).
Cecil’s father, Alfred, worked to support the family as a gardener at the Frythe, a stately country house located just outside of Welwyn village. At the time of his employment, it was owned by Squire Charles Wilshire, who ‘lived at Frythe with his three daughters’ (Preface). Despite moving away from Welwyn in his later life, Cecil kept tabs on the familiar faces from his childhood. Squire Wilshire passed in 1906 and the Frythe passed successively to his daughters, although as Cecil notes, ‘all three died spinsters’ (Preface).
Alfred worked beneath the head gardener, Mr. Joseph Fitt. His work paid 18 shillings per week, ‘with 2/6 taken out for rent’ (4). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, agricultural labourers like Alfred were amongst the lowest paid group of male workers. His wages reflect the typical earnings of an agricultural worker, which averaged less than twenty shillings per week. However, working at the Frythe had certain benefits. ‘The employees were privileged to catch the rabbits as they did quite a lot of harm in the grounds. It also helped to swell the wages’ (4). A good condition rabbit skin could easily be sold for six pence and helped to boost his Father’s small income.
At the age of 12, Cecil sat the ‘Labour exam’ (8). He explains, ‘if one passed with top marks it was possible to leave school at the end of Autumn term and which my parents decided I should do’ (8). Cecil passed and started work as an errand boy in a Chemists shop. The first of his many employments.
Cecil’s memoir thoroughly illustrates his multiple workplace responsibilities, including those demanded by his position as an errand boy and by his later occupations. Gardening, pig breeding and bus conducting are just to name a few phases of Cecil’s working life. Cecil was following in his Father’s footsteps, working as a garden-boy at Digswell House, when the First World War was declared on the 4th of August 1914. He regards this event as ‘the end of the old life’ (21). When writing ‘Down Memory Lane’, Cecil decidedly turns away from a gruesome depiction of the Great War’s horrors, in favour of focusing upon portraying ‘the lighter side [of war], of which there was plenty’ (30). Cecil’s recollection of his time in the forces concentrates upon the training camps that he endured, the towns that he was stationed in, and the friendships that he formed.
After he enlisted in August 1914, Cecil served for just over two years. He was honourably discharged on the 13th of November 1916, when he was wounded at the Somme. He recalls his first thoughts upon his evacuation ‘back to Blighty’ (38) via Hospital ship: ‘all my treasured possessions were in my pack somewhere behind the lines of the Somme, a German helmet, a pair of field glasses given to me by an officer (later killed) and various other things I had carried with me through a good many tight corners’ (38).
Cecil’s narrative seems both authentic and vivid to the reader, yet Cecil expresses a regret that his memories of the First World War may falter in accuracy, saying ‘It was impossible to put everything in chronological order as it was forbidden to keep a diary, in case of being taken prisoner of war’ (34).
An ordinary life resumed, and Cecil regularly indulged in ‘pleasure and dancing’ (50) at the dancehall. He remembers this as ‘the highlight of the week’ (5). It was here that he met his future wife, Gladys, who he later married in 1925.
Anlaby Common, Hull, became the newly wed’s first martial home. Throughout their life together, Cecil and Gladys moved from Hull, to Charmouth, to Bath, and became parents to two sons. But no matter where they called home, they were prominent figures in the local community. With the looming threat of a Second World War in 1938, Cecil volunteered for the special constabulary. Both husband and wife regularly contributed to the village social scene, particularly in Bath, where they became members of the Parents Association for the Scouts movement and active fundraisers for the Church.
Cecil’s rich descriptions form a tangible portrait of the 20th century working-class. I endeavour to unfold his story throughout my following posts, and to bring Cecil’s memoir to life for the Writing Lives project.
‘It cannot but give one a sense of wellbeing to see one’s labours coming to life’ (15).
309 HARWOOD, Cecil George, ‘Down Memory Lane’, TS, pp.104 (c.65,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Benson, John. The Working Class In Britain 1850-1939. London: Longman, 1989.
Harwood, Cecil. ‘Down Memory Lane.’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. University of Brunel Library. Special Collections. 1:309. http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10964
- Map of Welwyn: http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/
- The Frythe: http://jefferyknaggs.com/Frythe.html
- Step Into Your Place: https://www.iwm.org.uk/
- Down Memory Lane: http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10964