“Never, in the whole recorded history of mankind has there been such a rapid and complete transformation in the circumstances of human life, in so short a time as my lifetime.” (1)
Sunday School teacher, businessman and amateur philosopher, Harry Alfred West’s autobiography gives a well-reasoned account of the changing world in which he lived. Rather than giving us the flat details of his life, West muses on the religious, philosophical and moral implications of the events which he witnesses. The result is an autobiography which is both a compelling insight into the author’s mind, and rich with facts about the era he lived in. West’s work is a 25,000 word typed manuscript, and appears to have been written in the 1950s, when West was in his 70s.
Born in 1880, Harry West not only lived through the First World War, but also inhabited a society that was in a state of constant flux due to scientific discovery and change in religious thought. His work in education, and specifically his work in Sunday Schools, meant that he was witnessing these changes on the front line. He writes that “[r]eligion versus science was a burning question”, and it was clearly one that impacted on him greatly as he spends several pages describing how he was able to reconcile the two in his own mind. Ever rational, he decides that “expansion of cosmological knowledge has necessarily involved also collateral expansion of my concept of the Creation and of God.” (2)
Despite being open to scientific discovery and new realms of thought, Christianity remains a huge influence throughout West’s life. He not only taught lessons at Sunday School, but also worked in the church as an organist and choirmaster. After several years of taking this active role at the church he was asked to take up the office of superintendent, and “re-organise the school on modern lines”(35). This was a gateway for West to become more involved in the other big love of his life – education.
A keen scholar as a young man, West’s love of learning would last his whole lifetime. Throughout his autobiography there are descriptions of the books that made an impact on him – from the Dickens that his father would read to him as a child, to the copy of Pilgrim’s Progress that he was presented with on his tenth birthday. This was not a selfish passion, but something that he wished to share with as many people as possible. He gave lectures on a wide variety of subjects including literature and, later, his hobby of handloom weaving. After leaving his post at the Sunday School West’s work as an educator was not done, as he went on to become secretary of the British Adult School Union.
The one disruption in West’s life came when The Great War broke out. He was separated from his wife and daughter and relocated to London for military training. Never seeing action himself, he only writes briefly on his experiences of the war, mentioning his training and saying that he was “fortunate to be spared” (36) during the air raids.
West’s autobiography is an appealing slice of working class history, as it blends the character of the man himself with a sense of the atmosphere of his world. Throughout his work West expresses an infectious passion for living life to its fullest, and a gratitude for the opportunities that he was given. His autobiography is a useful read for anybody interested in religion and education in the late 19th and early 20th century. It also contains a wealth of musings on philosophy and humanity, making it a thought-provoking text for any reader.
‘Harry Alfred West’, in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Brighton: Harvester, 1984, vol. 1, no. 745
West, Harry Alfred, ‘Autobiography of Alfred West. Facts and Comments’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:745