Harry Dorrell (B.1903): An Introduction

I hear the sounds that others make. They hear me, but they do not know my shorthand.’ (1)

Numbers 22 - 32 Plaistow Road in 1902.
Numbers 22 – 32 Plaistow Road in 1902.


Harry Dorrell was born in 1903, the youngest of seven surviving children. His memoir ‘FALLING CADENCE. An autobiography of failure’ follows his life from growing up in Plaistow, London, through his involvement in labour politics and the decline of his mental health in his adulthood.

The thing that strikes me most about Harry’s memoir is the difference in which his outlook on life seems to change between his childhood and adulthood. Writing in his seventies Harry seems to look back to being a child with fondness, although he does acknowledge the issues his family suffered with poverty and alienation they are almost glossed over, told through the eyes of a child who did not yet know the ‘secret sickness’ (160) that plagued his later life. He describes his earlier years as ‘those happy, those stimulating days before my mental sickness was thrust upon me.’ (160)

This beautifully written memoir expresses the pain of Harry’s depression and his reflection on a life before, where although poor, he was happy.

Throughout Harry’s childhood his family moved several times, due to his father ‘losing a job, finding another job’ (2) and this is something that followed him through his own working life. He moves around the country and into different professions to continue to earn money. Harry is a very optimistic and happy child. He finds the best in his situation, choosing to describe the way his hob-nailed boots ‘rattle merrily’ (3) rather than dwell on the fact that these boots reflected his family’s poverty.

Harry’s cheeky, boyish personality as a child shines through as he describes certain events, like when he and his friend stopped going to Sunday school but ‘pushed a hole through the card in the weekly square with a pencil’ (21), so that they could still earn the right to go to the Christmas party.

Although Harry hated school and counted the days until he could leave, he was well educated and keen on reading. From an early age he tried to read his brothers’ books, asked for books in school, and then as he got older went to get new books every Sunday. This probably contributed to the beautiful way in which the memoir is written.

Once Harry left school he went straight into work, moving from job to job after becoming dissatisfied with conditions or due to the closing down of companies. He very quickly became involved in several unions and this is something he continues throughout his life. He very easily makes friends and connections which help him to find new jobs.

Towards the end of the memoir Harry’s life is deeply affected by his depression and this has a huge effect on not only his home life, but his career too. There is a strong sense of guilt and a search for forgiveness in these later pages, because although his is still sick he feels incredibly responsible for the pain the depression has caused for his wife and children.


Dorrell, Harry, ‘Falling Cadence: An autobiography of failure’, TS, pp.161 (c.97,000 words). Fragment published in the POEU Journal, Aug 1983. BruneI University Library. AWC- 2:0231

Image Source: http://www.newhamstory.com/files/images/22%20-%2032%20Plaistow%20Road%201902.preview.jpg


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