Joseph Armitage was born on 24th September 1908 in Hunslet, Leeds, West Yorkshire. Armitage introduces his autobiography as a ‘documentary’ (p1), recording the living and working conditions through the First World War and the years that followed. The autobiography is typed, and around 90,000 words. He chronologically talks his audience through events in his life and issues facing working class people in Leeds.
An important theme in Armitage’s autobiography is family, he describes his mother and father and their lives as well as his own. His father was born in 1874 and worked at Walter Scott Ltd Leeds Steel Works at the time of Joseph’s birth. He describes the poor conditions in the works and the fatal accidents that led to it being nicknamed ‘The Hunslet Slaughter House’.
Working conditions are a prominent subject of Armitage’s writing. Whether that is the condition of Steel works, housewives’ domestic spaces or street sellers, locally known as ‘Hawkers’, working class conditions are portrayed as an important part of his life and something that he believes his audience will be interested in. I am also drawn to looking into Joseph’s step brother, George to discover what their family dynamics were like with an elder child from his mother’s previous relationship.
Armitage writes his autobiography under the alias ‘The Exile’, I find this very intriguing to explore further. It suggests that, especially at the time of writing; when Armitage has reflected on his life, that he views himself as an outsider, a drifter, unable to remain in one steady job, home or town. Armitage does describe his time spent during his adult life staying at lodging houses and looking for casual work.
His interesting choice of title(s) indicates a significant theme in his memoir. Living standards and the ability to ‘get by’ with what you have is prominent throughout the text however, why did Armitage choose to write about 23 years? Why is this a significant amount of time and what can this tell us about working class life?
Armitage provides of vivid portrait of working-class life in Leeds in the interwar period, including gambling and street gangs. However what struck me most about Armitage was that he loved the cinema and briefly worked as a filmer. His memoir offers a fascinating insight into the early film industry in Britain. I have a strong interest in film and film history so therefore this was appealing to me.
What I find interesting and different about Armitage is that he is aware that the reader may assume he is talking from a biased perspective, which he addresses by explaining that he ‘hopes my critics will see both sides of the picture, and forgive me if I digress a little from time-to-time’ (p2). On the other hand, Armitage also says that as a child you ‘forget the ordinary unspectacular kind of things’. This makes me want to look further into the role of autobiography in historical memory.
Joseph H Armitage 1974. The Twenty Threee Years. or The Late Way Of Life- And Of Living. Found at The Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, at Brunel University.
Taken from Joseph H Armitage’s autobiography