William Belcher was born 14th September 1884. He was one of three children and grew up on Wells Street, in the Fitzrovia district of Central London. The bulk of his untitled memoirs were written in 1936, taking the form of a diary from 1936-1950. Documenting his early childhood, religion and career in the navy, Belcher gives a working class portrait of life in London.
What attracted me most to Belcher’s memoirs is his detailed descriptions of his early childhood and school life. John Burnett’s brief description of working class autobiographers and school life helps to understand some of Belcher’s points. Burnett states:
“Happiness at school is recorded less frequently by autobiographers than unhappiness. When it occurs it is usually associated… with being interested in the lessons and performing well at them”
Belcher talks of how school life was an ‘unceasing panorama of knowledge’ (Belcher, 5) in which he ‘found lessons irksome’ (5). Belcher’s views on school and the education system are interesting as he isn’t afraid to express his dissatisfaction and concerns with the institution. He states ‘If it was sums, decimals or averages there were more interesting sums to come such as square roots’ (5) and expresses his frustration with the incessant knowledge that school life places upon the individual. Although Belcher isn’t afraid to demonstrate his dissatisfaction, he also shows a certain endearment towards it. He is proud of his background in education, claiming that ‘it laid securely the foundation of a good education, which I am proud to say I have retained’ (6). This ‘retained education’ is certainly evident whilst reading Belcher’s memoirs due to his eloquent writing style and ability to articulate his points clearly.
School life to me, at least was a harvest of kindly instruction, coming little short of a college education. At ten we were doing what secondary children do at fourteen
Belcher was clearly a well educated man who excelled in school, obtaining a scholarship, attended night school sessions and studied electrical engineering at a Polytechnic, he was evidently interested in acquiring knowledge.
One thing that sets apart these memoirs from other working class writing, is Belcher’s time spent travelling. After different periods of various employment, Belcher joined the Royal Navy in 1903. Before joining, he had ‘never travelled’ (17), however the Navy gave Belcher the opportunity to travel across the world including places such as: Malta, Spain, Lisbon, Barcelona, Greece and Italy. This opportunity was significant as Belcher was able to explore territory otherwise unknown to most of the working class. He even experienced things that very few men have, as he stood ‘behind King Edward as he opens the Olympian games in Athens’ (23). Belcher pushed forward in life and strived for greater things, things that others of his class and society could never dream of.
Belcher also details his main interests as a youth in which he played ‘football for the Avondale & Ashmount clubs’ (14), ‘learnt to box’ (16) and had a strong ‘desire to learn dancing’ (15). He had grown into a ‘strong youth’ (14) and developed his interests by delving into a variety of activities. However, later in life Belcher turned his attention and interests into religion. Religion was always a predominant part of his life, being ‘born as the church bells were calling the worshippers to church’ (1). Belcher became an active worker for the church, teaching among the navy ships in the chaplains, religion dominated his later life. It became his spiritual guidance and he was able to express his hope of a new social structure as being of God’s construction under Jesus Christ.
School, religion and work are the predominant themes of his memoirs and the role of each plays a significant part in the life of William Belcher. He uses each experience to further his knowledge and of life itself. Expressing his feelings towards the industrial revolution and what effect this had upon society and his own life, he is able to discuss the future modernisation of current society. Belcher details the differences in the changing times in society between his childhood and adult life, in which even ‘the weather too, was different in those days’ (10). Belcher points out how ‘the good old days were truly to the thinking man today bad old days, as were the preceding decades nearer to the start of the Industrial Revolution in England’ (10). This comment demonstrates the social mobility that he was able to experience due to his education and career. While implying he is part of this ‘thinking man’ class of people, he keeps to the working class roots he was born into in his humble beginnings on Wells Street.
Burnett, John Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820’s to the 1920’s Routledge: London, 1982
Belcher, William Untitled Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.53