Leslie John Robinson (b.1929): Class Matters

For Leslie John Robinson, his working- class background is at the forefront of his autobiography. He explains the upkeep of his large family from as far back as his grandfather, discussing political standpoints around the class divide. Leslie recalls ‘grandad spent most of his working life in the building trade, either as a bricksetter or a bricksetter’s labourer, depending on what was available’. However, ‘work was hard and there were too many men chasing too few jobs’ (2). From this point it is clear that Leslie is proud of his working- class heritage and that his family had no intentions of attempting to join the middle classes. This was a state of mind, and Leslie’s father followed his fate, joining his grandfather as a working- class man. The fight for work is something that perhaps made these men so proud, as they managed to keep their families fed and sheltered, despite lack of funds. Remembering ‘like most children of working class families in the early part of this century Dad’s education had been poor’, Leslie understands that ‘to be able to read, write and do simple arithmetic was considered sufficient for children destined to work with their hands’ (3). This suggests that children from working- class backgrounds were assumed to continue in their fate for a working- class life and not even given a chance at education in which they may have thrived. Content to remain in the working- class struggle and celebrating its positives, Leslie’s father and grandfather instilled some of their values into him, as he goes on to work for the majority of his life.

Politically, Leslie’s father ‘believed that only the Labour Party would improve the lot of the working class’ and was a ‘strong believer in the Trade Union movement’ (6). After becoming a painter and decorator, he joined the painter and decorator’s union which ‘gave him a sense of pride and a new confidence’ (6). This suggests that Leslie’s family valued working- class culture and took pride in working hard for all that they owned. Social mobility may have been an opportunity for collective change and family achievement, but working hard, providing for a family and being hands- on parents was achievement enough for the Robinson’s. Leslie did adopt some of his family’s views on social change, however, he is never completely happy in the majority of his working roles and does aim to climb the social hierarchy and earn more money to provide for his children. The effects of the working- class struggle through the eyes of a child is displayed here as Leslie appears to have had a different experience than that of his ancestors. Growing up through this time, social status may have been more apparent and lack of money and inequality becoming clear at times such as Christmas and birthdays. Where Leslie’s parents had tried their best, he notes that he always wanted more for his own children.

In her work, Class Struggle and the Persistence of the Working- Class Family (1977), Jane Humphries notes that ‘child labour was regulated and the age of entry into the labour force rose steadily. Incomplete data suggest that married women’s participation rates fell from the high levels reached in the early phase of industrialization and the Napoleonic wars and thereafter slowly recovered’ (Humphries, 1977, 251). With the growing needs of capitalism requiring quality rather than quantity, jobs were scarce. Therefore, many women stayed at home with their families whilst their husbands looked for work. Children were forced into the working- class struggle due to the need of learning a trade for the future but were taken advantage of in terms of cheap or even free labour. This is perhaps why Leslie found himself as an apprentice painter at such a young age, as this was also the system that his father found himself in. This may have also led him to supporting the Labour Party as the exploitation of working- class families were exposed.

During his time in the Sea Cadets, Leslie was asked by one of the Navy’s admirals ‘”what are you going to do when you grow up?”’. Leslie replied ‘”join the Navy Sir”’ (76). It seems that the military was the only job Leslie found with no class- inequality. This was something never mentioned in the memoir when Leslie wrote of his comrades. It could therefore be said that Leslie wanted class to matter less, whilst working hard to provide for his family. The values instilled in him by his ancestors were not long forgotten, but as he climbed the social hierarchy eventually becoming a businessman, it is not impossible to believe that Leslie John Robinson did aim to improve his social status whilst keeping in touch with his working- class roots.

Bibliography:

  • Humphries, Jane. Class Struggle and Persistance of the Working- Class Family. Cambridge Journal of Economics. Vol.1, No.3. September 1977. pp.241- 258.
  • ‘Leslie John Robinson’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:671.
  • Robinson, Leslie John. ‘One Step at a Time’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection. 2:671.

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