Patrick McGeown (b. 1897): Life and Labour

‘Sometimes I think of the furnaces, but only to tell myself that I’m glad we’ve parted. I hold nothing against them…but I wouldn’t care to do it all over again’ – (192)

In terms of themes, there isn’t a more prominent subject covered in Patrick’s memoir than that of Life and Labour. Patrick’s memoir details the inner workings of the Britain’s furnaces and the men that inhabited them. David Vincent reasoned that in the autobiographies of Victorian men, ‘the less literate the writer (…) the greater his preoccupation with the details of his life as a worker’ (1982, 62). However, this certainly doesn’t apply to Patrick, born in 1897 at the end of the Victorian age. Evidently, he is a very talented and literate writer who chose to focus his writing about one of his passions- ‘the art in manual labouring’ (73). His writing on the furnaces emits an aura of warmth. His descriptions are almost poetic and musical. Patrick was not a man that wrote about work due to a lack of articulacy. No, Patrick wrote about his life as a worker because he was proud of it.  

Image 1: Gives a glimpse into a steelmaking furnace. Patrick would have worked in a space like this for over 8 hours a day.

Patrick’s tales of the working man are present from the very opening of his memoir. He begin his autobiography with an account of the last shift he completed in the furnaces ‘after forty-eight years’ (1). Of the 22 chapters, 8 are directly focussed on Patrick’s time at work, yet almost all 22 of them mention labour in some way.  Cummings and Rogers argue that ‘the documentation of the quotidian, of “ordinary” acts, is important because it emphasises, as [one autobiographer] puts it, that “I have done things” and that “while I cannot do much now, while I could do things, I did them”. They go further to state that ‘this takes on greater resonance in relation to the physical effects of ageing and its relationship to the process of remembering and writing’(Cuming and Rogers, 2019). Due to the demanding physical nature of steelmaking, Patrick’s memoir very much emphasises the ‘ordinary’. The memoir details the physical effects of ageing and labour that wreaked havoc on his body. So when reading vivid and emotional memories of days in which Patrick was thriving, the words take on a greater significance.

Patrick was exposed to the world of steelmaking from a very young age. His memoir shows that working class boy followed their fathers into the world of work: ‘Harry McInally could hardly wait to grow up so that he could be a pit man like his dad’ (32). Crowley argues that ‘the work that underpins conceptions of ‘traditional’ working-class masculinities is, almost without exception, manual labour’ (Crowley, 2020). Therefore it is understandable why so many boys transitioned into the jobs of their father. As the concept of the ‘breadwinner’ was prominent throughout the 20th century, boys were seen to gravitate to jobs that they could successfully obtain with minimal effort (Crowley,2020). It seems that Patrick portrays two completely different approaches to starting labour: the ones who were naively eager and the ones who were prolonging their fate. It seems that the leading cause in boys wanting to move into labour was the idea of fellowship and pride. Patrick talks about the sense of comradery and identity that comes with working in the steelworks. He observes that each trade had a certain look and once you become immersed in the world of heavy-labour, you could identify these positions with ease.

Yet another more tragic tell-tale sign of a man who spent the best part of his life in the steelworks was illness. It appears that no one escaped the effects of such as demanding job. Patrick recalls how ‘all her married life [his] mother had noted anxiously the state in which [his father] arrived home. She knew the danger signals too well, the eyes far back in his head, the voice hoarse, almost inaudible, from his strength-sapped lungs’ (41). Like many before him Patrick fell victim to ‘the enemies of good health’ that in his youth he paid no mind (148). ‘At sixty years old [Patrick] found steelmaking very hard work, not because harsh manual labour had increased, it hadn’t, but because [his] health and strength had’ (183).

However, illness was not the only plight that steelmakers faced. Historian Kenneth O. Morgan discusses how in Britain, after the First World War ended in 1918, ‘there were new and disruptive problems that resulted from the loss of foreign markets and sale of overseas investments to pay for the war’ (2000, 16). Facing such problems ‘the government failed to prevent massive unemployment’ (2000, 18). Due to this, many working class families across Britain saw intense hardships. Patrick states that ‘trade was good for a long spell after the war’ (103) until the Strikes came. Miners and Steel workers alike stood in solidarity with one another in protest. ‘For working men like [Patrick] the great depression was like entering a tunnel in 1921 and slowly traversing it until a gleam in 1934 told [them] that at last [they] were nearing day-light’ (135).

It is apparent that the heavy-labour trades were turbulent during the 20th century and Patrick’s memoir provides a unique perspective into the trials and struggles of the working-class breadwinners. Despite the evident hard times, that many modern critics may have deemed exploitive, Patrick still appreciated and cherished the job that he did in retrospect, though he had no desire to return to it: ‘Sometimes I think of the furnaces, but only to tell myself that I’m glad we’ve parted. I hold nothing against them…but I wouldn’t care to do it all over again’ (192)

Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

493 MCGEOWN, Patrick, Heat the Furnace Seven Times More (Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., London, 1967), pp.192. Other edn., with an introduction by Asa Briggs, Readers Union, London, 1968, pp.192.

MCGEOWN, Patrick, Heat the Furnace Seven Times More (Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., London, 1967)

Secondary Sources:

O. Morgan, Kenneth. Twentieth-Century Britain: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Vincent, David.  Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: Study of Nineteenth Century Working Class Autobiography. 1982.

Crowley, Matthew. Representations of Working-class Masculinities in Post-war British Culture: The Left Behind. Routledge, 2020

Cuming, Emily and Helen Rogers, ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant Reading of Working-Class Autobiography’, Journal of Family and Community History (2019)

Image 1: Inside H-Series Furnace. Retrieved from: Photo58-StokeholdAsCoalBurningShip-500.jpg (500×347) (gjenvick.com)

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