Alfred George Henry Lay (1869- 1958) Life and Labour Part 2

The next major part of Alfred’s story takes him to America where he must face even more difficulties. It was not unusual for people to emigrate to America in the late 19th Century and the Early 20th Century. ‘Between 1880 and 1924, the year immigration was severely restricted, more than twenty-five million immigrants poured into the country’ (Barrett, 1992, 996) Alfred was one of many who sailed to America in search of something new.

               Alfred sailed to America on the 29th September 1889 on a ship named ‘the Egypt’ (21). He worked his passage as a storage steward. He outlined his role on the ship saying, ‘I have to help searve the mail passengers at meal time with meat potatos and bread’ (22) whilst it was also his ‘duty to see all feamale passenger off the upper deck before it became dark (22). His role on the Egypt was a mundane one but one that ‘suited all right for the time’ (22).

              This was until things took a turn for the worse. Alfred was caught talking to passengers on deck after dark leading to him being shifted out of his ‘bearth as stearage steward’ (23) and placed ‘in the saloon galley’ (23), stating that he ‘did not have a very nice time of it’ (23). You feel sympathy for Alfred here due to the fact that he is just a young man traveling to a country that he has never been to, whilst trying to make some friends. His treatment onboard the Egypt causes that sympathy to grow. He does not receive any money from a collection that was put together. He is unable to go ashore after they land at New York and he was unable to get a pass to take his belongings off the ship.

New York City and docks, 19th-century artwork. This view looks north-east up New York City and docks, 19th century

              After Alfred manages to get ashore, his already unfortunate circumstances continue to worsen. He spent what little money he had within the first few days on accommodation and food. I think that the fact that Alfred tells us he ‘had no knife so I used my razor to cut’ his bread highlights how bad his situation really was. Whilst trying to find work in New York he states that ‘I wished I were in England I had never knowed what it was to feel hungry like I was now’ (27). In order to escape the predicament he was in whilst on board the Egypt Alfred sacrificed warm food and shelter.

              Alfred, who was usually an upbeat and determined person, admitted that he ‘was fairly tired of America and was getting very low spirited’ (28). Alfred was alone in an unknown country, with no food and no shelter, struggling to find work. Luckily for Alfred he was found by Tom Smith. Alfred confesses that ‘He seem to be a bit teched with my tale and said he would find me a place to sleep and something to eat’ (29). Thanks to the kindness of a stranger Alfred had a roof over his head and some food in his belly. Tom also found Alfred work which allowed him to travel to places such as Florida and Philadelphia.

              Alfred’s work was a massive part of his life. His diary entries portray a life of hardship but also a life of experiences no one else is likely to experience.


Barrett, James. Americanization from the Bottom up: Immigration and the Remaking of the Working Class in the United States, 1880-1930. The Journal of American History, Dec 1992, Vol 79(3) p.996. Web. Accessed 22 May 2020.

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