Labour was Arthur T. Collinson’s life. Due to a poverty-smothered childhood, Collinson knew that he had to work. He had no second thought for education. Collinson knew that he had to follow in the footsteps of his blind father and get into the real world of work.
Indeed, poverty was the norm and the local children were fully aware of it. As shown from this memoir extract, the children played a big part in surviving poverty.
Collinson even worked whilst he was in school. With the agreement of his headmaster – who was fond of him – he was allowed to leave his morning and afternoon classes early in order to complete his newspaper selling job, “My job as a newspaper boy taught me more about the workings of the ‘underworld’ than almost any other job could have done” (11). This quote, in relation to having his stolen bike returned on Fleet Street by a “rough looking chap”, shows that Collinson was exposed to different types of ‘work’ from a very tender age.
This job was not an attempt at entrepreneurship though. This job was a necessity for the Collinson family. Between hand-outs from the local churches and his father’s modest wages, a young Arthur T. Collinson would offer his earnings to the family in order to try and make ends meet. This act is typical of Collinson’s nature. He is a provider, but an even-handed one. His first job offered more than just money. Collinson began to learn from the hustle and bustle of the London streets. This would prove vital as he got older.
“After collecting, we had to do our rounds and then arm ourselves with copies of the unsold papers and stand at the corner of Devonshire Street shouting “All the evening papers” until about 9 p.m. We newspaper boys often fought each other when one sold a newspaper to a customer one of the others claimed as his” (11/12).
This fighting would prove beneficial as it is what Collinson had to do all his life.
As Collinson mentions however, his ‘real’ working life got off to a flyer:
“I was to discover in a year or two later, how fortunate I was to have commenced my industrial life in the company of some of the pioneers of the ‘Organ Builders Trade Society’, a small but highly respected trade union. To become a member one had to be a master of the arts and crafts of his trade and in addition be of good character. So different from today when, with a membership of some nine million in the country, countless numbers of trade unionists are merely ‘ticket holders’ many of whom have never attended a branch meeting and whose trade union card is treated as a licence to work” (15).
Collinson’s involvement in the ‘Organ Builders Trade Society’ helped him to develop as a skilled carpenter. His carpentry skills would take him to France to build hospitals and to an RAF aircraft hangar to build specific parts for planes and plane accessories. Despite being continuously blacklisted for union involvement, Collinson was never out of work for long. As he viewed work as his lifeblood, he would travel to wherever there was a place for him. Even with his special skills, Collinson remained firmly in-tune with his fellow man. His views were still rooted in socialism. Even the lucrative – albeit rare – jobs failed to get to his head.
‘Arthur T. Collinson’, in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Brighton: Harvester, 1984, Vol.3, no. 30.
Arthur T. Collinson, ‘One Way Only: An autobiography of an Old-time Trade Unionist’ in Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 3:30