Cecil George Harwood (1894 – 1983): Life and Labour I

‘The Manager came out and soon saw what I had done,
and did he tell me what I was, I never knew I had so many names’ (10).

At the age of thirteen, Cecil George Harwood left formal education to begin his working life. His writing depicts that his progression through the labouring world did not always go according to plan, but there was certainly never a dull moment!

Upon leaving school, Cecil was found a position as an errand’s boy at a chemist’s shop. The first of his many employments. In a comical anecdote, Cecil admits, ‘one thing I couldn’t help doing was smelling the contents of the bottles. Some had pungent smells, others had sweet smells as I found out. After dusting the bottles at the back of the dispensing counter, it suddenly crossed my mind, I had read about folk being made unconscious in detective books and I thought I would like to try it for myself’ (10).

‘Pharmaceutical Chemist’ by Eric Ravilious (1938). Image Courtesy of Artuk.org.

Cecil’s boyhood curiosity and sense of adventure often lead him astray and saw him in deep trouble with the management. He developed not only a habit but a reputation for ‘smelling bottles’ (11), as he was caught red-handed by his superior, Mr. Downing. ‘Things went well for a time until one day he handed me a large stoppered bottle and said “Keep your nose out of that”. I did not ask him what had been inside, but I no sooner got out of the shop to take it where we stored the empties than I had the stopper out and I was gasping for breath. The bottle went down with a crash, out comes the boss “What did I tell you, not to smell it”’ (11). After this second incident, it was decided that during his time free from running errands, young Cecil was better suited to serving customers. But even this task was not without its obstacles. ‘Being small, I couldn’t see over the counter so he found me a shallow box to stand on’ (11). Cecil recalls another of his duties, pulverising a potent smelling ‘substance called Devils Dung… used by gamekeepers to mix with corn’ (11). This chore is remembered less fondly, ‘it smelt like rotten garlic’ (11). Cecil reminds his reader that ‘this job was from 8 o’clock in the morning until 8 o’clock at night for 5 days and until 9 o’clock on Saturdays’ (11), and that he was paid just ‘2/6’ (11) for his troubles.

Labour is a dominant theme throughout Cecil’s writing, with much of his memoir focusing upon detailing his various workplace responsibilities. Emphasising the extent of his labour enables Cecil to demonstrate his usefulness, as productivity was typically beheld as a marker of respectability amidst the working classes. As James Cronin and Peter Weiler outline, ‘work and wages remained at the center of working class visions of how to achieve social and economic progress’ (Cronin & Weiler, 49). This desire is reflected in ‘Down Memory Lane’, not only by Cecil’s own working life, but by his recollection of the worker’s protests at Jarrow Shipyards:

‘There was unrest at Jarrow Shipyards and a march was organised, the marchers eventually came through Welwyn. They had begged food and money on their way to London and what a sorry crowd they were to be sure. There were several handcarts and on these some of the marchers were laying, unable to walk further, poor devils. For them it was Hobsons choice, starve at home or on the march’ (13).

Protest Marchers on the Jarrow Crusade in 1936. Image Courtesy of The Independent.

What Cecil’s writing highlights is that these marches against unemployment and poor wages were motivated by a sense of inequality and injustice. Cecil situates his memory during his employment at the Chemist’s shop, between 1906 and 1909, yet the unrest at Jarrow Shipyards continued. The closure of Jarrow’s main shipyard, Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company in 1933, resulted in widespread unemployment and poverty throughout Jarrow and its neighbouring towns. This culminated in the march of the Jarrow Crusaders in 1936, when over 200 men stormed the road from Jarrow to Parliament in London.

Although Cecil expresses an awareness of the plight of the men of his class, he acknowledges that he was fortunate enough to never directly encounter such hardships. After leaving his first job at the Chemist’s, Cecil worked as a garden boy at The Grange. Through this experience, he gained his more fruitful position working in the kitchen-garden at Digswell House. Reflecting upon this time, Cecil writes, ‘I don’t remember anyone being made redundant, there was no such word at that time and all that happened was, if any one department did not come up to standard it would be expected to do so during the next 12 months’ (19). Cecil’s account of a stable working life greatly differs from that of John Gibson (1887 – 1980), who recalls his struggle with unemployment and his activity as a trade unionist.

Digswell House, Welwyn Garden City. N.d. Image Courtesy of ourwelwyngardencity.org.uk.

Cecil started work at Digswell House in 1911. His position there became a bonding point for father and son, as Alfred Harwood ‘spent best part of his life in the gardens of The Frythe’ (15). Because of his long-service, Cecil’s Father was a ‘great help’ (15) to him during his years as a gardener. At Digswell, Cecil worked ‘under a Mr. Handley’ (19) and alongside ‘two odd job men’ (16). However, by Spring 1912, Handley was ‘taken ill’ (19) and Cecil was presented with the opportunity to fulfill the foreman’s responsibilities of ‘being in charge of the kitchen garden’ (19). He highlights what an achievement this was, given his young age. ‘I was early in my 18th year, which was very young to be able to hold down this position’ (20). Cecil thrived under the managerial demands of his new role. ‘All things went according to plan, chiefly owing to the efforts and support I received from my two helpers’ (19). He constructs a portrait of comradeship amongst early 20th century horticultural workers, adding, ‘it cannot but give one a sense of wellbeing to see ones labours coming to life… I think all folk are gardeners at heart or the thousands of people would not visit the parks and gardens as they do’ (15).

Cecil’s work at Digswell was a ‘labour of love’ (15). His enjoyment is present through the recollection of his duties, ‘about June was a time I really liked, as then I helped with the bedding out of plants grown under glass during the Spring’ (15). Therefore, it is hardly surprising when Cecil states his intention was to continue in his Father’s footsteps, ‘by this time I intended to make gardening my career… As proved later I was not to do what I set out to do’ (15).

On the 4th of August 1914, the First World War was declared. Cecil remembers this day, ‘We at Welwyn were enjoying a Bank Holiday Monday with sports on the football ground. The declaration took the enjoyment out of it and the festivities closed early’ (20). He returned to work ‘after the holiday’ (20) to be given an ultimatum, ‘there would be no more work and if we were fit we were to enlist’ (20). Cecil enlisted the following Monday. His gardening dreams were not to be realised.

‘I draw a veil over that evening, it was rather painful at the time’ (21).

Cecil’s working life after his return from the First World War, (1917 – 1957 ), is explored in my following post, Life and Labour II.


309 HARWOOD, Cecil George, ‘Down Memory Lane’, TS, pp.104 (c.65,000 words). Brunel University Library.

Benson, John. The Working Class In Britain 1850-1939. London: Longman, 1989.

Cannadine, David. Class in Britain. London: Penguin, 2000.

Cronin, James E. and Peter Weiler. ‘Working-Class Interests and the Politics of Social Democratic Reform in Britain, 1900-1940’. International Labour and Working-Class History. 40. (Fall 1991): 47 – 66.

Harwood, Cecil. ‘Down Memory Lane.’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. University of Brunel Library. Special Collections. 1:309. http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10964

Hogg, David. ‘John Gibson (1887 – 1980): Life & Labour.’ 5th April 2018. Writing Lives. Web. Accessed 6th April 2018.


  1. Pharmaceutical Chemist: Artuk.org
  2. Jarrow Shipyards: Independent.co.uk
  3. Digswell House: ourwelwyngardencity.org.uk







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