Labour is intrinsically linked to the idea of working class consciousness. Each and every one of the Brunel archive auto-biographies I have looked at include some detail about the authors relationship to labour. Males were typically sent off to work at a young age, as demonstrated in James Ashley’s memoir, ‘1850 that I went to the plank and was put for six months under a practical man to teach me Silk Hat Finishing’ (3), while females would be set to housework and chores, explained by Margaret Watson when she recounts her early years, ‘I had not much time for playing, so many chores were there for me’ (10).
George Gregory did not escape the same fate in his childhood. He writes, ‘I took the school-leaving examination as soon as I was 12 years of age, passed it, and was set off for my labour certificate that permitted me to work’ (43). He very quickly secured a position ‘on the night shift at the coal mine at Writhlington… [carrying] a box containing fuse and explosive’ (43), dangerous work for a 12 year old. George confirms he was proud of being able to work and was happy that he could ‘equate [himself] with adults in that [he] was receiving a wage’ (47), a sentiment that I’m not sure would be shared by 12 year old boys in the 21st century.
Immediately after he was immersed in the world of labour, George left formal schooling behind and his memory of it ‘withdrew into the background’ (47). It was not until a couple of years later that he returned to education (see my post on Education and Schooling for further details), but even then, it was alongside a full time job in the mines. What is apparent, reading George’s memoir, is that work was never really an option. It was an integral, unavoidable part of life, which was never really questioned.
Throughout his life George occupied several different jobs. He had an extensive career at the Writhlington Colliery, taking different roles such as a carting boy,a ‘breaker’ (69), and a mine supervisor, before moving on to other roles such as an insurance payment collector, and a committee member for the Co-Operative society.
His tumultuous career is somewhat reflective of his struggle with dealing with his class consciousness as, at several different points in his life, he feels as though he is betraying his roots through success (in my post on Reading and Writing I noted how he ‘perceived the emergence of a gulf that separated [him] from the members of [his] class’ (73)). His mining career is almost a way of us seeing how guilty he feels at different points in his life, with the lowest levels of guilt corresponding with all of the times he reset his career and became a lowly miner again.
George’s autobiography has a lot of information about his work life, specifically about incidents during his mining career, and I think this is indicative of the precedence it held in his life. George’s memoir is a product of its time and tells us a lot about the importance labour held in people’s lives in the early 20th Century, I can’t help but wonder whether it would be as central in an working-class auto-biography written about life in the 21st Century.
Ashley, James. Untitled, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:24.
Gregory, George, ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:283.
Watson, Margaret. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:802.