Guy Oates (1905 – 1987): Life and Labour – Part Five

What a peculiar world this is. Here was I living in the prettiest institution, in beautiful surroundings, yet working and living with the poorest in the land

(Oates, 5:24).

The Wayland Infirmary, Attleborough, Norfolk 1932-1937

‘The Wayland Infirmary’ (5:10)

Just one day after leaving Downham Market, Guy and Doris took up their new roles as Master and Matron of the Wayland Infirmary. Once again, the workhouse and setting was very different to what Guy and Doris had been used to, and this time, they found themselves surrounded by farmland, and ‘there was nothing about it to indicate you were in the grounds of a Poor Law Institution’ (5:3). In the grounds, Guy discovered ‘an apple orchard, all the trees being selected personally by the Mr Gaymer of the firm of Gaymer’s Cyder Ltd (. . .) and a brick built pig sty, housing the usual ten pigs’ (5:3). The building was ‘built from very nice red brick and was three storeys high’ (5:3), and inside there were ’28 beds for men and 28 beds for women,’ who each had access to ‘their own day room, bathrooms and lavatories’ (5:3). Guy happily reports that ‘there were no casual wards and should anyone apply for admission before 9pm [he] would refuse’ (5:3). This was a huge relief to Guy, who had always disliked having to deal with the casual ward, and found the vagrants to be difficult. Once Guy and Doris had settled into their accommodation, they decided to tour the workhouse and ‘see how the place had been run’ (5:4), and much to the delight of the couple, their findings were ‘a contrast to Downham Market. Here everything appeared to be in order, and there was no need for any changes’ (5:4). This must have been a huge relief for Guy and Doris, who would have been anxious, following their experience at Downham Market, and with their minds at ease, they were able to settle into their new roles. 

‘A meeting of Master and Matron’ (5:14).

The Ways of Guy

With no nasty surprise (bar the odd dead rat in the heating system), Guy and Doris found that they could get to work straight away, given that everything was in order and running as it should be. However, Guy found this unexpectedly difficult, and confesses that ‘it is sometimes easier to enter a place like Downham Market and put it straight than it is to follow a man like Mr Gott, and keep it up to the standard he had set. At Downham, no matter what you did was an improvement, while at Attleborough, you had to work nearly as hard with little to show’ (5:4). Though it may appear as though Guy is being ungrateful for the opportunity to work in such an environment, I think it is fair to assume that he is struggling because this is something he had never experienced during his life. In one way or another, he had to work for every small, or big, achievement, and when he was finally rewarded with the Wayland Infirmary, it made him uneasy. Luckily for Guy, he soon found that not enough was being done ‘to improve the happiness [of] the aged and the infirm inmates’ (5:5), and after some thought about how to make the most of the grounds and lawns, it suddenly ‘struck [him], Bowles was the answer’ (5:5). After talking his suggestion through with the chairman, Guy was pleased to receive four sets of old bowls (. . .) quite good enough for [his] needs’ (5:5). In a very touching, and typical Guy moment, he ‘showed [the men] two sets of bowls, telling them [he] would challenge any of them to a game. They thought [he] was joking. Not until [he] said that if any of them could beat [him], they would get an ounce of tobacco. Their faces lit up’ (5:5). Each night the men would play bowls, smoke their pipes, and go ‘back in their minds some fifty years or more’ (5:5), and while reflecting on this, Guy states ‘I bet when they entered those gates they never thought they would ever play bowls again. At least we had tried to make their lives a little happier’ (5:5). He admits that where the ladies were concerned, it was much harder to entertain them, but when the weather was good, they would be taken onto the lawn and sit down to a nice tea with music provided by records and an old gramophone’ (5:5). I feel that I should say, after reading eight volumes of his memoir, it would be fair to assume that I had gotten used to Guy and all the wonderful things he does. But even now, his kindness and compassion for others, astounds me. Simple, genuine, kindness, which has profound effects on the lives of the people around him. He truly was incredible. 

What Guy did with his spare time: ‘On the tennis court’ (5:16).

By 1937, Guy and Doris had spent five happy years at the Wayland Infirmary, and when Doris found out that she was pregnant, Guy felt ‘quite happy, but this was overshadowed when [he] thought of what might happen (. . .) after realising [they] were 14 miles away from the nearest hospital’ (5:45). After some discussion, Guy and Doris agreed that it would be better if they could find employment elsewhere, ‘in a larger and more up-to-date institution, or at least one that was in a town which had a modern hospital’ (5:46). As Doris was only two months pregnant, they had some time to search for a suitable role. After a short while, a job became available in the workhouse in Ormskirk, and though it was much bigger (600 beds), both Guy and Doris made a successful application. In a touching goodbye he says ‘to you the Wayland Infirmary. You gave me the six happiest years of my working life (. . .) I trust that those who may follow me, will care for you as I did and be proud of you as I was. Good luck to all who pass your way. Fare thee well. 

‘Some of the male inmates’ (5:21).

If you have enjoyed reading about Guy’s life, you may like to explore the full collection of Guy Oates Posts.

Additional photos shared in Volume:

‘Our 1st car’ (5:15).
‘Russell and Me with Whiz’ (5:18).
‘Doris and Mother – 1935’ (5:21).
‘My two brothers and their wives with us on holiday’ (5:43).

If you have enjoyed reading about Guy’s life, you may like to explore the full collection of Guy Oates Posts.

If you would like to read some of our fellow Writing Lives students blogs, then look no further! Here are some of the posts Tasha and I enjoyed for this particular theme:

Joel O’Toole: blog post focuses on Olga Pyne Clarke. Olga knew how to use her strengths correctly as she always used her knowledge of horses to find work. Jenny Dalton’s author Rosa Bell was a true working-class lady, who had numerous jobs throughout her life, but most importantly she was a writer.

Rosa Pocknell’s post on Maud Clarke shows the various roles of a work-class woman although her jobs were mostly domestic she was also able to earn her own salary.


Oates, Guy. The Years That Are Gone.Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol. 5.

Further Reading:
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363. 
Rogers, Helen and Emily Cuming, ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant reading of Working-Class Autobiography’, Family & Community History, 21:3 (2019): 180-201.
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47- 70. 
Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Penguin, 2015.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247. 

Barringer, Tim J.  Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain.
New Haven CT: Yale UP, 2005. 
Burnett, John ed. Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s London: Routledge, 1994.
Fowler, Simon. The People, The Places, The Life Behind Doors. 
Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books, 2014. 
Longmate, Norman. The Workhouse. London: Temple Smith, 1974.
Savage, Mike. Identities and Social Change in Britain Since 1940:  The Politics of Method. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.
Robin Evans, The Fabrication of Virtue: English prison architecture 1750–1840, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1982. xix + 464 pp.
Historic Hospitals ‘Wayland Hospital (Wayland Union Infirmary)’ Norfolk, Attleborough. [Web accessed: 19th April].

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