Harry Alfred West (b.1880): Life & Labour

Harry West’s main ambition in life was to be educated, however at the age of 14 he was forced to leave school early, in order to get a job and help support his family. As disruptive as this may have been for him, there is no sense of hardship in his writing, just a ‘needs must’ attitude and a desire to make the best of any opportunities he was given. He went immediately into the employment of Mardon, Son & Hall of Bristol – a branch of the Imperial Tobacco Company – and tells us that “The general manager was Mr. George Harris, a very stern man, who knew the trade well. He engaged me and presented me to Mr.F.B.Tarr who had recently completed his apprenticeship, and had been appointed to the Saleroom a new pretentious room for that time. Mr. Harris said to Mr. Tarr “Here you are Tarr, a light porter for you, keep him busy.”” (28)

From light porter, West worked his way up through the business to eventually become the manager of the traffic department. His early work consisted largely of manual tasks: “I had to sweep the floor, dust the shelves, pack parcels, carry sacks of letters to the sorting department of the General Post Office, run errands all over the factory and city, it was a lot of leg work, especially when, a little later, I added evening classes to it. I was very tired at night. I never used trams, and I never had any money given to me by the company to ride when delivering letters, parcels etc.” (30) Harry West was on his feet all day, and sometimes his duties extended far beyond the workplace. He tells us about one particular working day that sticks out in his mind:

 I remember one occasion vividly. I had been running about all day, and at closing time, I was given an urgent letter to deliver to Mr. Heber Mardon at his home, then at Westbury-on-Trym. That involves a walk from Temple Gate to Westbury, then a walk from Westbury to Stapleton Road, home. I was very, very tired after all day on my legs. (30)

Although West tells us about this journey in a relatively matter of fact tone, it would have been quite an ordeal after a long day’s work. Below is a map showing exactly how far he had to walk, the blue line representing his journey.

Harry West - Bristol travelling distance
Harry West’s long journey
Source – Google Maps

In many ways, West enjoyed the challenging aspects of his work, finding them stimulating – “More factories were built, despite more mass-production, and more machinery and the numbers of employees increased. Revisions of office procedure as well as methods of production were called for. These things necessitated keeping one’s mind alive.” (30) Through hard work and flexibility, he was able to make a name for himself within the business, and he proudly states that “I entered the employ of Mardon Son and Hall, virtually as an errand boy. I served them for fifty-one years, growing in position as the company grew. I retired as Head of the Traffic Department.” (20)

Alongside his work for Mardon, Son & Hall, West taught at a local Sunday School, played Organ at the church, and finally returned to education by taking adult evening classes. He lived an incredibly active life, from his youth right through to his retirement at the age of 64. Hard work and friendship saw him through many a long day; he talks at length about his “impulsive friend Mary”(32), who kept him company at work by “discussing books, fiction and non-fiction.” (30)

Harry West’s working life tells a classic story of rags to riches, and although he started his life with very little, his determination in work allowed him to retire comfortably, having achieved what he set out to.


West, Harry Alfred, ‘Autobiography of Alfred West. Facts and Comments’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:745

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