Harry began his working life at the age of 13 after attaining a leaving certificate from his school Headmaster. As mentioned in Home & Schooling, he had the ability to continue to further education via a scholarship from his school, however the need for income for his family took priority. Thus, he began his working life in the ‘spectacular career’ of tea boy at Brown and Melhushis Motor Body Works.
By this point in Harry’s life the First World War had already begun, and the usual work of motor manufacture was replaced with ‘War work’. Instead of creating parts for motors, the factory instead stamped out canisters and shells for bombs which would then be sent out for completion at Ordnance Factories. Harry played the part of tea boy to 50 or so workmen fetching beverages, food and cigarettes from local shops to bring back to the workers. From this job he moved to Turners Ironworks on Blackstock Road. After doing this labour for some time, his former Headmaster arrived at his fathers shop outraged that a boy of his intelligence and ability was doing menial work. He contrived to find him a more ‘suitable job’ and so he then began his next role working as a post boy for a Manufacturing Opticians on Clerkenwell Road. He was offered an apprenticeship after a few months, however rumours were circulating of ‘fabulous wages’ to boys doing piece work for the war effort, and so along with other hopefuls, he traveled to Woolwich Arsenal to be taken on in a cartridge factory. After tireless 12-hour shifts these large wages turned out to be simply fables, and due to breakdowns, shortage of materials and hold-ups by fitters strikes, he received only minimum pay for his labour. He returned once again home to work with his father.
Throughout this period of work we can see how the War affected local businesses through their conversion to helping with the war effort. We can also see how despite the negative impact of war, there was hope for the working class in the opportunity of better wages and more work, however for Harry this opportunity amounted to little.
After working with his father at the bike shop, a peculiar deal was made with one of the customers concerning a bookshop in Holborn. He was sent to run the shop at the age of 17, and despite his lack of experience, managed fairly well until the end of the war in 1918. He writes that ‘By 1917 Anti-war feeling was growing rapidly and I made quite a stir by stocking and selling all the anti-war newspapers and magasines[sic]; being raided by Scotland Yard once or twice for selling “proscribed” newspapers.’ There was quite clearly an Anti-War attitude growing within the working class. Hard labour and poor wages along with supply shortages most likely influenced this attitude.
After selling on the bookshop to a friend, he was sent by his father to Germany where he visited one of his fathers’ friends. He writes ‘The whole venture was quite absurd as the Germans were actually starving. I lived mainly on apples, for which we went ‘scrumping’ at night; I arrived back home after three months at least three stone underweight‘ yet despite the unfortunate circumstances, this is where he gained his appetite for travel. After returning home he contrived to do anything to get out and travel again, and after messaging some new found contacts,he was offered a job as a docker in Antwerp. As he recalls, ‘it was that one fateful Sunday while my parents were still asleep I packed everything I possessed in a small bag and boarded the Tuppeny Tram to Waterloo to seek fame and fortune in the Docks in Antwerp’.
Harry eventually arrives in Moscow as a Comintern, working under the English branch of the Communist Party. He spends much of his memoir recalling his experiences here. This part of his career is more deeply explored in Politics, Protest and Class.
Harry’s work life is central to his memoir. Whilst he writes of other topics and events, it appears that his story is driven by his work and career as it has made the greatest impact upon his life. His work is affected throughout most of his life by his class identity. Beginning as a labourer, his working class life meant he had to leave education in order to earn income and take the burden of providing for him from his family.
Burnett, John, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography vol. 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987. YOUNG, Harry 2-858