As a twentieth century writer, Hymie Fagan writes about a period in which the nature of employment had changed since the nineteenth century in London. As an industrial city, with multiple manufacturing trades many immigrants such as the Fagan family would have been classified as “economic migrants” (Smith 103). Simon Fagan, Hymies father, was a printer by trade, a skill that was unsupported by the industrious East End of London. He was taught the trade of tailoring; following in the footsteps of the largest group of Jewish immigrants who settled in England for work. They became, ‘“greeners” as the newly arrived immigrants were known’ (1) says Fagan. As a consequence, most suffered alienation and exploitation in the sweatshops.
There was less opportunity for the Jewish working male in London. Due to this prejudice, Fagan was also contracted into carpet and tailoring industries from the age of fourteen. In order to survive the endemic of poverty, labour in the factories was a necessity, where a small amount of wealth could be earned. Due to the death of Fagan’s father, which left the family destitute and desperate, Fagan’s mother Kate also found work in a furniture factory. His death had “drastically altered” (11) their lives, leaving them “penniless” (11).
Fagan’s mother ensured she could provide for her children, finding other sources of income, rather than relying on the Board of Guardians. Respectability also played into his mother’s maintenance and upkeep of the family, “she always saw to it that we were clean and tidy for school” (12). However, her work was short-lived. Fagan states, “The furniture factory went up in flames one afternoon, and mother’s job went with it” (12). Many Jewish owned businesses were targeted and boycotted, which raised concern regarding the stability of their employment.
Fagan’s experience of factory life differed to his parents. Rather than an environment of exploitation, it was an education. The tailoring factory taught Fagan the politics of class and labour, where he learnt “the importance of trade unionism for the working man” (45). The factory supported the closed shop policy of the Labour movement and in doing so it became a very class conscious industry.
The factory, he says, “slowly broke down all the prejudices which had been built up in me by the school, the synagogue, the Mirror, and the comics” (45). At the age of sixteen Fagan was now eligible to join the union, no longer a “youngster fresh from school” (46). He remembers feeling ‘anger’ and ‘hostility’ (46) at everything he was taught as a child. Segregated from his sheltered childhood, he now saw the realities of labour which became a source of pride for Fagan. Fagan created many fellowships at the factory. He speaks fondly of certain tailors at the factory who saw his potential to become a union member. One particular associate, Abe Levy an English Jew guided Fagan, to which he says, “It was Abe’s object to turn me into a trade-unionist and Socialist and he achieved his aim with much finesse” (46).
As a member of the union at the age of sixteen, Fagan was able to delve into the discussions held at the factory. It became a place of learning and recreation. Fagan was introduced to socialism and fought his first strike as part of the trade union. Intellectual debates where held at the factory, and they ranged on a wide spectrum, consisting of politics, literature, religion, sports and theatre. It also provided Fagan with the opportunity to take up sports such as boxing and football. Given Fagan’s love for reading he was instructed with new forms of literature such as Jack’s London writing. Reading was a social activity at work, where members of the union would discuss and share their thoughts.
Fagan became “a poor workman” (59) when the factory closed down, in which he fluctuated in and out of the Labour Exchange and many sweatshops. The tailoring factory gave Fagan his sense of identity and he realised how ‘fortunate’ (59) he had been to work in a “good shop with a fine body of class conscious men and women” (59). On leaving the carpet warehouse and finding employment at the tailoring factory, it was a very poignant moment for Fagan and one he speaks of in his memoir with real clarity. He says, “It was an historic decision, for it affected the rest of my life” (45).
With limited job prospects due to Fagan’s Jewish identity, Labour became a hardship. Knowing he was of no use to the tailoring trade, Fagan drove his aspirations towards his writing and political beliefs. The tailoring factory moulded Fagan’s aspirations as he continued to progress from the Labour party to the British Communist party. From this point onwards, his personal life was very much intertwined with his work. Fagan dedicated himself to his party and went on to achieve a lot more than he set out to do. Retiring at the age of sixty-five, he concludes his autobiography regretting “only one thing” (154). Leaving his career from full time Party work he says, “I was stupid enough to reject… a reception to bid me good-bye” (154), so he silently left the party and his work in 1968.
Fagan, Hymie, ‘An Autobiography’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:261
Smith, D. Leonard. ‘Greeners and sweaters: Jewish immigration and the cabinet-making trade in East London, 1880-1914’, Jewish Historical Studies, 39 (2004) 103-120.