Labour is a central and heavily detailed aspect in Joe’s memoir ‘Lee Side’, so I have decided to spread the topic of ‘Life & Labour’ over two posts. This is the first instalment of ‘Life & Labour’ in Joe’s memoir. (Read ‘Part 2’ here.)
From an early age, Joe recognises the importance of work in order to lead a decent life, and knows that without work, there is no money for him to enjoy himself. He is motivated by a common working-class discourse that proposes everyone has the potential to have a good life and the ability to lift themselves out of poverty by the means of working, and they should not allow their class to hold them back:
“My expectations were high, because we had always been encouraged as a family to strive, to get on. Getting on in our way of talking meant bettering oneself. I translated that to mean a better job, better money, better living conditions and a better, ever improving fuller life in every sense. To be able to appreciate the wonderful world which existed apart from work and ‘whom’” (181).
While the first half of ‘Lee Side’ focuses on Joe’s fond memories of growing up in Leigh, Lancashire, the latter half is an account of his literal and emotional journey that he embarks upon to become a joiner, and the different jobs he secures in the meantime.
Joe had his mind set on a career from a young age, stating “I had no doubt what I’d like to be. I was sold completely on becoming a joiner like my elder brother” (111). But, like many other working class teenagers, Joe was forced into work straight after leaving school in order to supply a wage for the home: “I had found myself in a cotton mill on leaving school because of the simple and urgent need to be earning money. There was a largish family at home and every penny was needed. I had little interest in working in a mill except loyalty to my mother” (111). Joe began working at Mather Lane Mill at fourteen in 1928 and describes the conditions as “gloomy congested and cramped with outworn and outdated machinery to match” (110).
Encouraged to work to make himself ‘useful’, a dominant working-class notion at this time, Joe had little time for childhood. However, the ever positive Joe remains upbeat and notes “I was thrilled and fascinated as any young lad might be by the spinning process” (110), and with so many teenagers in one place, some explicit flirting carried on behind the scenes, which diluted some of the hard labour involved with working in the textile industry. (Read more in my introductory post on Joe.)
Undeterred in his quest to become a joiner one day, Joe took evening classes at Leigh Technical College where “at times I would be half asleep in my desk after a day’s work in the stuffy old mill” (112). Despite his efforts, Joe was unable to secure an apprenticeship as a joiner, and subtly suggests it was his position in society and the limited opportunities in Leigh that made this not possible. He remarks “I wouldn’t let the bastards beat me, and that same imperative was to stay with me, quietly overcoming the obstacles – making it happen when fortune failed me” (112). Joe seems to be referring to the mock-Latin aphorism ‘Illegitimi non carborundum’ meaning ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’. The phrase originated during World War II and was adopted by US Army General ‘Vinegar’ Joe Stillwell as his motto. Alan Sillitoe in his 1958 novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, also used this saying, and here Joe’s frustrated attitude resembles that of the main character Arthur Seaton. Joe’s implicit rather than explicit comment can be interpreted as an awareness of his class identity.
This same class consciousness and ‘us and them’ ideology is present at the start of his memoir, where he says, “being born and bred in a labour town started me off with pretty clear ideas about the world and the state of play” (2), which suggests that Joe ‘knows his place’ and has come to terms with the unfair limitations that accompany working-class status. John Benson writes “it is impossible to escape the conclusion that as the period progressed working people of all kinds came to accept the inevitability of the class based society in which they lived” (2003, 166).
In late 1929, Joe left the cotton mill and started work as a tea boy labourer on a construction site of a new school: “I had hankered after the building trade for enough time and suddenly here was the chance to get out of the cotton mill, with fresh air to breath and springy turf under my feet out in the country at Culcheth” (129). Joe embraced the tough labour that came with this role. He does not speak about it in terms of hardship or exploitation, but instead loves to be involved and likes to help in any way, for example “brewing-up, fetching and carrying, mucking-in wherever I was wanted. And poking my nose in where it wasn’t wanted I expect” (136). This job gave him an insight into the hard graft of working but Joe does not hasten and is still eager to learn new things: “it was a privilege for me to have had the chance to help the various trades; to get chance to size up what they did and what kind of man each trade attracted” (140).
This motivation and ambition took a blow in 1931, when Joe found himself out of work after the building of Culcheth High School was completed. Find out how Joe’s unemployment affected him in ‘Life & Labour – Part 2’.
‘Joe Loftus’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:484
Loftus, Joe. ‘Lee Side’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:484.
Benson, John. The Working Class in Britain 1850-1939. London: I.B.Tauris, 2003.
“Illegitimi non carborundum” www.wikipedia.org Web. Accessed 05/04/2017 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illegitimi_non_carborundum
“Mather Lane Mill circa. 1940’s” www.leigh.life.com Web. Accessed 05/04/2017 https://leigh.life/index.php?action=media;sa=album;in=22098
“Mather Lane Mill as it stands today!” www.leigh.life.com Web. Accessed 05/04/2017 https://leigh.life/index.php?action=media;sa=album;in=22098
“Culcheth High School, Warrington” www.culcheth.org Web. Accessed 05/04/2017 http://www.culcheth.org/photo02.htm