This is the second instalment of ‘Life & Labour’ in the memoir of Joe Loftus. Read ‘Part 1’ here.
Joe’s unemployment in 1931 hit him hard. He recalls “trudged[ing] for miles to firms I knew of, sometimes alone, sometimes with mates in the same fix, asking for work of any kind and getting refusal after refusal” (150). As Joe suggests, this was the situation for many as the Wall Street Crash of 1929 lead to a worldwide economic slump and widespread unemployment. Stephen Constantine writes “These years [interwar years] are still characterised as a period of mass unemployment when, particularly in the North and Wales, once prosperous industries and the workers who served them were suffering” (2014, 4).
Being out of work makes Joe question not only himself but also his daily routine. He becomes unsure whether he deserves to leave the house at all unless he is searching for work, and when he does, often avoids conversations with others: “’Are ya working?’ which became an expected jeer, a slap in the face to flinch from. Even becoming self-conscious about going out without purpose” (150). Instead of enjoying his time in the library, engrossed in a good book like he used to be as a young carefree teenager, Joe now believes he is “haunting the Library until staleness set in and embarrassed that I had nothing better to do” (150). (Read more in ‘Reading & Writing‘.) This experience certainly affects Joe’s sense of identity. Seeing the determined, enthusiastic person he once was gradually slip away, Joe is ultimately ashamed and results to doubting himself:
“I was always shy and over-imaginative I suppose, and I was in danger of becoming a loner. Almost schizoid with loneliness, depressed with guilt – yes, guilt – too much alone with my thoughts. Being unable to keep up with my old friends, with no pocket money to spare. Losing touch and knowing it” (150-151).
Because unemployment has such an effect on Joe, it suggests that work and labour is a source of pride for him and without it he feels useless. Joe is still able to find positivity in these dark times, and notes “I was just a youth still on the ‘Lee Side’ of my life and I was cushioned by my family from the real worries of unemployment. Had I been married with a wife and family to provide for, the story would have been very different” (154). However, many families did find themselves in dire situations as “the tendency for workers to suffer from long term unemployment, lasting for 12 months or more, eventually developed as one of the most worrying features of the 1930s” (Constantine, 2014, 6).
Finally, Joe is offered some relief from his torment: “I must have been coming up to seventeen years of age when I heard of a job going at long last on the day-shift at Woodend Pit” (156). He describes conditions down the pit as “though on a tallish lad like me! Often the only way youcould straighten your back was to stretch out (when the chance offered) on one of the pit timbers stored in the laybys” (160). When there was a lull in work, the pit became, in Joe’s words “silence and darkness you can feel” (179) and remembers being “left in a velvety drowsy cocoon of sudden silence in total blackness. But seldom lonely, the need for alertness to ensure survival was very mind concentrating” (179). This highlights the danger that came with working in the pit, with men willing to put their life on the line to stay in employment.
R.W. Morris (b. 1895) in his memoir, talks also of the horrors surrounding the pit. Lynn notes that one of the reasons Morris wrote his memoir was to “immortalise the men and women who worked and died in the coalmines” (Wainwright, n.pag, 2017). Morris addresses the lack of safety standards down the pit, writing “I am sure this sort of thing could be recalled at all the other pits throughout the coalfields of Britain. It took strong pressure from the men’s union to get things changed later on, and the beginnings of a National Health Act to bring some sort of medical care into pit villages” (15). Like Morris, Joe was able to escape the terror of the pit, realising that “as long as I was down the pit I’d never get near becoming a joiner” (181), but also admits that his decision to leave had “some connection with a winding disaster at Plank Lane pit in late 1932 when nineteen men were killed” (181), highlighting the lack of safety provisions at this time. In comparison with Morris, Joe is honoured to have worked with such brave men, declaring “I was to remember gleaming ebony images like those colliers illuminated by ambient unreflected lamplight with very real feelings of pride” (167).
After quitting the pit Joe is met with the familiar, uneasy feeling of unemployment: “a self-induced nightmare – unemployed again – no dole to start with because I’d sacked myself” (182). But fortunately, this time it’s not long before Joe comes across an opening for a joiner in a building firm, the only problem being the position was in Ilford, Essex. Joe decides to leave his beloved Leigh behind in pursuit of his dream job, and never looks back. Despite loving the ‘Lee Side’ of his life, after moving to Essex, Joe notes “I was lonely at times but seldom if ever home-sick. My job seeking experiences and angry comparisons had immunised me against that” (185). Joe is immediately challenged in his new job and finds it tough: “I had to work hard to keep up, never mind get ahead.” (190), but he has finally got the job he wanted since he was a little boy. After this position came to an end Joe goes from strength to strength and manages to step into one joinery job after the other with ease.
David Vincent in his book Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: Study of Nineteenth Century Working Class Autobiography, says “As a generalization, the less literate the writer, and the less he was involved in specific activities of self-improvement or political activity, the greater his preoccupation with the details of his life as a worker” (1982, 62). This finding is difficult to apply to Joe, as in his memoir he describes his working life in vast detail, but is also a highly literate individual, so therefore is an exception to this notion of working-class people.
‘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.
Constantine, Stephen. Unemployment in Britain Between the Wars. London: Routledge, 2014.
Wainwright, Lynn. “R.W Morris b. 1895: Life and Labour.” www.writinglives.org Web. Accessed 20/04/2017 http://www.writinglives.org/life-and-labour/r-w-morris-b-1895-life-and-labour
Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: Study of Nineteenth Century Working Class Autobiography 1st ed. London: Methuen, 1982.
“Graph showing the decline of economic growth” www.economicshelp.org Web. Accessed 20/04/2017 http://www.economicshelp.org/blog/7483/economics/the-uk-economy-in-the-1930s/
“Young boy suffering through the Great Depression” www.utaaugust2010thegreatdepression.blogspot.co.uk Web. Accessed 20/04/2017 http://utaaugust2010thegreatdepression.blogspot.co.uk/
“Woodend Pit – also known as Bedford Colliery” www.leigh.life.com Web. Accessed 20/04/2017 https://leigh.life/index.php?action=media;sa=album;in=22492
“Workers sharing a break in the pit, Manchester Collieries” www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk Web. Accessed 20/04/2017 http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/nostalgia/way-were-life-coalface-5669711