Leslie John Robinson (b.1929): Life and Labour (2/2)

Although Leslie John Robinson’s army career is something that he writes passionately about, he also writes about many other jobs he had throughout his life and how his childhood influenced the ways in which he viewed his working- class life. Leslie’s father had followed in his grandfather’s footsteps as a working- class man providing for the family. This is something that Leslie strongly remembers from his childhood and looking up to his father, he always longed to become employed.

At the age of ten, Leslie got his first job as a delivery boy by lying to the owner of the business about his age. He had told his employer that he was eleven in order to be hired. He recalls ‘suddenly I was one of the chosen, one of the employed, I had a job and I was going to get paid for it’ (45). Proudly, Leslie feels he was to prove to his father that he too could donate to the family budget. However, as the lie about Leslie’s age reached his employer, he was soon terminated from his ‘dream come true’ (45). Not long after this he discovered that ‘Mrs Jones, the manageress of the cake shop at the corner of Church Street and Dial Road, was looking for an errand boy’ and so he gained his second job at ‘three shillings (15p) a week’ (63). Of course the money Leslie received for these menial jobs was not much, but it was the idea of becoming a hard- working man like his father and grandfather that perhaps attracted young Leslie to these jobs. Whilst still in school, these small jobs gave Leslie the experience of work life that he needed and acted as stepping stones into the real world of full- time working. In the essay, Work- Life Balance/ Imbalance: The Dominance of the Middle Class and the Neglect of the Working Class, Tracey Warren notes the rush into a working adult life in working- class families. Warren writes that ‘the lives of these middle-class families, in the UK and elsewhere, have been depicted as time-poor, time-squeezed, time-rushed and harried’ (Tracey, Warren, 2015, n.pag). It is clear that ‘time is identified as the main element that is missing from these families’ (n.pag) as children like Leslie are often rushed into a working- class adult life without enjoying a carefree childhood and education.

Arial Map of Price Street Bakery, 1950’s. Private Collection from Andy @ www.wirralmemories.co.uk

Leslie John Robinson remembers ‘I left school at Easter 1943 and started work at the Birkenhead and District Co-op at their bakery in Price Street. As a van boy I earned 18/6d (92 ½ p) for what was often a fifty- hour week’ (78). Although the pay was not great, Leslie seemingly enjoyed this role and writes of making many friends through his time here. However, at such a young age and despite being told by family members that ‘it could be a job for life’, Leslie jokes that this ‘sounded more like a life sentence than a career’ (78). It could be suggested here that although heavily influenced by his hard working father, Leslie dreamt of having a more prosperous career where he could earn more money and climb the social ladder. Coming from the same town as Leslie and being familiar with these road names, it is interesting to imagine Price Street as being a commercialised area as it is now adorned with housing.

After a swap to the Co-op butchers and another part- time job at ‘Boots the chemist shops in Grange Road’ (79), a place I am also familiar with, his father announced the start of Leslie’s apprenticeship at ‘R. Green & Son of Grange Mount where he was the foreman painter’ (80). Leslie notes ‘dad was a hard task master and I realised later that it was because he wanted me to become a good tradesman- but I never did take to painting’ (80). It can be said that Leslie’s father may have wanted him to learn a trade as he would never find himself unemployed with such skills. However, seeing his father work hard and still never having much money may have driven Leslie’s decision to join the army and see the world.

An Arial Photograph of the Birkenhead and District Co-op Bakery taken in 1970. Private Collection from Andy @ www.wirralmemories.co.uk

After a lengthy career in the military, Leslie John Robinson was ‘sworn in as Police Constable 288 on 6th April 1956’ (154). His first ever posting was to ‘C Division at Well Lane Station’ and he was soon ‘working the beats’ (158) where he had played as a child. It appears that he enjoyed his Policing career as this was something similar to his military work but closer to his wife and children. Also, as a Police Constable, Leslie may have felt that he had moved away from the working-class stereotype and became more established within society. Towards the end of his working life, Leslie moved to Stockton- on- Tees with his family to work for a company that turned him from a family man to a ‘workaholic’ (228) and after a falling out with the management, he decided to start his own business with the help of his son but this did not last long with the company going into administration shortly after commencing. At the end of the memoir, Leslie declares ‘we had lost everything’ having ‘no job, and only a few pounds’ (231). It is interesting to follow Leslie’s work life going from the bottom, working menial jobs, to his prime military and police career and ending where he once began. It poses the question; can you ever really elevate away from the working- class struggle?

  • ‘Leslie John Robinson’ 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): 2:671.
  • Robinson, Leslie John. ‘One Step at a Time’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection. 2:671.
  • Warren, Tracey. Work- Life Balance/ Imbalance: The Dominance of the Middle Class and the Neglect of the Working Class. British Journal of Sociology. Vol.66 (4) December 2015. pp.691- 717. Accessed Online 18.02.2019.

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