Joe Ayre (b. 1910): Life & Labour

Much of the divide between the two classes was “deeply rooted in the mind of the ordinary citizen.”(1)

With his strong and passionate political views, Joe Ayre seen labour in terms of exploitation. He felt that the working class of Britain were suffering in every sense. He felt that they were exploited in education, in terms of employment opportunities and through their quality of life in general. In his memoir, Joe shows how the pressures of a working class life in order to survive can lead to a breakdown. He talks in his writing about how these consequences had such brutal measures to both him and his family.

Joe’s father and his older brothers were conscripted to the war. He talks about how his father seen this as his duty, particularly with a sense of pride. “I remember my father supervising my two Brothers when they were cleaning their buttons and boots; the chore had to be done perfectly.”(7) Their appearance had to be immaculate. Joe’s memoir shows how his father does not see the war as an exploitation of the working classes; he sees this as a man’s duty to fight for his country. His father and the rest of the armed soldiers perceived fighting in the war as a source of solidarity. Talking about his older brothers and their position of labour, Joe says; “My father would go to the pub with them as proud as could be.”(7)

During the war was not a complete time of devastation for the working class of England. Joe says; “With the war, unemployment was not quite such a problem that it was before the war and we were able to move in to a slightly better dwelling.”(5) Joe talks about how “things were different when Dad and Brother Oliver were on leave. They would go to the shops with us and there was no waiting in line, and when they walked in to a shop they got 3 times the rations we were allowed.”(10) The families of those who were fighting in the war were rewarded on their return. The relationship between work and family was a positive one at this time.

It was not until the war had ended that the working class of England were made to suffer in the same way as they had before the war had broken out in 1914. Unemployment figures were on the rise, working class families were forced out of their homes and people were left heartbroken from losing loved ones in the war. Joe’s family was just one of thousands who “received one of those black bordered letters”(9) which meant that a family member had been killed in the war. Joe blames this on Capitalism. He felt that the capitalists were “in competition with each other for markets and trade routes.”(4) His hatred towards capitalism is because of the way they exploited the working class people.

His father at this time was in and out of employment. “My Dad would leave home and walk to the dock’s to find work and when there was no work he drew the Dole.”(11) Labour at this time had changed. It was no longer a source of pride for the working class of Britain; it was now regarded as a time of desperation.

liverpool docks
Joe Ayre’s father would spend many hours of the day at the Liverpool Docks searching for work after the War had ended in 1918

‘Work’ is a central theme in Joe Ayre’s autobiography. His memoir develops by exploring his progression in a society which is deemed almost impossible for the working class people. Moving to Canada is the turning point in Joe’s life. This is the first time that he is able to independently search for work. Although the work that Joe found in Canada was not stable, the consequences of the absence of work for identity and status was life threatening. Joe was searching for work to survive. This was because of the way the capitalist system were exploiting the working class people. Whereas the capitalist people were competing with each other, the working class people were fighting to survive.

However, with his hardship work in Canada, this is in fact when Joe first experiences socialization. Joe had never really interacted with another family but his own. His obnoxious stepmother had exploited both Joe and his brother Bill, “making slaves out of them,” pushing them away from their own family. When Joe arrives on the farms, he is able to see how “farmer’s wives were exploited almost as much as their hired workers.”(47) Working on the farms was a serious business. Determination and appreciation are just two aspects which helped Joe to accept the difficulty in work if he was to survive.

Joe praises the solidarity of the working class work in Canada. These were mainly family run businesses on the farms. He says how “The Leafloor Bro’s were the best employers I ever had. The relationship between the Brothers and the men who worked for them was not like the usual boss and worker relationship.”(62) Joe felt that the typical exploitation of the working class workers did not happen in this family run business. He praises this unity.

Joe Ayre does not complain about the way he was treated in a poverty stricken society. Instead, his ambitious and courageous personality helped him to accept his position. His memoir follows his “desperate efforts at times to find work, his efforts to help to organise his fellow man as a shop steward, all the time handicapped by very little formal education.”(3) Joe Ayre is a figure whose own typical working class life can only be honoured.


Cannadine, David. Class in Britain. London: Yale University Press, 1998. 144-160. -Class Acts and Class Facts (1)

John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds), The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989) 2:029 

Joe Ayre ‘The Socialist’, MS, pp.178 (c.43,250 words), Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, no. 29, Brunel University Library.



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