Throughout his memoir, Thomas writes extensively about his working life. In fact, the vast majority of his memoir is dedicated to detailing his life as a working man and the lengths he went to support his family throughout his life. His work begins at the coal mine, which would continue to be a defining factor throughout the remainder of his life. It is safe to say that throughout Thomas’s life coal mining served as an integral part of his identity. The nature of his home, class, family and work utterly revolved around the coal mining industry. However, Thomas’s working life was not utterly defined by coal mining. A heavily religious man, Thomas also undertook working as a lay preacher for his local Methodist group in 1912 at 24 years old, which he would continue doing for fifty years. Prior to becoming a lay preacher, he worked as a teacher at the local Sunday school, whilst also holding down various other positions within the Church, such as becoming Treasurer of the Trustees which would later be taken over by his son, Bob. Because of the extensive work Thomas undertook throughout his life, this topic shall be split into two posts. This first post shall uncover the work Thomas undertook in the mining industry, whilst the second post shall be dedicated towards the work he undertakes as a Methodist preacher.
Like many young boys, as I detail in the ‘Education and Schooling’ post, Thomas left school to begin work at the young age of 13 and was expected to earn his keep and contribute to the family income by working in the South Hetton colliery where he grew up. He began work as a coal screener, earning 10 pennies a day and involved cleaning the coal that had come fresh out of the mine of any stones that were in it. He writes “The coal was tipped onto a moving belt and a number of boys were employed to pick out the stones as the coal past” (5). The hours were gruelling for a young lad, with the work day beginning at 7am and finishing at 4pm, however, for Thomas, his first position in the coal mine meant starting work at 6:30am. “My first job was to sit at the ventilator door and open it whenever anyone wanted to pass through. I had to sit there from 6:30 am until about 3:30 pm. I had a lamp with me, I must’ve wondered what I would do if my light had gone out. In the mine once you lost your lamp the darkness was intense.” (5) Despite the obvious fact that the work would have been physically intense and gruelling for a young boy, Thomas doesn’t hint towards any feelings of hardship. It was just simply what was expected of him. He doesn’t dwell or spend time to detail how hard the work was or how he missed school. Perhaps this gives us another glimpse of his character, a hard-working and committed employee who would remain such for the rest of his working life.
Throughout his time working at the mine Thomas would also work as a Deputy overman, a landing minder, a putter, until eventually, he made his way into teaching. After working in the mine for many years, this must’ve seemed like a fantastic opportunity to share. his widespread knowledge on the subject. Indeed, he writes that both himself and his wife “realised [they] were on the edge of something new” (54). After two years teaching in a school in Horden, where Thomas lived with his wife after leaving South Hetton, and after working in various placements including Sheffield University, Thomas inevitably gained some valuable experience in teaching. After acquiring a good report from his manager, he writes, “I am certain that report had some effect later.” (57). A few years after this spout of teaching, another opportunity to teach arose. Whether this was at the same school in Horden, Thomas does not detail, but he carefully details the process of gaining the lecturing job. He attended various training courses at the NCB training school in Newcastle as well as courses in Nuneaton. However, because of this he often came to blows with his manager, whose “very tone of voice would put peoples backs up”. (59) At one point, he refused to let Thomas attend a Training course as there was no one to cover his work. However, Thomas rectified the situation by threatening to inform those in charge of his managers refusal. After this, “He calmed down and said I could go. He had had a shock. Next morning he was very pleasant and I knew I had won my first victory” (60). Thomas continued to teach for eight years before retiring in 1953 at the age of 65 years old.
As the majority of the memoir is dedicated to evaluating his working life, the time spent reading about his jobs within the coal mining industry is perhaps the most personally revealing section of the memoir, and where we can the most information about his personality and his class. Like many, Thomas was expected to work solely in the pits until his dying day. However, he seemed to constantly search for ways to better himself, until finally pursuing a fulfilling career in teaching. Its interesting to consider how monumental this must have been for a man of humble origin, with regards to class mobility and to personal achievement. Stay tuned for my next post on Thomas’s work as a Methodist preacher!
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363
Mike Savage, Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican)
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47-70
McLaughlin, Thomas, The Life of an Ordinary Man, 1979, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.475