Work is a large part of R.W. Morris’ memoir. He followed his father, and other members of his family, into the County Durham mines at a young age. Richard’s whole reason for writing his memoirs is to immortalise the men and women who worked and died in the coalmines. Though his mother was desperate to keep him from the mines there is a sense that working there was a natural progression and expectation, ‘any lad who could find a job other than at the pit was extremely lucky’ (11). Edward Cain was particularly reluctant to go into the coal mines, you can read about his experiences here. I believe that despite the numerous jobs Richard carried out after leaving County Durham, the mines had a particular hold on him.
The mines seem to provide a lasting link to his past, to the ‘close and tightly knit community’ (54) that he lived in. This can be seen in the memoir’s opening lines, ‘A short history of the villages of Pelton Fell and Newfield and the Pits upon which they depended’ (1). This shows the entwined relationship that the villages had with the mines, depending on them for their very existence and nourishment, yet affected by them equally. Richard is almost nostalgic about the coalmines, which I believe is because they literally, as well as emotionally, shaped the landscape when he was growing up. They were integral to who Richard was and where he was from, an unbreakable link to his past belonging.
Though Richard feels this belonging, it becomes clear that he felt the exploitations of the industry, he describes the lack of health and safety provided by the mine owners:
Wages, as usual, were lagging behind prices, so perhaps it was not surprising that there was unrest in the coalfields…There is no doubt at all that machine produced coal did in fact lead to a lowering of the safety standards, as I found out for myself when I went back in to the pit after the war had ended (17).
This seems at odds with his nostalgic memories of the mines, but it seems Richard’s community and work were bound together, creating a camaraderie amongst the people. Joanna Bourke recognises that, ‘socialists noted the way workers used the term ‘community’ as a weapon against the power of other classes and as a defence against the encroachments of the police and other authorities’ (1994, 137). This may be the case for Richard and the small mining community that he grew up in, inducing a collective sense of belonging due, in part, to their common adverse situations.
Writing about fatalities in the pit he says, ‘I am sure this sort of thing could be recalled at all the other pits throughout the coalfields of Britian. 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). Richard does have some reprieve, escaping the horrors of the pit below to take on an apprenticeship as a blacksmith on the surface, ‘these men were craftsmen of the very highest order, and it is my pleasure to pay tribute to their memory. To see a man like Mr. Porter working with a piece of iron was to witness a craftsman par excellence’ (15). Most of the boys he went to school with worked on the surface of the pit in some capacity. However, during the 1930s skilled work would become difficult to find (August, 2007, 178).
There is no doubt that Richard was a hands-on worker, he was skilled and well trained. However, returning after WW1 to the village where he grew up was difficult. Andrew August writes, ‘At the end of the First World War, the loss of export markets caused a severe slump in staple industries, including…coal…in…particularly Wales, Scotland and the North of England’ (2007, 176), this situation forced many to leave the areas affected. This is when Richard chose to travel to America.
Whilst in America, Richard took on many odd-jobs that earned him enough to keep him going for approximately a year. His manual skills meant he could turn his hand to almost anything. However, he saw the shadow of the Depression, and quickly realised this was not the land of ‘Milk and Honey’ (2. 20) he had expected. When he returned to England, Richard went back to the pits but things were changing and the life expectancy of the coalfields was running short.
After re-educating himself through night-school via the W.E.A, Richard settled in Oxford, as did many working-class migrants looking for work (Savage, 1994, 71). In Oxford Richard worked in a motor car company’s body shop. During WW2 he took on the role of Fire Guard in the city, and was also a caretaker for a while afterward. For a working-class man like Richard, life and labour was difficult, especially during tumultuous economic times. Nevertheless, Richard never complains, he seems proud to have served in the coalfields, and for this reason he feels passionately about writing his memoir.
August, Andrew. The British Working Class, 1832-1940. Harlow: Pearson, 2007.
Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity. London: Routledge, 1994.
MORRIS, R. W., ‘Autobiography of R. W. Morris’, TS, c.350pp. (c.140,000 words). Extracts published as ‘A Boy goes down the pit’, Bulletin of the Durham County Local History Society, No. 20, Oct 1977, pp. 4-12 (edited by G. Patterson). BruneI University Library.
‘R.W.Morris’ 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): 1:520.
Savage, Mike and Andrew Miles. The Remaking of the British Working Class, 1840-1940. London, Routledge, 1994.
Featured Image: Mining by Terrick John Williams (1860-1936). Artuk.org, courtesy of National Museum Wales, National Museum Cardiff
Image: Pelton Fell Miners (1&2). Sixtownships.org
Image: Durham Miners Gala. TrueFaith.co.uk
Image: Blacksmith’s Smithy. Newquay-westwales.co.uk