Stanley Rice (1905-1981): Life & Labour

‘It was not a question of my parents being unkind, they knew only too well how much it would help to have a few extra shillings coming in weekly. No special allowances and suchlike in those days. Parents had to face the hard facts and find their own solutions to problems’ (10).

Stanley Rice was not given the best start in education, being in and out of schools due to multiple changes in address. This knocked his confidence and he was constantly afraid of being asked a question he did not know the answer to, ‘that everlasting fear of being wrong!’ (4). Rice started to do well when he was settled in West Square Central School, in the London Borough of Southwalk, at the age of eleven. Here, he developed a flair for Art, noticed by his teacher, Mr Thornton. As he was from a working-class background, and with his father being in and out of the Labour Exchange, times were hard for the Rice family and so he had to give up on education and find a job to support his family.

At the age of fourteen, he left school, and this is where Rice’s journey into a long life of hard work began. Work is central to his autobiography as he had many jobs of different calibre; some he disliked, some he honoured. His first paid job ‘in 1919, was with a book publishers by the name of Stanley Paul, in Essex Street, Strand’ (12). After his mother asked for an advancement in his wages and they said no, Rice left and found another job helping a Carpenter. He, also went on to work for a Builder and Decorator, between the age of sixteen and nineteen.

A job which is poignant in Rice’s memory is when he worked as an engine cleaner at Hornsey (North London) Locomotive Department. He says ‘how I hated that work, I dreaded every day. During the night I would look at the alarm clock about half a dozen times, and count the hours I still had left to stay in bed before getting up to face another day’ (15). It is clear that the stress and pressure he was under, did not suffice for little pay. He thinks about the engine drivers ‘the years of doing shift work had made social life very restricted for them. Many had been on the Railway for fifty years… Depressions and feelings of hopelessness can soon take hold. Bewilderment and a losing battle follows’ (16). This image brings it home how hard these men worked and the dedication they put in, receiving very little back. It is easy to see how they were depressed and so you can see how a young man, like Rice, would want to find a more uplifting career path, which he did find.

Image of Ivor Novello
Image of Ivor Novello www.streamingoldies.com

After being tied down in such a job, Rice luckily found a different direction of work, which would change his life. He began working for The Third Earl of Lathom, in his new Decorative Art shop, making ‘many a journey in his Rolls Royce to purchase fabrics etc’ (20) from Selfridges, finally being happy and feeling like ‘a man of importance’ (20). He mixed with celebrities such as Frank Vosper, ‘Ivor Novello, Noel Coward, Miss Marie Tempest’ (23) and many more. Rice makes it clear that he hoped he never came across as a snob working here, and if he did he could only hope to be forgiven for getting caught up in the glitz and glamour of it all.

Rice then worked in an Antique and Modern Decorative Art shop, where he got his inspiration to open his own business; a hire shop for film studios. He says that business could not have been a success without ‘the great help and encouragement from Ethel. I was totally absorbed in the business, and I think selfishly, too self-satisfied’ (36). He admits that the fame and fortune may have got the better of him, so on reflection, work became more important than taking care of his wife. From a working-class perspective, for most families it would be easy to get caught up in working life. This was the sole means of providing and working hours were extremely long, to earn little pay. He says that ‘for a Sunday night presentation of a Theatre Play, I did the furnishings for the setting, and had the pleasure of seeing printed in the programme ‘Furnishings by Stanley Rice’ (36), proving that status was important to him. Work is connected with class identity, and from Rice growing up with little, it is instilled in him to strive for the best in life.

His business crashed as the Second World War hit, and so Rice became an Armourer in the R.A.F. He went to West Africa and Gambia and was away from his wife for several months. On returning home, he developed mental health problems and ‘was under a Doctor who had done a lot of psychiatric study, and I must say he took considerable interest in me’ (53). He created more job opportunities for himself thereafter but ‘was advised three months rest. I was in such a low state that I had to stop myself from going too near the edge of an underground station platform. When I did I felt dangerously near throwing myself in front of a train’ (58). It is clear that fighting in the War and being away from home for so long took its toll on Rice, as it would have done many people, and was difficult for him to overcome it all. It is also important to note that for him to admit to mental health problems is unusual for 20th century autobiography, as most men would want to keep this information private.

Concluding his autobiography, Rice feels that all his hard work in life never truly paid off, that he is a ‘rather simple chap and should have stayed that way. That would have given a lot of joy to Ethel, who after all, has asked for little, been readily satisfied with little, yet given such a lot’ (67). It is sad to think that looking back, he reconsiders his efforts. Athough to many who reads his autobiography would see that he should have no regrets and be proud of his life achievements.

RICE, Stanley, ‘The Memories of a Rolling Stone: Times and incidents remembered’, TS, pp.68 (c. 33,600 words). Brunel University Library, Volume 2:661.

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