Walter John Eugene Elliott (1890- 1977): Life and Labour

 

people now talk of ‘The Good old days’, IF they had had ‘um, they would not boast ’bout um.

Working life played a huge part in Walter’s life. This is demonstrated in Walter’s memoirs by the attention to detail he pays to his numerous roles as a young adult. He designates sections in his memoirs to his ‘fourteen months’ working as a ‘Telegram Messenger’, to his nine years working in a cycle shop and his time as a soldier, in the war. Therefore, Walter allows the reader great insight into the working life of a young person living in a rural community in the early 20th century.

Walter’s memoirs hold similarities with those of Percy Vere’s and ‘at the age of 14, [both] left school to pursue a life of labour’ (White). However, where Vere went into the building trade Walter started work as a telegraph messenger-boy. Walter writes that he worked ‘8 A.M to 8 P.M on weekdays and 8 A.M to 10 A.M on Sundays and bank holidays’ (15). So already, at fourteen, Walter is introduced to a long working day, which would require him to cycle around Little Common and the neighbouring villages delivering messages. Walter also makes note of his pay as a messenger because he would ride his own bike and it was agreed he would be paid ‘sixpence a week extra’ (15). His ‘first pay packet contained seven and sixpence’ (15).

At fourteen Walter was rather lucky in the position he held as telegraph messenger-boy. The effects of the industrial revolution were still being felt in the early twentieth century, therefore many boys still found themselves in a system that was ‘criticised for strict discipline, harsh punishment, unhealthy working conditions, low wages and inflexible work hours’ (Tuttle).  Walter though had freedom during his working day. He explains that his position soon ‘became tame’ (15) and that his boss said ‘she would ring a handbell when [he] was wanted’ (15). Walter soon realised this could be heard ‘when [he] was in the shop’ (15). So, even when Walter was working he found himself spending a great deal of time in his family shop Elliot’s Draper. Although Walter’s hours were long, his first experiences of working life were far more enjoyable than many children who worked in late nineteenth  / early twentieth century Britain.

Bexhill-on-sea, where the Marchants cycle shop was located

After fourteen months Walter decided that ‘there must be some better way to earn a living’ (21) than delivering telegraph messages. Following this decision, Walter ‘started at Marchants 52 St Leonards Road Bexhill a week or two before Easter 1905’ (22). At the beginning of his time at the Marchants, Walter recalls hearing the manager asking who he was. After being told Walter was ‘from Little Common’ (22) the manager went on to say ‘a country lout, he won’t be any good’ (22). However, Walter went on to prove his manager wrong and worked as a cycle shop assistant for nine years!

Just like Walter’s recollections of working as a telegraph messenger- boy, Walter includes his work hours for his time as a cycle shop assistant. He tells the reader that his paid ‘hours per week [in] Winter [were] 57 ½’ (23) and that in ‘Spring, Autumn and Summer [he worked] 59 ½’ (23) hours a week. However, Walter admits that they would work ‘more than sixty hours a week’ (24). Therefore, we are given an understanding of a work schedule that far exceeds that of a working-class schedule of today when many people ‘can’t work more than 48 hours a week’ (gov.co.uk). Considering this comparison between working hours in the early 20th century and how they have decreased over time, it is understandable why Walter seems irritated by those that boast of ‘The Good old days’ (24).  He says that ‘IF [people] had had ‘um, they would not boast ‘bout um’ (24). Thus, Walter allows us insight into the way he feels about the working conditions he experienced in the early 1900s, compared to the hours people work now, or when he was writing his memoirs in 1970. From this admission, the reader can understand that Walter feels that the people today have a far easier time and thus should not complain.

Walter’s time at the Marchent’s cycle shop ended in 1914, when Walter ‘was a bit ‘fed up’ with cleaning bikes and pushing prams around’ (41). So, in October of that year, Walter signed up to the local Royal Engineers Coy. Territorials reserve unit. There Walter was made a Sapper, and had his trade put down as a ‘motor and cycle mechanic’ (41). However, I will talk about this time of Walter’s life in more detail in my following blog posts about Walter’s war experiences. ( War and Memory (1) / War and Memory (2) )

From Walter’s memoirs, it is clear to see just how hardworking Walter was following his time in education. He spent much of his life, following school, in some form of employment and even took actions to better his position as a working man. Making the active decision to leave his post as a telegram messenger-boy in hunt of better work at the cycle shop demonstrates the pride Walter took in having a good job and a good income.

 

Bibliography:

Elliott, Walter J.E. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:227, available at: http//bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9520

GOV.co.uk N.d. Web. Accessed 10 March 2017

Tuttle, Carolyn. “Child Labour during the British Industrial Revolution”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001. URL
http://eh.net/encyclopedia/child-labor-during-the-british-industrial-revolution/

Walter J.E Elliott 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): 1:227

White, Jessica. “Percy Vere (H.V.Smith (b.1913): Life and Labour’ Accessed: http://www.writinglives.org/percy-vere/percy-vere-h-v-smith-b-1913-life-and-labour

Images:

Image 1: https://postalheritage.wordpress.com/tag/messenger-boy/

Image 2: http://www.photohistory-sussex.co.uk/BexhillPhotgrsC.htm

Image 3:  https://greatwarphotos.com/tag/royal-sussex-regiment/

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