William Belcher (1884-1961) – Life and Labour

William Belcher was surrounded by work from an early age. His father was a gasfitter and electrician. Belcher, following in his father’s footsteps, would soon occupy this role himself. This, however, was only one of a number of different occupations that Belcher pursued.  His time spent in the navy was most significant in terms of both his labour and life. This profession provided him with the means to see the world, provided a sense of community and acted as the most important factor into shaping the rest of his working-class life. Belcher’s comments on unemployment, trade unionism and the labour system itself are interesting and provide a deeper understanding into his mindset and working-class beliefs.

HMS Furious, a second class cruiser – Belcher took one of his first Navy trips to Gibraltar on this ship in 1903

In his Untitled memoirs, Belcher details the surrounding employment status of his youth and the significance it had upon working-class families.

‘Unemployment took its toll. Wages were low and people looked white and pinched, and only by wise house keeping, managed to keep the children well and fed’ (8)

He presents the effect and significance employment had upon the lives of others, whilst demonstrating the consequence of such unemployment. Unable to keep families well and nourished, the unemployed must resort to other means. He explains how he landed in unemployment and would ‘search vainly for some weeks’ (17). This futile search made a big impression on him and he was grateful for the steady work that he would later find for himself. Unemployment would hit a rise some 20 years after this, with Belcher narrowly escaping the working-class unemployment epidemic.

The Hand That Will Rule The World – One Big Union

Belcher seems to acknowledge that the generation before him had it harder than himself today. In contrast with their early starts, he is blessed with ‘quick travel’ and has ‘something to be thankful for’ (10). The prime reason he has for his generation’s blessing in labour is when he mentions the importance of trade unions and the effect this had upon the working class individual.

‘There was little trade unionism, and the working man had not dreamed of his power to combine. In the factory one man doing the work of the same quantity and quality, receiving different rates of pay as another’ (10)

Belcher demonstrates a strong relationship with this kind of community and fair line of thinking. And his reflections of trade unionism is one of triumph, reflecting his utmost support. He talks of the struggle and importance of a steady income through labour in the ‘present competitive system’ (12), a system deeply rooted in working-class life. Robert Robert’s argued that in his experience of Salford in the early twentieth century, ‘the class struggle…was apolitical and had place entirely within their own society’ (Roberts, 1990) and not ‘labouring groups united by a common aim and culture’ (Roberts, 1990). Belcher, however came to the opposite view with his descriptions of the working class as a collective and ‘the power to combine’ becoming an important part in the rights of the working class man.

Advertisement for the Marlborough Theatre, Holloway –  Belcher briefly worked here in 1902

Belcher briefly mentions many of the different small time jobs he acquired throughout his life. These included: at an engineers at ’25 Ash brook Road’ (13), on the railway ‘at Kings Cross’ (14), a ‘clerk’ (15), and a job ‘at the Marlboro Theatre’ (17), among many more. The variety and extensive list of the different job roles he acquired demonstrates the work effort of Belcher as a determined Working-class individual. On the 17th November 1903 William Belcher joined the navy ‘ensuring employment for at least 5 years’ (17) of which he served. He then served again from 1914-19 during the war, these war times efforts, in his reflections affected his perspective on life, and the human capability of evil. While serving in the navy, however, Belcher was proud of his pursuits and it formed the identity he now obtains. It gave him the opportunity to travel and provided a communal outlook to his life – a vital aspect to the life and labour of the working class struggle.

Belcher’s labours in life, helped shape the working class identity he wished to portray, one of community, solidarity and a force. His variety of occupations demonstrate the hard working ethic he obtained as a working class child and continued to strive towards labour in a way to live a fulfilling life.


William Belcher, Untitled  Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection 1.53

Roberts, Robert The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century (London: Penguin, 1990)

Images Cited




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