William Wright (b.1846): Life and Labour – Part 2

Check out part one here. When it comes to his work, William provides for other, which we saw signs of from when he was young: ‘I helped my father until I was fourteen years old’ (16). Instead of solely talking about going onto the next chapter in his career, William makes sure to let us know ‘I helped my father’.

It is not only William that has to provide, but also his father. Even when his father is ill, William talks about how he ‘undertook to make coffins for an undertaker’ (21). His father clearly has a high work ethic, which is where William most likely learned to approach his work in a similar way. This could have stemmed from the moment he retrieved his father’s brush: ‘After that my Father decided that I should start work, so I had to go with him and climb the chimneys and flues’ (8).

William learns new skills as he gets older. His laboured work gave him knowledge of how to run a business, ‘I started soot dealing; and she gave me her chimney-sweeping business as she got too old to keep it on’ (27). Since William had experience with chimneys and soot, he was entrusted with the business, supporting my thoughts on him having a great work ethic like his father. All of this meant he could be more financially stable for him and his family.

William knows the value of other trades and laboured workers: ‘This old store needed a great deal of repairing, so I took a bricklayer named Tom Kemp to Portsmouth and we built a new store and cottage’ (28). This was a way to commemorate his friend, ‘I did my duty to my late employer for five years and she paid me well in return’ (28). William ends this memory with ‘she paid me well in return’, showing that even if he relied on a labourer, or he was trying to do his ‘duty’ out of respect for his friend, it all results in wages.

A map of Portsmouth from 1948, via Wikipedia.

As established, William seems to be a hard worker, so it is surprising that he does more work in his spare time: ‘This is how I became a builder in my spare time’ (34). Not only because he already works hard, but because he is resorting back to laboured work, despite being given opportunities to break out of his working-class background.

Despite all of William’s hard work, he may have not been as respected as some may think: ‘Britain had been the first industrial nation and had been able to exploit this advantage by becoming the “workshop of the world” with an economy which dominated world trade with its exports of cotton, coal, iron, steel and machinery and its dominance of the shipbuilding industry’ (3). William does not fall into this bracket as he does not contribute to what many thought as Britain’s greatest achievement so far. According to Mike Savage, William’s life as a chimney sweeper would have been categorised as ‘Manual – Unskilled’ (34) in terms of his class status. In the end, though, life continues regardless of one’s class status.

As I talked about in Home and Family, William’s first wife died. Her death would would have taken both an emotional and economical toll on him, ‘My dear wife died at the age of forty-five years; then I lost my right hand, for she was a good help-mate’ (35). This would have given William a greater workload. This also seemed to be the beginning of troubles with money. So much so, even William’s friends betrayed him, ‘To help a friend, I got behind in my payments on my interest money. This friend promised to pay me, but the promise was all I got’ (36). I believe that the money is not the issue of this moment, but the betrayal. William has dedicated his life to working and earning his money honestly, so this moment in his life shows how people can easily discredit hard work.

William’s hard work through life continues to be devalued when his property is also taken over: ‘A solicitor held all the deeds of my property which included nineteen houses and a store’ (36). The result of his hard work had been taken away, and William goes on to tell us how much this was all worth, ‘All this was worth about £6,000 and there was £4,000 in interest due on it, so all my forty years savings were gone.’ While I do not know the exact year this part was talking about, William does mention the Boer War, so I have rounded it up to 1905. This would mean it had been three years since the Boer War ended. So without the interest rate, the £6,000 would be worth £716,645.16, according to the Bank of England. We will explore this further in Class Matters, where I will discuss whether this pushed him up the social class ladder.

A Private £5 Note. Would have been in use around 1905. Found via Wikipedia.

After all this, William was still humble and caring, even towards strangers, ‘As I did not like turning them out of their house, I sold it to them and built what they wanted’ (38). This shows that his character and work ethic always resorted back to one thing: providing for others. Even if the ‘others’ in question are not even friends or family. And, just like his earlier life that I explored in Part One, working and providing for others is part of William’s identity.


Wright, William. ‘From chimney-boy to councillor – The Story of my Life’. See John Burnett, David Vincent, David Mayall. The Autobiography of the working class; an annotated critical bibliography. Vol. 1 1790-1900. 1st Pub. 1984. Item: 777.

Secondary Sources:

Cawood, Ian J., and Ian Cawood. Britain in the Twentieth Century, Routledge, 2003. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ljmu/detail.action?docID=1356254.

Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. Milton Keynes: Pelican Books, 2015.

“Inflation Calculator”. Bankofengland.Co.Uk, 2018, https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/monetary-policy/inflation/inflation-calculator. Accessed 18 Apr 2019.

Images used:
Portsmouth Road Map. Found via Wikipedia.
£5 Note Issued by Fox, Fowler and Company. Found via Wikipedia.

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