Self-confessed ‘rebel’ Matthew Grimes’ account of his life is fascinating on both a personal and a wider historical level, offering us a rich insight into Liverpool as a city during the earlier years of his life around the turn of the century.
The Dingle man, born at 36 ‘Harry’ Street in 1885, offers some profoundly provocative insights which help to inform our understanding of what life could be like for a working-class family during this period, which was dominated by all manner of cultural anxieties, as evident from the thoughts of many prominent writers and academics of the time. Given the tumultuous nature of the proceeding years, as elucidated by Grimes’ personal account of political uprising, and subsequently, the impending First World War, there certainly was some degree of justification for these kinds of cultural anxieties.
While for members of the intellectual and cultural elite such as Oscar Wilde, another descendant of Irish origin but with a significantly more privileged background, the ‘fin-de-siecle’ (end of the century) was analogous with the ‘fin-du-globe’ (end of the world) (The Picture of Dorian Grey, 1890), the problems and anxieties of the high art and aesthetic movements of late 19th century London were a world away from the day to day realities of working class people in Liverpool like Grimes. But despite the disparity between the capital and the rest of the country (particularly the north), Liverpool possessed a culture of its own, due to its at once unique cosmopolitan and global outlook, which was a product of the docks that provided the city and its people with worldwide connections, and also a marginal status and insular mindset, within which the rumblings of revolt were able to ferment.
As Grimes describes in his personal account, Liverpool was to be the setting for events that would later be described by Eric Taplin as ‘near to revolution’ (n. pag, 1994) – the general strike of 1911, which prompted Conservative Home Secretary and future prime minister Winston Churchill to station army troops on the streets and a Royal Navy gunship up the River Mersey with the city of Liverpool within its sights.
The seriousness of these events is driven home when we remember that Liverpool was perhaps the most integral port city of the source of the country’s own wealth and power, the British Empire. By 1855, there was four million tonnes of shipping going through Liverpool’s famous docks (Belchem, 1992, p.23), which contributed to an overwhelming majority of the proportion of the city’s own economy and jobs – particularly in Dingle, the dockside community where many of the workers, including Grimes, resided. That the state turned its armed forces on one of its own most prized assets affirms the threat that Liverpool posed.
In the words of HR Hikins, ‘Liverpool was spearheading a national movement’ (1980) in terms of working class political empowerment, and Grimes was a member of some of the organisations that were influential in this leadership within the city, working for many years on the railways at Wapping Station, where he joined the unions that would contribute towards bringing the entire city to a standstill on ‘Red Sunday’ with their ‘revolutionary’ action (Taplin, 1994, 35) on 13th August 1911.
The day would later become known as ‘bloody Sunday’, due to the following days of civil unrest, which were catalysed by police charging at crowds outside St. George’s Hall. 3,500 British troops were stationed in Liverpool during the period, and two men were shot dead by soldiers on Vauxhall Road after soldiers opened fire into a crowd, in events that it seems likely go some way toward explaining Liverpool’s perennial distrust of the British state, and it’s prominence in anti-establishment radical thinking.
On a more personal scale, the interview also reveals much about the personal reality of Grimes’ early life, from childhood into adulthood, as the son of Irish migrants and a young member of the Liverpool working class. One particularly striking anecdote centres around an ingenious technique for avoiding frostbite during the bare-foot commute to school and back during the severe winter months, and Grimes recalls in detail the cries of street sellers around his native Dingle. Instances such as these, while remembered fondly and even humorously by Grimes, on reflection, drive home the harsh realities of what life could be like for working class families of the time. As Grimes himself describes it, his family faced true ‘hardship’, which meant that he had to leave school at the age of thirteen to find a job in order to contribute to the family income.
As we will see, this ‘hardship’, amongst other factors, contributed to the
awakening of Grimes’ political consciousness, concurrent with the radical working class movements that were forming in the face of growing discontent in the both the city and the country at large. This would ultimately culminate in the biggest ever mass organisation of working-class people to protest for better conditions, and in doing so, inspire nationwide unrest. Politics is a topic which informs a significant proportion of Grimes’ story, from his awareness of sectarian divisions, his close attention to class stratification, and his involvement with various political organisations and trade unions.
The specific form of this life story means that it must be approached in a more considered way than the more common forms of working class autobiography that are featured on Writing Lives, such as first-hand memoirs. The interview was conducted by British cultural critic and writer John Berger for Granada Television in 1963, and therefore everything Grimes says is necessarily mediated by Berger’s questions, which are presumably designed to draw out specific pieces of information to suit the agenda of the interview. Other factors such as Grimes’ awareness of being on television, and Berger’s own political and cultural ideology, must also be taken into consideration, and will be explored in detail in my ‘Purpose and Audience’ post.
Hopefully, it will be possible to bring the life of Matthew Grimes into a new light, set against the social, cultural and political context of the years in which he lived, whilst allowing his own voice to speak with as little infringement as possible.
Belchem, J. Popular Politics, Riot and Labour, Essays in Liverpool History 1790-1940. Liverpool: University Press, 1992.
Hikins, H.R. The Liverpool General Transport Strike, 1911. Liverpool: Toulouse Press, 1980.
‘Matthew Grimes’ in Burnett et al. The Autobiography of the British Working Class.
Taplin, E. Near to Revolution: The Liverpool General Transport Strike, 1911. Liverpool: Bluecoat Press, 1994.