The measure of the Labour party’s success can be identified by its statistics: the British working-classes were beginning to call for change. Forming in 1900, the party obtained just over sixty-three thousand votes in the general election of that year giving it to two M.P.s. Eighteen years later, the party received 2,365,472 votes, gaining sixty-three M.P.S during 1918. This rose to 8,389,512 votes and a total of two-hundred-and-eighty-eight M.P.S by 1929. (Hansford, p.88) Charles Hansford was a young working man during the 1920s when the party’s successes were beginning to significantly increase, and admits to his reader that he had begun to develop a thirst for politics which he had not experienced before.
“I could see the sense of being in a union, in fact my attachment had been increased by numerous personal experiences in the industry” (1980, p. 88) Charles explains. It is evident from this statement that like many of the working-class, Hansford was beginning to feel that employers were not always fair in their treatment of their workers, and he had worked hard every day that he could to provide for himself and his family. As his frequent humour throughout his account and his resilient optimism suggests, Charles views himself as a “happy-go-luck type” like his step-father, Tom (Hansford, p.88). However, the working-class literature that his work mate Len provided him with had started to make Charles consider his own “political dimension” (Hansford, p.88). Along with his own first-hand experiences, Charles began to harden and become increasingly aware that change needed to occur.
Charles Hansford’s ideas were shared: a result of a general movement amongst the British working classes at the time. My own increasing political awareness reflected a generalised process then occurring in Britain; the working class parties were registering a dramatic growth in their vote.” (Hansford, p.88) The movement that was becoming mutual across the working class was beginning to create a collective voice amongst people alike, and Charles states that his political knowledge was “appreciably widened” (Hansford, p. 89).
But the notable event, that I feel influenced Charles the most, was the death of Shapurji Saklatvala in 1936. Saklatvala was elected to parliament as a communist M.P for North Battersea in 1922, after moving from India to Britain in 1905. He campaigned against capitalism in order to reform the quality of labour both in Britain and India, however in 1926 he was imprisoned for a speech going against the government (British Library, 2013) which Hansford talks of in Chapter 12, An Oxford Education, “…A few months later during the General Strike, Saklatvala would be arrested for a speech at the 1926 May Day rally in Hyde Park , where he appealed to servicemen to side with strikers against the government” (Hansford, p.90). The General Strike was called by the Trades Union Congress due to coal-miners pay suffering cuts (British Library, 2013). Hansford then reminisces about witnessing the event which would affirm his beliefs:
“Suddenly a hush descended… making its way slowly along Nine Elms Lane came a funeral cortege… a few paces ahead of the procession walked a dignified Indian… as the hearse drew abreast I could see that the coffin was draped in a red flag. Whispered enquiries established this to be the ‘Red Funeral’ of some local London socialist, and identified the Indian gentleman as Shapurji Saklatvala.” Upon realising who the funeral was being held for, he divulges with the reader his reaction, “The demonstration and symbolism evoked in me a strange and sudden response; I underwent a powerful experience closely akin (I imagine) to the process of religious conversion: I had found my faith, my flag, and my fully formed identity.” (Hansford, p. 90)
It is clear from this extract that witnessing Saklatvala’s funeral procession, for Hansford, made everything that he had read, watched and heard about feel distinctively real all in one moment. The author had attained an understanding of the class he was a part of, and this for me explains how Charles Hansford viewed his own identity. He was proud to be working class despite the struggles and efforts that it took to maintain a living, and I speculate that this is one of the main reasons Charles felt it necessary, as well as a duty, to write an autobiography capturing his working class life and the journey of his career.
The General Strike: Protesters on the streets. “Workers in the world unite”
Despite the many struggles, some things did change and improve for Charles’ industry: health and safety regulations that made the job much safer, as well as terms of holiday pay and pay for illness were introduced. “One morning, cycling to work, I had the misfortune of falling off, breaking my collarbone again” Charles explains. “When this happened previously in 1922, I’d been doing price-work for Bill Waterman; I recalled how I’d tried to struggle on, continuing to plaster ceilings with a painful shoulder. By contrast, at B.O.A.C I received sick pay during six weeks, and found myself almost as well off as at work. Never before had any firm given me money except in exchange for real work.” (Hansford, p. 116). After working from the age of fourteen every day he was able to do, it must have been a luxury as well as a great surprise to Charles that he was able to take time off work without anxiety of how he was going to support himself and his family after the mishap of becoming injured, due to no deliberate fault of his own.
British Library (2013) The General Strike 1926 [online] Available at: http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item107681.html [Accessed 14th December, 2013]
Fig. 2 British Library (2013) The General Strike [Photograph: Crowds gather in protest] Available at: http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/large107681.html [Accessed 14th December, 2013]
British Library (2013) Saklatva, Communist MP 1922 [online] Available at: http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item124202.html [Accessed 14th December, 2013]
Hansford, C. (1980) Memoir of a Bricklayer, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:745
Fig 1. National Portrait Gallery, Bassano Ltd vintage print (1922) Shapurji Saklatvala [Photograph: Portrait of Shapurji Saklatvala, 25th November 1922] Available at: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitLarge/mw52437/Shapurji-Saklatvala [Accessed 27th December, 2013]