A. Gordon James (b.1885) Politics, Protest and Class

‘”It was a try on guv” the crook would admit, and from that point it became possible to establish confidence’ (70).

The Tower-Bridge branch building James worked at as a clerk.

Alfred never knew much of his father, but he states that if he lived into the twentieth-century, he would have been called ‘a left-wing socialist’ (4). Alfred does not directly say if he was influenced by his father’s beliefs, but we do know he set an example for him by helping a lost, drunken man find his way back home, writing ‘I am very proud now’ when he recalled that memory (6). Alfred also held a firm respect for the struggles of the late nineteenth-century working class as he reminisces:  ‘Those young workers of today who are in receipt of high wages and enjoy the amenities of the welfare state have little idea of the sufferings of their fathers’ (76). Alfred himself experienced poverty as he had to work as a ‘boy-clerk’ at the ‘Tower-Bridge Branch’ of the ‘London and County Bank’ to support his sick mother (8).

Photo of a Trades Union Congress taking place at a cathedral. Taken in 1937.

Even though Alfred states that his private, political views ‘lie with Labour’, he never writes of directly acting on these beliefs (53). Instead, he worked them in through his religious vocation. There is an interesting paradox to this when he explains his reasons for this approach. On the one hand, he was ‘careful not to introduce party feeling or propaganda’ into his public speaking in what we can only assume is a fear on Alfred’s part that he could be politicising his congregation and nothing else (53). On the other hand, he goes on to say (on the same page) that he does ‘not believe it is possible to preach the Christian Gospel…apart from its contemporary social context’ (53). We could interpret this as Alfred not wanting to take a political stance openly in his church because it would isolate the congregation members on the other side of the fence. Peter Ackers shows that some historians ‘were prepared to debate the impact of Methodism, a movement that was alleged to have produced working-class quiescence, yet also provided many early trade union leaders’ in discussing the relationship between working-class identity and religion (Peter Ackers, 2019, 130). Peter argues that Methodism’s place in working-class politics is tentative in terms of where it stands and Alfred’s view appears to support this.

As mentioned in our ‘Habits, Culture and Belief’ blog, Alfred came to believe that in the public’s view the status of Christianity had become ‘hidebound’ (54). He momentarily writes as though he wanted a Church of universal appeal, no matter the social class of the believer, writing that ‘…God’s world, is a world of human beings bound together in a social nexus within a political framework’ (54). Rather than taking a direct, political approach, James instead supported the view of Christianity and the role of the minister as a neutral mediator that would carry out charitable works and help the poverty-stricken without political motivation.  Andrew August argues that working-class Londoners of the early twentieth-century had underwent a period of ‘political quiescence’ that saw a decrease of union-driven protests and an ‘acceptance of their lot’ (Andrew August, 2001, 194). Alfred appears to take an alternative view by writing his frustrations about the church in that ‘it talked about the wrong things and failed to take definite social action’ (55). Rather than August’s argument on political passivity, Alfred demonstrates that there was a recognition of poverty as a social problem and that people would tackle it through social work, not necessarily through politics.

Photo of Hinde Street Methodist Church, which is still active today.

This work began for Alfred In 1923, when he joined The West London Mission, ‘with special responsibility for Hinde Street Church, just off Manchester Square’ and began to develop these views into real-life application (66). He spent ‘one whole day each week’ with the Church door ‘open to all comers’ (66). Alfred writes not just of his social work during this time, but also of the people who would try and take advantage of his Church’s charity. He writes that he ‘learned to separate the wheat from the chaff’ and when he would tell someone that he could tell that they were lying, they would admit to it and become more trusting (70).

Later on, he writes of more serious encounters. Alfred tells the story of a man who had told him ‘that he was on his way to commit suicide’, and later comments: ‘I listened to his story, which was not a pleasant one, and gradually he changed his mind’ (69). The last he heard from him was a letter from prison saying that he ‘was under observation for mental trouble’ (69). With noted ‘difficulty’, he managed to find a job for a former gang member who had just left prison and was looking for a ‘fresh start’ and had an official bring him a new ‘suit of clothes’ (68).

1904 issue of ‘Our Hospitals and Charities’ covering Britain’s early medical social workers known originally as ‘hospital almoners.’

Alfred was prideful of the work he had been a part of at Hinde Street. His leaving there, he says, was ‘not without regret’ (72). He believed that the work of his associates in the West London Mission known as the ‘Sisterhood’, was a precursor to the social work that started after the introduction of the Welfare State as Alfred reminisces; ‘all of them engaged in one or other of the specialized social services which nowadays are regarded as an integral part of the Welfare State’ (67).

Works Cited:

James, A. G. ‘A Soul Remembering: An Intimate Autobiography’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection.

August, A. (2001) A Culture of Consolation? Rethinking Politics in Working-Class London, 1870-1914. Historical Research 74(184), pp. 193-219.

Ackers, P. (2019) Protestant Sectarianism in Twentieth-Century British Labour History: From Free and Labour Churches to Pentecostalism and the Churches of Christ. International Review of Social History 64 (1), pp. 129-142.

Images Used:

Photo of Tower Bridge branch building found at: https://www.london-se1.co.uk/news/view/10426

Photo of Trades Union Congress found at: https://warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/archives_online/digital/scw/tuc/

Photo of Hinde Street Methodist Church found at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinde_Street_Methodist_Church

Scanned-copy of ‘Our Hospitals and Charities’ found at: https://wdc.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/health/id/1770/

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