Joe Ayre (b. 1910): Politics, Protest & Class

“The vision of British society as an ordered, integrated, layered hierarchy had almost always been historically the most powerful, the most popular and most resonant.”(Cannadine 150)

Almost every aspect of Joe Ayre’s life was shaped by politics. His childhood, his family and his own struggle to survive in his later independent life were affected by politics. The style of his writing, the purpose and the audience of his memoir were also largely influenced by Joe’s perception of Politics.

Joe Ayre immediately blames the Capitalists for the breakout of the First World War. Along with many other Socialists, Joe stresses how there can be no capitalism without conflicts of economic interest. He felt that the War was caused because “The Capitalists were in competition with each other for markets and trade routes.”(4) He criticises them throughout his memoir. He says how they were only interested in themselves, “playing a game with the working class as the pawns.”(4)

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always maintained that capitalism and war are inseparable and Joe’s views do not differ from this. Although he is aware that his position as a working class man is being exploited by the Capitalists, his respectability means that he is prepared to suffer if it means that other people won’t. He talks about how “it seems all good things have to come to an end.”(14) His autobiography shows how an honest gentleman like Joe is able to appreciate what little he has, despite his constant battle with unemployment and starvation.

Being a loving family man, Joe Ayre is devastated when he sees how his family structure has broken down because of what he felt, was because of the capitalists. His eldest brother Tom was killed in the war, which affected his family to the extent where it was beyond repair. His mother “would stay in the pub until she was drunk”(4) and his father was left a broken man. The nature of his childhood in Liverpool after the War was not enjoyable. Joe, his father and his two siblings, Edie and Bill were forced out of their house on several occasions. “The Baliff and his men dumped all our bits and pieces of household goods in the middle of the Terrace, and how I recall how hostile the neighbours were.”(13)

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Here is a picture of a family in Liverpool who were removed from their home in the same way as Joe Ayre and his family had been

There is one explicit occasion which Joe talks about in his memoir regarding his childhood. He says how the Police going on Strike in Liverpool in 1919 was the first time that he had seen the working class people enjoying themselves. Referring to this particular protest, he says how he; “recalls the workers just smashing the windows of stores and just helping themselves.”(17)

Before the war had broken out, the class differences in society were not as extreme as they were when the war had ended in 1918. Regardless of their class status, the thousands of men who were fighting in the Great War were seen as British citizens who were fighting in terms of solidarity. It was not until the end of the war was declared that the class system was made stricter than it had ever been, with thousands of working class families living in poverty. The capitalists did not solve this situation; they in fact made it even more difficult for the working class in Britain to survive.Talking about his father’s search for work, Joe says that; “In order to qualify for the Dole, it was necessary for him to go on ‘The Stand’ (lining up as thousands of Dockers did twice a day outside the dock sheds.”(12)

Joe’s own personal life was also controlled by politics. He spent the majority of his adulthood life travelling across Canada and in to Chicago as a hoboe. His memoir is mainly a journey of his own struggling working class life, meeting many single unemployed men who were in the same position as him. He says that “Chicago in 1933 was a hoboe’s paradise, the cops didn’t bother us much, there were too many of us.”(83) When they were able to, the majority of single working class men came together in solidarity and outnumbered the police and the other controlling organisations.

However, Joe Ayre’s autobiography does stress how that in reality, the conservative government were in complete control. He talks about the decisions they made and how these decisions tended to exploit the lower classes. “The Conservative government had found out what to do with the unemployed. The men at the Frenton relief camp were used to build the Royal Canadian Air force base there and it is still in use.”(94) Joe along with the other ‘hoboes’ did attempt to revolt against this undermined position that they forced to remain in, but their lower class status meant that their voices were unheard. “On one occasion we did start to organise a March to Ottuara but the police were ready to put a stop to it.”(95)

Joe Ayre’s extreme interest in politics was first brought about when he spent his time reading socialist literature in the hostel for unemployed single men. “I read some socialist literature there and this was the beginning of my political thinking. I started looking for the alternative to Capitalism, and want and misery.”(82) It was only when Joe was able to first handily experience how the Conservative government had only their own positions at interest that he felt that this must end. “I am still looking for it and one day it will come.”(82)

Cannadine, David. Class in Britain. London: Yale University Press, 1998. 144-160. -Class Acts and Class Facts

John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds), The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989) 2:029 

Joe Ayre ‘The Socialist’, MS, pp.178 (c.43,250 words), Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, no. 29, Brunel University Library.

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