William Belcher (1884-1961) – Politics, Protest and Class

William Belcher’s memoirs display a rather limited detail on his political views. Instead, he expresses this through his reflection and contemplation on the society he lives in, the war, and the industrial revolution, all of which contribute to his sense of identity deeply rooted in the working class.

His direct political views slip into his narrative when he states:

‘Looking back I wonder how these people, who never had a holiday, whose children never reached the country unless by some mission, wanted to vote for either Tory or Liberal’ (8)

Belcher belongs to the Intellectual working class, indicated by his clear intelligence in writing style and the deep philosophical contemplation’s he often displays. In my previous posts I have explored his desire for education, and this desire transforms into a desire for intellectual freedom. As Jonathon Rose states in The Intellectual Life of the Working Classes, ‘there is nothing distinctly ‘bourgeois” about the interest in classical literature (Rose, 2010), claiming it ‘may have been strongest in people who had spent their lives following orders and wanted to change that’ (Rose, 2010), which is certainly the case for Belcher. In his time in the navy, he always took orders. Now, recalling his life in his memoirs, he is able to reflect on this life and his intellectual working class voice comes through. One voice that comes through is one of injustice. Injustice to the working class, in labour, in war and in their intellectual pursuits.

Poster for Trade Union – Belcher was proud of his generation for introducing Trade Unionism and worker’s rights

His passion for Trade Unionism as seen in my previous post on life & labour expresses his thoughts on the justice of labour and the rights of the working classes. He describes the admiration he has for such concepts and the communal aspect of the working class, demonstrating the solidarity of such social positions.

On the whole, Belcher displays a disdain for politicians themselves, in particular, the role they play in the war. He addresses the injustice and sacrifice of young mens lives ‘done to the death by perhaps a politicians funder, by an alliance not endorsed by the people’ (62). He believes the politicians to be corrupt. Funded by outside sources, he believes they are easily swayed by greed and display a lack of empathy or care for society, in particular the working class.

‘A class is defined as much by its being-perceived as by its being, by its consumption – which need not be conspicuous in order to be symbolic – as much as by its position in the relations of production’ (Bourdieu)

Pierre Bourdieu’s description of class is interesting in relation to Belcher’s memoirs. Belcher perceives himself as working class in terms of injustice. However, the injustice he feels and the position of his class is a complicated one. He observes the injustices fell upon people of his class, observations he made as a youth. He describes the lack of health and hygiene in which ‘no general use of the tooth brush was in vogue’ (11) and how ‘there were no child clinics’, and people having to rely on ‘the philanthropy of people of good will’  (11). In the memoirs, his personal class is distinct from others he observes. Instead he is proud of the society in which he was born, calling it a ‘wonderful era’ (9). He believes himself to be born:

‘Just soon enough to live where the spirit of Justice, Equality, and Liberty was about to draw its first breath’ (9)

He was born into the working class, on the brink of a change – one of solidarity, previously unseen in the generation before him. Throughout the memoirs this positive sense of ‘Justice, Equality and Liberty’ are challenged by the injustices of war. Ultimately, war is the all-pervading aspect of the memoirs and seeps its way in to every aspect of his life, including his class. Therefore, Belcher displays a dualistic approach to his class, coming with both its positive and negative features. Being at the commanding order of those above was, for him, the main injustice for his class.



Belcher, William Untitled Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.53

Rose, Jonathan The Intellectual Life of the Working Classes (London: Yale University Press, 2010)

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Source Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Harvard University Press, 1979)

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