Alfred George Henry Lay (1869-1958): Purpose and Audience

The purpose and audience of Alfred George Henry Lay’s collection of diary entries entitled, ‘Adventure’, is unclear. In the biographical entry for the collection, we are told that they were ‘compiled by his granddaughter Mrs Rosemary Chapman’ (1). This suggests that Alfred wrote these diary entries for himself. As a sailor it would make sense for him to make a log of his experiences when at sea or in another country as it would allow him to look back at these experiences in a manner that is clear. It would allow him to reflect on his journeys and remember the places he has been. It would also allow him to learn from his mistakes.

              Regenia Gagnier argues that some working-class autobiographies are written to ‘preserve memories of a way of life that is changing’ (Gagnier, 1987, 348). You can argue that Alfred’s diaries highlight a change in his life. The first entry tells us of his journey to acquire a new vessel. The second entry follows Alfred on his first voyage after his apprenticeship. With the third and fourth entries highlighting the challenge that catching fish has become.

              In the first entry entitled ‘Adventure’, he writes about a journey that he makes from London to Grimsby, in which he has to deal with the difficulties of the weather and his steamer nearly sinking, during which Alfred and his mate had to bail water to keep her afloat. In the second entry ‘America’, Alfred had to deal with living on a ship where he had been demoted from ‘stearage steward’ (23) to working in the ‘saloon galley’ (23). He then had to come to terms with living on the streets of New York, with little money and food. In the last two entries, both entitled ‘Vampire’, Alfred highlights the journeys and methods that he undertook in order to catch fish.

View across No.3 dock slipways and No.1 dock to Dock tower and Humber (2007)

              I think it is important to note how the diary entries only detail his time at sea. We are told in the biographical entry that Alfred had a family but there is little mention of them within his entries, nor do we get details about his early life or his life after he emigrated to New Zealand.  Through these entries we can see how being at sea can be a lonely experience.  During his time in America Alfred confesses that he ‘was fairly tired of America and was getting very low spirited’ (28). We get the sense that these entries are a way in which Alfred can confide in someone even though it is himself. It is a way for Alfred to pass the time whilst being at sea but also a way for him to analyse and learn from his struggles and times of hardship for example when he mentions that he ‘was tired hungry wet and sore’ (12). 

              I do not think that Alfred wrote these diary entries for anyone but himself. The entries are a way for him to learn from his previous mistakes. They do not contain voyages that can be perceived as easy or happy. The fact that it was his granddaughter compiled them and released them suggests that Alfred wrote these entries for himself.  


Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30.3 (1987), 335-363.

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