Joe Ayre (b. 1910): Reading & Writing

“Working-class people may not have read books with an academic vision, but they still sought classics and highbrow.”[1]

st emmanuels school liverpool
Joe Ayre attended St Emmanuel’s Church School in Liverpool from the age of six

Amongst many working class writers, Joe Ayre’s ability to read was much more advanced than his ability to write. From the age of six, Joe attended St Emmanuel’s Church School where he was first taught how to read. Although he was “studying the Scripture only”(8), his knowledge of reading meant that in the future he was able to teach himself. His writing skills were developed from the age of twelve when he experienced an improved education in Canada.

Reading was something which influenced many working class writers during and after the outbreak of the First World War. Not only did they read and write to improve their intellectual ability, but Joe wrote his memoir to thank certain people who helped him on his journey.

Writing was the main method of communication for the working class travellers. As many single working class men like Joe Ayre were constantly ‘on the road’ searching for stability in their lives, they found it difficult to form lasting friendships. Thanking one person in particular, Joe says: “Bruce Joyce, a lad of my own age and I became friends. I have never seen him since I left Springbrook but if he is still alive and reads this, I would sure like to meet him again. He helped me to adapt to the new life in Canada.”(39) Bruce was just one of the many people who Joe met whilst living in Canada.

Joe Ayre’s strong political views were mainly shaped by what he read.  On his journey searching for work, Joe and his friend Gillie would spend much of their spare time reading. Joe was extremely fond of Gillie. He talks about how similar their lives had been. “Gillie and I had a lot in common; he had been shipped out of England by the Salvation Army as an orphan and put on a farm.”(81) Joe tends to portray the positive aspects of his experience rather than talking in detail about their sufferings and their hardship labour. “When we were not riding the freights or ‘on the stem’, we spent a lot of time in the Libraries reading.”(81)

robert w service poet
Joe was inspired by the writing of Literary Poet Robert W. Service

Literary poet Robert W Service was seen as an influential figure to many working class people around this era. In his memoir, Joe states how he would memorize a number of his poems and these were not short poems.”I memorized a number of Service poems, particularly ‘The Cremation of Sam Mcgee’ and a few others.”(81) After researching the background life of Robert Service, it is evidently similar to the childhood of Joe Ayres. It is because of Joe’s ability to relate to Service’s own life which tells me how neither man was exaggerating their experiences.

Stated below is a passage taken from Robert Service’s poem ‘The Cremation of Sam Mcgee.’ It is interesting to see how Joe Ayre talks in his memoir about a “handsome looking man with red curly hair”(71) called Donald who he met whilst living in Canada. Donald appears to resemble the character in the poem. Similar to the character in the poem, Donald had left his wealthy middle class family in England to begin a life of poverty and starvation. This was very rarely heard of and even Joe says that “He never told us why he left England and we never asked him, I often wondered.”(71) That was just one striking similarity to someone who has been a part of Joe’s life, suggesting why he felt a sense of comfort from that particular poem.


 “Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.

Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.

 He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;

 Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”


Reading is something which helped Joe to develop his strong Political views. Before this, Joe was aware of how the working class in England were being exploited but only to a certain extent. However, it is not until he explores this issue in depth which causes Joe to build up his solid cry for Socialism. Joe says that by spending his spare time reading Socialist Literature, this was what influenced his hatred towards Capitalists. “I read Socialist Literature there and this was the beginning of my political thinking.”(82) Joe does not aggressively criticise Capitalists but he says: “I started looking for the alternative to Capitalism and want and misery.”(82)

By naming the title of his autobiography ‘The Socialist’, it strikes the desire that Joe has to have equality amongst the classes, in other words, Socalism. “I am still looking for it and someday it will come.”(82) His admiration towards Socialism is something which his life experiences have helped to shape. Seeing how his family have been destroyed by the desperation to survive has made Joe realise that someone is to be blamed for this. Joe’s determination which is shown throughout his memoir is an aspect that is certainly influenced by what he reads.

[1] The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes Jonathan Rose New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2001, ISBN: 9780300088868; 544pp.;

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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