R.W. Morris b.1895: Reading and Writing.

Richard W. Morris, a miner’s son from County Durham, does not write much about his reading habits. I believe this is due to his purpose in writing his autobiography. His primary concern and focus in writing his memoir was to immortalise the efforts of miners from his local community (find out more about this here). The lack of reading material in his writing may be because, as previously stated in Schooling and Education, he did not consider himself as much of a scholar. His dislike of English and English Grammar may be evidence of his dislike of reading beyond popular culture. However, this is speculative.

Miners Reading Newspapers, circa 1950.

Richard does mention reading newspapers. They were used as tools in looking for work, such as the Chester-Le-Street Chronicle, in which his mother finds him his first job in a tailor’s shop. This indicates that this specific newspaper was floating about his childhood home, suggesting that his parents were keen to keep up with local events and news. Jonathan Rose writes that what, ‘may be…remarkable is the lack of knowledge of current affairs, even in a century when the daily newspaper habit became universal (2010, 220). He notes that by March 1942 ‘Mass Observation reported that at least the upper working classes did not lag too far behind the middle class in their ability to name government ministers (2010, 222). This seems a somewhat sweeping generalisation of working-class knowledge, or lack of it. It may be that in some families due to illiteracy, some people struggled with reading, but that does not mean it affected their knowledge. Rather, what it may suggest is that working class people felt far removed from larger, national events, and chose not to embroil themselves in wider issues that did not relate to them directly. In part two of the memoir, Richard finds his first home, with his wife, by searching the Oxford Times. This shows that, for Richard, habits of keeping up with the local community were not forgotten.

The Daily Herald 1938.

There is an interesting account, in part two, of newspaper reading. During the late 1930s Richard found work in a factory body shop, linked to a motor car company in the Oxford area. He tells how the word ‘Union’ was never mentioned and that whilst eating his lunch one day someone leaned over his shoulder and ‘told me not to let the Shop Foreman see me reading the ‘Daily Herald’ or there was every chance I would soon be out of a job’ (129). Richard mentions how Sir William Morris, ‘was staunchly encouraging an organisation called “The League of Industry” and every endeavour was being made to recruit as many of the workforce as possible. I never found out just how successful, or otherwise, the scheme was, but I took good care not to be caught with the ‘Daily Herald’ (129). It would seem that the Daily Herald may have been too left wing for the environment Richard was working in at that time. Richard’s inference that he would not be ‘caught’ suggests that he would not cease reading it in private. David Powell writes that there was an attempt in politics of the time to create greater planning in economic policy, this was supported by the likes of William Morris, and the ‘League of Industry’ who ‘planned to run candidates in favour of a  ‘business’s government’ at the next election’ (2004, 163). Thus, trade unions and left wing politics may not have been favoured in a highly competitive manufacturing environment, or during the interwar years when economic depression loomed.

Fire Guards using a stirrup pump.

After WW2, in which Richard worked as an Assistant Fireguard Officer for Oxford City, he got a job as an ‘electrician’s mate’. He uses the library to look up information and ‘familiarise’ himself with the work of electricians within ‘modern factory conditions’ (136). This shows Richard’s specific use of books with regard to work, educating himself for a particular role. This again highlights that Richard was not reading for pleasure, but out of necessity to get on in life. This is in great contrast to another miner, Harold Heslop, who shared Richard’s close affiliations to County Durham. You can read about his reading and writing habits here.

Reading and writing have particular roles in Richard’s life, enabling him to move forward, and relive the past in varying ways. Reading equipped him with the ability to re-educate himself, and become skilled in various professions. Writing in later life gave Richard the ability to look back and reflect, whilst simultaneously allowing him to give life to those already lost to the past: preserving it for those in the future.


‘Lord Nuffield: A philanthropic legacy’, Oxford: Nuffield College, 2013. http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/sites/default/files/files/Lord%20Nuffield%20Philanthropic%20Legacy.pdf.

MORRIS, R. W., ‘Autobiography of R. W. Morris’, TS, c.350pp. (c.140,000 words). Extracts published as ‘A Boy goes down the pit’, Bulletin of the Durham County Local History Society, No. 20, Oct 1977, pp. 4-12 (edited by G. Patterson). BruneI University Library.

Powell, David. British Politics, 1910-1935: The Crisis of the Party System. Abingdon: Routledge, 2004.

Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2002). London: Yale U.P. 2010.

‘R.W. Morris’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds). The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:520.


Featured Image: Chester-Le-Street Chronicle – Chester-Le-Street Heritage.

Feature Image: Miners Reading – Getty Images.

Feature Image: The Daily Herald 1938 – Alamy.

Feature Image: ‘Stirrup Pump’ – WW2 Christian Fiction.


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