Researching working-class autobiography for the Writing Lives project has been an absolute joy. The focus of my research was the life of Cecil George Harwood, as recorded in his memoir, ‘Down Memory Lane.’ Born in 1894 in Welwyn, Hertfordshire, Cecil’s small community upbringing as the son of a garden labourer differed from any of my own experiences.
Flashing back to January 2018 and our first week of the Writing Lives module, I had no idea that I would stumble across Cecil’s amusing yet informative writing, nor did I think I would to get so much enjoyment out of getting to know him. Originally, I had set my sights upon several other authors, hoping for an excuse to delve into the history of my hometown, Liverpool, but my choices had all been researched previously or selected by my classmates. I was starting to feel disheartened. But when Helen Rogers sent over Cecil’s biographical entry, I was instantly intrigued. From his first job as an errand boy, to breeding pigs, serving in the First World War, bus conducting, gardening and painting beehives – all I could think was how busy this man’s life was! I expected that fitting his life into ten blog posts would be a challenge, and it was, but I was never short of material or interesting facts to impress my friends and family with. (Did you know a man called John McAdam invented the method of using crushed stones for road surfacing, hence the name, Tar-mac?)
I am now so thankful that I have been able to research Cecil’s life in Welwyn, Hull, Box, Bath and Charmouth—just to name a few of the places that Cecil called home. His memoir has given me an invaluable insight into the past, one that is not commonly found in history books. Cecil’s incredibly detailed descriptions of the food that was available, his workplace duties and clothing have been a great help to me in my attempt to preserve the simplicity of life in the late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century, as Cecil intends in his memoir. Of Cecil’s 104 pages, I was most excited to write about his ‘Life in the Forces.’ Cecil offers a different side to the public narrative of the First World War that I feel everyone should be exposed to, documenting his experiences of intense training, comradeship and recovery. It has been my honour to make this important part of our history more accessible to the public. I am particularly proud of my posts on War and Memory, and hope Cecil would be too, as I endeavoured to faithfully commemorate his bravery and loyal friendship.
The collaborative research of Writing Lives students past and present has furthered my understanding of 20th century working class culture. Whilst Cecil does not encounter severe hardships with poverty or unemployment, David Hogg’s work on John Gibson (1887-1980) and Beth Ralph’s work on Frank Goss (b. 1896) has informed my writing. Contextualising Cecil’s experiences amidst the less-fortunate reality for many, enabled me to deliver a fuller picture of the 20th century working-class.
Fortunately, Cecil was easy to find both on the 1911 Census records, and on Ancestry.co.uk. My research on Ancestry uncovered the date of Cecil’s passing, on the 28th March 1983. I was thrilled to make contact with Cecil’s son, Brian Harwood, who provided me with an image of his father. Having developed a strong affinity to Cecil’s life experiences, I was delighted to put a face to his writing! Brian was pleased to hear about the project and informed me that the original memoir is currently in the possession of Cecil’s first son, Douglas Harwood, now aged 90!
For me, the Writing Lives module has had numerous educational benefits. It was great to have Cecil’s original typescript as a foundation for my research. Through this archival research, I have gained a transferrable skill that I will now be able to apply to a variety of workplace situations. At first, I was nervous about the online nature of our assignments, having only previously encountered WordPress on a very basic level. Over the course of this semester, I have learnt how to produce interactive and colourful posts, linked to the images and online sources that have supported my research. I have thoroughly enjoyed adapting my writing to a tone that is formal and concise, yet engaging and appropriate for the Writing Lives website.
The Writing Lives project has a large following on Twitter and the thought of uploading my work to be read by this following, many of whom are historians and academics, was daunting to say the least! But getting involved on social media has been an enriching element of the collaborative project. Sharing and responding to the work of my peers, getting feedback for my own writing and seeing the project’s growing recognition has made me so proud of the friends that I have made through this module, and to be a student at Liverpool John Moores. Participating in the Writing Lives project has been a truly unique experience and the perfect way to conclude my undergraduate English degree.
309 HARWOOD, Cecil George, ‘Down Memory Lane’, TS, pp.104 (c.65,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987), 335-363
Harwood, Cecil. ‘Down Memory Lane.’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. University of Brunel Library. Special Collections. 1:309. http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10964
Courtesy of the Harwood and the Woodward families on Ancestry.co.uk.