Guy Oates (1905-1987): Researching Writing Lives

Whoever may read the following, try and place yourself in the position of the writer, the youngest but one of a family of ten’

(Oates, 1:58).

As my contribution to the Writing Lives module comes to an end, I began to reflect on the project as a whole. The undertaking of creating a series of blog posts about, Guy Oates, a man who was able to experience Poor Law Institutions was an enthralling experience, but not only that, his memoir also had the ability to captivate Sarah Pass and me just through learning about his day to day tasks. By telling his journey of being a truanting child, to encountering the hardships of boarding schools Guy had allowed for me to gain a better understanding of why and how different parts of his childhood affected some of his decisions in adulthood and his professional life. It allowed me to explore his thoughts and feelings when he was going through each event in his life. Alongside this, with the additional research done on different aspects of his working life, I was able to gain a new perspective of what it was like to be working in Workhouses in the 1920s up to the 1940s. The numerous Institutions mentioned by Guy where a huge part of his working life until rules began to change within the workplaces (because of the NHS) and so Guy and his wife, Doris, decided to move onto a Children’s Home (which was as equally as enjoyable to learn about). When reading the first volume of Guy’s memoir Sarah and I were instantly hooked and could not wait to get our hands on the other seven volumes, it was clear from the start that this was going to be a really interesting memoir to work on. It was like a book that you simply cannot put down and then suddenly it’s 5:30 am, and you have to get up in 2 hrs, but it was worth it to know the ending.

By doing this project I was able to learn about a unique insight into what it was like to be from a working-class background living through World War Two in the Poor Law Institutions. By telling Guy’s story in the form of this collaborative set of entries written by Sarah and me, we have been able to contribute to public history through the retelling of Guy’s memoir. By using it as the basis of the work and with my own research I was able to hone in on the geographical, political, and cultural events that are mentioned in the memoir. Not only was I able to collaborate with Sarah, but I was able to work with the rest of the Writing Lives students also. This aspect of the assignment allowed for me to gain a broader understanding of the period, by allowing me to learn about the various aspects faced by individual authors through my fellow student’s blog posts. By having this vast amount of comparative material to read it showed me just how useful it is to get these memoirs out in the world for everyone to enjoy.

This form of literature can be helpful to us when it comes to understanding British history. Guy gives an insight into the Poor Law Institutions different from most perspectives as they are typically provided by the inmates in the Institutions or officials who created reports on the Workhouses. By writing about these authors, we have all been given the opportunity to share the viewpoint of some of the people who helped to contribute to the world we live in today. They helped to shape our society, and without these accounts of our history, we would not be able to appreciate our past. Hard facts told through textbooks do not give these types of experiences, so having these author’s writing to read can make it easier to grasp events in history. Each blog written by Sarah and I enabled us to bring the wonderful life of Guy Oates into the world; I hope that our work has done him justice and that the readers of the posts are able to feel the same enjoyment that we were able to experience when writing each entry.

The digital aspect of this project, through the use of social media, ancestry and different scholarly sources, helped us to gather all kinds of information about the Oates family, and the various locations mentioned in Guy’s memoir. We were also able to gain a broader knowledge of the historical events witnessed by Guy throughout his life. By using Twitter, we were able to make each entry easily accessible to the public and were able to attract people to the tweets by using hashtags and communicating with various accounts that might have taken an interest in our blogs if they were from certain areas mentioned by Guy, i.e. Knaresborough or were interested in learning about working-class people in Poor Law Institutions. We also were able to use secondary research such as various articles (found through John Moores’ Discover tool) and historical websites (like the Workhouse.org), to further our reading and implement these online sources into the blogs themselves. Sarah and I were also able to create a family tree and were able to access numerous records, such as birth, marriage and death certificates for different members of the Oates family. Many students were able to find descendants of their authors through social media, and although myself and Sarah were not so lucky, we worked hard when creating the family tree and hope that one day we will be able to find a relative of Guy Oates. We would love to share the photos found throughout the eight volumes, although we did put a lot of pictures up already there were a couple that we did not so we’d love to give the photographs to them, and we’d also hope they’d enjoy our posts.

Ancestry: Family tree

Through a module called Digital Victorians, a similar marking criterion is followed to Writing Lives module; we had to create blog posts around the theme of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. This module was taken in my first year of University, so I was initially a little rusty, (now being in my third year), getting back into the blogging style of writing took a few redrafts as I had become used to the traditional essay format used by the majority of my other modules. I do feel that I had gained some valuable blogging skills in my Dickens project, and so once I was in my blogger mindset I was feeling confident and was ready to create some engaging posts. However, this does not mean that the project was without struggle, the descriptive details that Guy gives about each volume is immense, although beneficial; sometimes it became overwhelming when trying to select what parts would be the most relevant parts to write about, (because it was all just made fascinating by Guy!). Even the most basics of tasks taken on by Guy could be turned into huge pieces of sections in the blog. At times when you thought you could move on from a point, as he would have moved onto another topic, he would then circle back around to it. This made it challenging as it was hard to pick the best points because it all seemed useful. We were only rarely able to scratch the surface in the likes of volumes 6 and 7 (Cambridge and Nottingham) because there was just so much information and we had run out of both words, posts and time.

The interactions that were shared between fellow students is quite different from traditional modules, by reading each other’s work and having discussions on Twitter you were able to connect with people on the course you might not have even talked to prior to the project. As Twitter is a public platform everyone’s posts were able to reach all kinds of people outside of the module too. When tweets got likes, retweets and comments on them, I began to feel a sense of pride towards my work. This made me want to improve the quality of my entries as I went on and I also tried to make my interactions Twitter more consistent. One of the exciting parts of this collaborative assignment is that although we were all working together, Guy’s memoir had never been written about before. This is quite unlike my other modules which tend to have set texts that each student has to choose from and then write an essay about them for an assignment. However, not only would you be writing on authors you other peers were writing about, but many people have also analysed the texts over the years. But this is not the case on the Writing Lives module; this digital format creates a really exciting and different way to grade the creative minds of each student. Sometimes you can feel restricted when writing an essay as you do have to follow a specific criterion, keeping it quite formal. But for this project, you are able to express your author freely. It does need to have some sort of structure and be formal to an extent, but you can also write witty remarks to elevate your author and keep it interesting and sometimes even humorous.

The Writing Lives module has sparked the love I once experienced in Digital Victorians over writing blogs, and so I will be taking these new skills I have learned, and hopefully, be applying them to future projects. I have not only gained a higher appreciation for working-class memoir, but I have also learnt the importance of sharing these memoirs with the rest of the world. Although I did thank Guy in my last entry, I would like to do it again, and to Sarah Pass also, for working on this project was thoroughly enjoyable. I never imagined that I would form a bond like this one, for a man that I have never met, I feel a great fondness towards him. Guy Oates, although he did not see it, was a true gentleman and it was an honour to share his story alongside you, Sarah. Despite apologising for his writing style, spelling and grammar, Guy is able to successfully tell his story through a mixture of both personal and professional techniques of autobiographical writing, by doing this he is able to tell his story how he wants to rather than following conventional memoirs. He does not limit himself, and I respect that a lot as it is such an amazing read. Once again, thank you, Guy Oates, for writing such a marvellous memoir and Sarah, thank you for working with me to tell Guy’s story.

The Oates Family (2:73).

If you have enjoyed reading about Guy’s life, you may like to explore the full collection of Guy Oates Posts.

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