Researching Writing Lives, James Ashley (b.1833)

Throughout this semester I have found the writing lives project my most enjoyable module by far. I have to admit at the start of the semester, when we were being briefed on what the project involved us doing, I was a little bit daunted by it all. This was primarily due the amount of little things I had to remember within the writing lives website when uploading blogs, such as the use of tags, setting a featured image, using the correct category and making sure I remembered to re-order all of my work every time I uploaded a new blog post. In order to make sure I didn’t forget all these little pieces of information, I wrote them down during one of the first seminars we had. However after I had successfully uploaded a couple of my blog posts onto the writing lives website, it became almost like a second nature to me and I had no problem uploading future blog posts on a regular basis. Once I had a clear understanding of how to upload my blogs correctly, the project became an enjoyable aspect of my first semester. The author I chose to look at was called James Ashley, who was born in Wrexham in the year 1833. I chose to look at this specific memoir, as it contained a lot of information regarding his life, including useful topics to discuss such as his occupation and his family.

By creating an author blog on James Ashley I have been able to find out so much information in terms of life living in London during the 19th century. Subjects such as home and family and life and labour allowed me to look into scholarly work detailing these issues, which proved to be very interesting reads and allowed me to gain more of an insight into them.  For example whilst writing my life and labour post, I read into parts of a book titled London in the age of Industrialization: Labour Force and Living conditions, 1700-1850 by L.D. Schwarz. Through looking into this scholar I was able to find out that London during the year 1851, was the largest manufacturing city in Europe.  Information such as this proved very useful to me as it was in direct relevance to my author James Ashley.

I have learnt many things during the research of my author’s life and writing, particularly about class. Class was a factor which ultimately defined who you were within 19th century London, it affected all aspects of your life, such as what job you had and what leisure pursuits you followed, which in turn had a knock on effect to yourself and your family. Besides this class also had a political effect upon your identity, as it was not until the reform act of 1867 that the working class were given the right to vote and even then it was only the minority. However what I found most remarkable about my author was that he seemed to break the stereotype placed above him as a working class man. James Ashley worked his way up within his occupation to a position of high esteem, earning a modest living for a man deriving from a working class family. At the height of his success he was earning £166 a week. As well as this James also separated himself from stereotypical conventions associated with the working class, a prime example of this was James’s decision to abstain. It was finding out small things such as this which I found the most enjoyable part of the project, as I was able to expand on them helping me form ideas as to why James lived the life he did.

By writing my author blogs I hope to have contributed to public history. For each of my blog posts I wanted to write a little about the history of the subject, and then relate it back to my author and their memoir. For example within my school and education post, I talk about national schools, as it was a national school James Ashley attended when he was an adolescent. I mention briefly whose idea it was to build them, why they were built and the sort of curriculum they introduced. I followed this particular type of structure within all my blog posts, as I felt that it would be better for the reader to gain a small sense of knowledge about the subject before talking about the relevance of it within my memoir.

As well as learning a lot about my author’s life during this project, I have also learnt a lot about being a researcher and how blogging has made me more aware of my writing. Besides participating in the prison voices module last year, which was also run by Helen Rogers, I had had no previous experience of blogging or about being a researcher, so I was fairly new to the whole concept. However with help from regular sessions by Helen, I was able to conduct my research in a way where it would leave me enough time to complete my next blog post. To be able to write blogs at the best of my ability, I felt the research was vital. I aimed to carry out research on the specific subject at the start of every week, this would usually take me one or two days depending on the material I found. By doing this it allowed me enough time to complete my blog post and upload it onto the website by the end of the week. It also allowed me enough time to share it on social media sites such as twitter and conduct my weekly weblog, in which I wrote down what I had completed that week and what I will be aiming to complete for the following week. I structured my time out this way, in order to allow me an equal amount of time to write each blog post.

In terms of how blogging made me more aware of my writing, I definitely feel it helped me. During the project Helen spoke to me of my writing style and how it didn’t need to be over-elaborated. As I am used to writing essays within other modules where perhaps elevated lexis may look good and reward marks. However about half way through the project Helen spoke to me about this, suggesting that whilst writing a blog needs to be formative, it doesn’t need to be elevated in such a way.  This was important as writing for a public audience needs to be both simple and informative. After I spoke to Helen about this, I went through all my previous blog posts, read through them and tried to tone them down by taking out the big words and long sentences, replacing them with simpler words and shorter sentences, in the hope that it would read better for a public audience and make all my blog pots more accessible.

In terms of social media, I have learnt the importance of it in terms of research. I feel it is a great way to help gain knowledge and share ideas about blogging. A prime example of this was when I wrote my education and schooling post, I was told by Helen of another researcher name Laura Mair from the University of Edinburgh who writes blogs on the ragged school movement during the years 1844 to 1870. As I wanted to include a section in my blog post about James Ashley’s participation as a part time ragged school teacher, I looked into some of her previous work about ragged schools and found it very useful. It helped me gain more knowledge about what constituted a ragged school teacher and gave me ideas about what to write in terms of my own author, in relation to his experience within a ragged school. Once this blog post was complete, I tweeted about it to her. Thankfully she then re-tweeted it for me to her followers, sharing my work to a wider audience.

I have taken away a vast amount of knowledge and experience from being part of the writing lives project and I am very thankful to everyone involved who helped me during the semester, especially my Lecturer Helen Rogers. I feel this type of work is extremely important, as often people tend to neglect the history of our society. The blogging style of which this project was completed I believe is a style which I now feel very comfortable using and would certainly continue to use this to conduct further research and work in the future.



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