Wilfred Middlebrook (b.1899): Researching Writing Lives

Wow, I cannot believe my ‘Writing Lives’ journey has come to an end. This has been such a lovely experience from start to finish, and I cannot express how much joy I have felt reading Wilfred Middlebrook’s memoir. I have been fascinated by the life he led and, through reading his work, I have been taught some valuable lessons about life.

Before we delve into that though, let’s rewind. Around three to four months ago, I was presented with Burnett, Vincent and Mayall’s annotated bibliography of working-class autobiographies. From this, I was given the task to choose one author from the vast list of names– stressed was the understatement of the year! After flicking through name after name, I stumbled across Wilfred. Originally, I mistook his name for Winifred and spent weeks having to correct myself, in both speech and written work. His work as a chocolate boy at a local theatre, and his northern heritage initially piqued my interest (as I stem from a northern, working-class background too).

Some of the memoirs in the collection were over 100 pages, and Wilfred’s was no exception. I was completely overwhelmed at the thought of reading so many words, and immediately panicked over whether my brain would be able to retain all that information. But, I was so wrong. As soon as I started reading Wilfred’s memoir, he dictated everything so eloquently, breaking his entire memoir into mini chapters that discussed each aspect of his life–from work to family life. His memories came to life and I felt as though I was sitting in the same room with him, whilst he chatted to me about his life.

Wilfred’s 126,000 word memoir was filled with his hobbies; his home life; his experiences at the cotton mills and even featured discussions about both WWI and WWII. Wilfred’s memoir was split into two parts–the first detailing his life as both a child and then an adolescent, and the second detailing his life as an adult–beginning in his late thirties. Wilfred provided in-depth description of all the events and activities in his life (especially trips he took with his family, to Blackpool for instance) and I really felt as though I was with him every step of the way. The simplicity of his writing made it much easier for me to digest his story, and helped me during the reading process. This made me have a much deeper connection with Wilfred, from the off-set, because I could understand everything he said, through his narrative voice, and in turn, this made it much easier to remember points and recount them in my writing.

My journey as a researcher has been difficult, at times. Attempting to find relevant secondary sources can prove to be quite the challenge, and it can be ever so tiring and disheartening when you can’t find the right source or information you need to fit into your work and tie everything together. However, one thing I am truly grateful for in terms of research, was my ability to retrieve photographs of Wilfred. After numerous online searches, I found a website dedicated to the social history and background of those with the surname Middlebrook. From this website, I learned of Wilfred’s father, grandfather and was able to find his own children, and grandchildren. With this new-found information, I tackled social media. After only a few attempts, I located Wilfred’s grandson and reached out to him. Here, I learned so much more of Wilfred’s character and demeanour, even uncovering his purposes behind creating a memoir. Wilfred’s grandson was kind enough to share numerous photographs of Wilfred–as both a small child and even in his retirement years. It was such a surreal moment to be able to put a face to the words, and I must admit, that it even made me tear up slightly. What I have loved about being a researcher is realising how much information is out there for you to use and explore, if you look for it. Furthermore, being a researcher really instilled back my trust in humanity, and the act of sheer kindness. Wilfred’s grandson was so courteous towards me, and expressed deep gratitude and happiness over Wilfred’s memoir being used for social history. In turn, this taught me that people are truly willing to help you out–stranger, or not.

From other modules on my degree, I already had a sense of blogging and had gained some experience from it. Although, it was quite difficult, and strange, to switch off from an academic style of writing to fit the informal tone of blogging, I quickly adjusted and began to really enjoy myself. Prior to the ‘Writing Lives’ module, I had embarked on the ‘Prison Voices’ module, a year before. I thoroughly enjoyed the ‘Prison Voices’ module, and was more than excited to start the ‘Writing Lives’ as it was a similar layout, and set-up. Due to this, I was already experienced with WordPress and so, I was able to write, edit and publish my work without too much trouble. The only trouble I did run into was putting a feature picture on to all my blogs. But once I reached out to a fellow friend of mine of the course, I quickly solved that issue and was able to complete my blogs to a higher standard.

Who would have thought I’d ever made a Twitter account? Low and behold, I made one specially for the Writing Lives module. I only used Twitter (@CarlyC_WL), as my social media platform to interact with fellow classmates/researchers; to share my blogs; to source relevant information, as well as images and videos that were relative to my author– for example, videos on Lancashire cotton mills and factories where Wilfred worked for majority of his life. Something that I was not expecting during my time on Twitter was the reception from other online users, and the recognition credited to the work published by the Writing Lives website. Many were genuinely impressed and fascinated with the work produced by both me and my fellow classmates. In a sense, I felt very honoured and this acted as a driving force for me to produce the best work I could, and pour all my effort into. It was a wonderful experience to see how connected people were, and was most definitely a positive space that I felt completely comfortable and un-judged in. I happily shared both mine and my classmates’ work with pride.

I have gained invaluable skills from this module–in research and writing–, but reflecting back on my original point at the beginning of this post, I have gained a whole new perspective and outlook. Throughout Wilfred’s memoir, he looks at life through a lens without hate, without anger and without regret. He marvels at the beauty of the world, and through this, he has taught me how precious the small things in life are. Whether that be our family or our jobs, we have to appreciate what we have and be thankful that we’re here right now–living. Like Wilfred, I come from a large family who has quite close-knit relationships with one another and taking the time to cherish this, is so important. Family is key to Wilfred and this demonstrates to me, that whether it be biological family or not, we must cherish our loved ones because life isn’t forever, and we only get one shot at it. So, we might as well give it all we’ve got, love with all we’ve got and leave this world with no regrets.

This project has left me with the thought of what I would include if I were to be asked to write an autobiography. However, you’re best leaving me with that one for a while.

Participating in the Writing Lives project has been a an absolute pleasure, and one I most certainly will not forget. It has been by far my most favourite module since starting university, and has been the most rewarding too. So now, my journey on this project has come to an end, but Wilfred Middlebrook and his story will never leave me.

Bibliography

Middlebrook, Wilfred. ‘Trumpet Voluntary’, Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:0527

‘Wilfred Middlebrook’ 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): 2:0527

Images

[1] Photo by Aaron Burden. Accessed 05.05.21. Available here: https://medium.com/the-brave-writer/brandon-sandersons-best-advice-for-writers-9ab50d8e5d84

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