‘I can give you the official way my father met his death, but you would have to accept my word for what I discovered was rumoured and believed about the whole affair’ (Harris, 04/05/78
Family life for HJ began on 4th April 1903 in Birmingham. He was the youngest of 5 children to his mother Rose Charlotte and father Frank Alfred. There does seem to be some mystery shrouding his father’s death in 1906, but as yet I haven’t found any other information apart from what HJ tells us. It very clearly affects HJ though,
‘You know, even now I have pangs of anguish and depression when I give thought to the story’ (Harris, 04/05/78)
HJ decided to change his name to Harris because his family name was associated with a lot of negativity so I was finding it quite challenging to find any evidence to corroborate his memoirs. I contacted Müllers orphanage to enquire if they had any records for a HJ Harris. I gave them his sibling’s names also because that was the only information I had. So you can imagine my delight when they told me his family name, the one he changed from and that they also had original documents pertaining to his time at the orphanage. Due to ethical reasons and to protect HJ’s family I will be blacking out his name on the documents that I share.
Rose was unable to cope with the children so one by one they were placed in the orphanage. When HJ researched his childhood he discovered that his mother took his siblings out of the orphanage. What goes through my mind is why not HJ? I am sure HJ had the same thought, especially after he finds out that his siblings had gone back to live with their mother at her request. HJ does not know about his mum, indeed his letters mention her but only fleetingly and what he does know about her he is told by Mr McWhirk his school master.
‘My class master Mr McWhirk stayed and talked with my mother far more than I could do so’ [and the opinion he] formed of my mother must have been very very bad indeed, as often afterwards he would say my mother was a very bad woman, who has brought the family to what it is (Harris, 03/05/78)
When he left the orphanage he did not know whether his mother was alive, because the last time he remembers seeing her was in 1910 when she visited him at the orphanage (Harris 03/05/78).
‘She came to see me. We were only allowed “friends” to visit on the 1st Monday of the month. I was 7 years of age’ (Harris, 03/05/78)
Visiting was strict at Müller’s probably because they followed a strict regime and an unprepared visitor would have interfered with the system.
His mother’s behaviour did not conform to the societal norms of the time and therefore she was stigmatised because she failed to take of her family. Working classes supposed to emulate middle class values.-making the family respectable. Married women were supposed to spend their time at home as a mother and a home maker. Although the orphanage is not a workhouse it still is stigmatised. By failing to care for her family a shadow was cast over her and the family.
Before writing his memoirs, it is obvious that HJ wanted to learn more about his family. He tracked down his mother’s brother, Uncle George Hill, who was a retired policeman but unfortunately that meeting proved unsuccessful,
‘I shouldn’t have bothered as we[when] I did see him he said “You’ve got yourself in trouble, get yourself out of it!’ (Harris 003/05/78)
HJ was discharged from the orphanage in 1917, into the care of his sister,
‘Now I had never seen my sisters nor they, me. So the arrangement was for me to travel to Birmingham and as an identifying mark I was to wear a white handkerchief in my coat pocket with it half hanging out and also have a bible in my hand, standing by my trun’. (Harris, 03/05/78)
‘Are you Bert, have you come from Bristol?’ (Harris 03/05/78)
After being discharged from the orphanage, HJ had a failed attempt at lodging with his sister’s friend. He found himself homeless on the streets of Birmingham until a policemen took him in. After hearing of HJ’s life and reading his birth certificate the policeman ‘turned to me [him] me and said he knew all about my case. What and how my father died’ (Harris, 03/05/78), and it is here that he learns about his family’s tragic past,
‘It seems that I was the natural product of such a family! I do not use the family name now, but the case was still being talked about some 14 years after (Harris 03/05/78)
It is easy to empathise with HJ’s predicament. HJ had known no family throughout his life and therefore lacked love and nurture. The Müller’s did a great job in housing him and educating him, but he himself feels that he wasn’t fully equipped for the outside world,
‘It was an institution closed down to the outside world. So when the time came for me to leave, I was thrown out into a strange world of which I knew nothing at all. Something like a Tarzan’. (Harris, 18/04/78)
His time as a tramp and when he was living in institutions is the only time HJ felt a part of something. He writes of his shared experiences he has with other tramps and the fact that they can identify with each other. In fact I think one of them is almost like a father figure to him
‘I was vulnerable as a baby, and was grateful for such favours he showered me with’ (Harris 03/05/78)
According to David Cannidine social class as a construct takes place inside the head and in our environment. As a child of a poor person, HJ was admitted to an orphanage and although he was educated to a high standard his being labelled as ‘unsociable’ because he was a bed-wetter has had a huge influence in his life. His social class has been defined by his experiences and therefore his negative sense of himself has influenced the decisions he has made in life.
The key milestones in his life have affected him to the extent where he feels that he does not have a place in society, from the minute he was discharged from the orphanage,
Bewildered and bemused in a very quaint way. I was terribly frightened and uncertain that I had a mental breakdown which even to-day still effects me (Harris 18/04/78)
Burnett, J. Mayall. D. Vincent, D eds. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated Critical Biography 3 vols. Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989.
Cannadine, David Class in Britain. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1998. [Excellent resource-overview of class in 19th/20th Century]
Harris, H.J. Autobiographical letters 197801984, TS, pp.13 (c5,000 words). Brunel University Library
Stanley, Liz edited by Documents of Life Revisited Narrative and Biological Methodology for a 21st Century Critical Humanism. Claire Lynch Chapter Critical Humanist Thoughts on the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography: ‘Nobody wages war with Dostoevsky or Dickens’ Ashgate may 2013