Harold Gill (1919-2003): Habits and Beliefs

Like many children growing up in the early twentieth century, Harold’s childhood was dominated by the church and religion. He writes in his memoir: ‘It was between the age of 9 and 10 that I became an altar-boy, but from the age of 7 which the catechism states is the age of reason, I attended early morning Mass at 7.30 a.m’ (Pg.5). Such was Harold’s dedication to the church, he often collapsed as a result of religious fasting: ‘It was during this period that I was subject to repeated fainting fits always in church’ (Pg.5). Harold also notes that his childhood village of Wesham was a particularly religious one, despite the churches being outnumbered by pubs: ‘Why the predominance of pubs to churches I cannot explain, the population, from my observation, were more prone to prayer than to imbibing’ (Pg.2).

1920s Church


Kite-Flying in the 1900s

Harold recalls playing with his siblings as a child. His large family meant Harold was never short of companionship. He writes in his memoir: ‘My brother Fred and I decided to take the kite and fly it on the ‘rec’, but no matter how we weighted it or shortened the tail, it declined to stay in the air. The following day, Saturday, I invited my youngest brother, Bill, to help me get the kite airborne’ (Pg.7). Harold also remembers taking trips to the local farm as a child, to collect food for his family: ‘The cheaper food commodities, such as potatoes and bread as ‘filling’ agents were the essentials to large families, and I recall frequent trips to a farm owned by P.D. “Josh” Hall, of Weeton pushing a home made truck in company of my brother Vin to collect a hundredweight or 56lbs (dependent of the family finances) of ‘kerr spinks or King Edwards’ (Pg.3). Harold muses on these habits as recreational activities. These trips were essential for his family’s survival but taken with pleasure and remembered fondly. This reflects Harold’s working class identity.

Leisure is a marker of class, which Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘social distinction’. Andy Croll suggests that ‘Drinking in pubs, playing in brass bands, singing in choral societies, betting ‘on the dogs’, pigeon fancying, all were instances of popular cultural practices that could be understood as being inscribed with class meanings’.

Harold, when serving in World War Two, was stripped of an opportunity to enjoy these working class habits and him imprisonment in the Japanese camps almost destroyed his spirit: ‘I was in a deep black void, a morass, – where the motivating powers of my feet were ineffecting; try as I might I could not lift myself out of the ground or take a step forward. My mind was screaming at my body to try harder, – that it was extremely urgent that I move – that catastrophe, sure and impending waited on my immobility’ (Pg.52). Harold’s habits during these three years were focused entirely on survival.

However, the religious tendencies in Harold’s childhood resurfaced during his years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He wrote short poems during this time, often alluding to God and religion, which seem to have given him hope:

“I thank the God who moulded me for the green kingdom of my youth.

And so to you no longer young

Please take the leaf’s lesson to heart

And mourn not for your long lost youth

But thank God from the heart

For childhood beauty youth and love

And others of life’s sweet stages

And what is left to you in age

Memories of a life well led, recorded on Eternal Pages”

Extract from Harold’s Memoir, Page 49.

Works Cited:

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Harvard University Press, 2007.

Croll, Andy. ‘Popular Leisure and Sport’ in Chris Williams (ed) A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984).

Gill, Harold, Untitled, TS, pp.66 (c. 31,000 words). Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. Brunel University Library, July 1987, 2:316

Images Cited:

Image of ‘1920s Church’. Accessed on 23/04/19.
http://saintjosephsdurham.org/who-we-are/history/

Image of ‘Kite-Flying in the 1900s’. Accessed on 23/04/19.
https://flashbak.com/the-men-who-flew-in-kites-1900-1924-54746/

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