William Wright (b.1846): Class Matters – Part 2

In the first half, William’s memoir focuses heavily on working, and being seemingly stuck in the working class. However, William was clever about it. He was aware of the difficulties and what it would take to earn more money, to change his class status: ‘when I had no chimney sweeping I went into the country grinding and also mending umbrellas’ (24). We see how William has a strong work ethic, while there is still a determination to try different careers – most likely as a way to break from his current class bracket.

This continues when he opens a small shop: ‘I took a house in High Street, next to the ‘White Horse’, put a shop window in, stocked it and did well with the help of my dear wife’ (25). This is only the start, since he soon meets Mrs Jenkins, ‘”William,” she said, “I can trust you, and what you earn over will give you a start in life”‘ (26). She claims with her help that William can have ‘a start in life’. We even see the excitement in William’s narrative voice, as he describes the sale he made on Mrs Jenkins’ behalf, ‘They asked how much I had on hand, and when I said sixty tons, Mr Turvell said that he would have forty tons and Mr Aylwin agreed to take twenty!’ (26). This is clearly a big moment for him. Mrs Jenkins seems to be the stepping stone for William to do a different line of work, therefore putting his status above being just a chimney sweep – at least in terms of other people’s attitudes for his time.

A Victorian shop. Via The Daily Mail.

Mrs Jenkins also starts William off in a new type of business – soot dealing: ‘I started soot dealing; and she gave me her chimney-sweeping business as she got too old to keep it on’ (27). It is ironic how the business that William was given was related to the career he could not, originally, escape from. This is not the end of Mrs Jenkins entrusting William with more of her businesses, since ‘In her Will she left (William) the large store; that was in 1888’ (27-8). This store seemed to be a success, too. Since William goes onto say: ‘I did my duty to my late employer for five years an she paid me well in return – God bless her’ (28). He is clearly thankful to Mrs Jenkins, saying ‘God bless her’.

However, by chapter four, William is still struggling for money: ‘I told him I should have to work until I had enough money (to put up two cottages)’ (33). This shows how Mrs Jenkins help was not enough to change William’s life. He is still struggling to break out of his class position. However, there seems to be an expectation in the community that William does have the money to fund builds. Perhaps this is because of how well he did running Mrs Jenkins’ businesses. In terms of owning land, and being able to invest in future builds, The Speculative Builders and Developers of Victorian London says: ‘the savings which formed the capital for estate development were made principally by the middle classes’ (Dyos, 644). It is debatable whether William can be classed as middle class at this point, since the community assumed he could invest in more builds. A few pages later, however, and William seemed to confirm that he no longer belonged to the working class bracket.

Victorian era cottage. Found here.

As said in my Life and Labour post, William once owned the equivalent of around £716,645.16 (according to the Bank of England), ‘All this (property) was worth about £6,000’ (36). In regards to his own work, William only talks about buying, buildings and selling properties. Here we see how William breaks out of his class bubble. It is now difficult to class him as working-class, due to his property’s worth.

Except he had money issues, and this property was now held by a solicitor. William still reassures us, however, ‘by hard work I soon pulled round again’ (37). He remains humble, even if he made a name for himself over the years. William acknowledges both his successes and his failures, eventually saying: ‘One thing that was not taken from me and that was my good health, for which I thank God’ (37). After William reveals how he built and traded property, I find it peculiar that he names this chapter ‘I become a builder’ (33). This is the chapter after his start in dealing and handling businesses, but William seems to take pride in learning how to become a builder rather than highlighting losing money and property, but still managing to make decent wage.

Perhaps William does not care about class, as he never mentions what class bracket he did, or felt he, belonged to. When talking about the working class resting ‘like a nightmare on the brains of the people’ (1), John Kirk goes on to say ‘This may be one good reason why invoking the idea of class invariably provokes its contrary – the notion of classlessness, or the end of class’ (1). I believe, however, that William purposely avoided a blunt statement of his class because his life goes through many shifts. We know as a chimney sweep he is working-class and as a councillor he is middle-class, but in between all that is blurred. We will explore his career as a councillor is Politics and Protest.

Bibliography:

Wright, William. ‘From chimney-boy to councillor – The Story of my Life’. See John Burnett, David Vincent, David Mayall. The Autobiography of the working class; an annotated critical bibliography. Vol. 1 1790-1900. 1st Pub. 1984. Item: 777.

Secondary:

Dyos, H. J. “The Speculative Builders and Developers of Victorian London.” Victorian Studies, vol. 11, 1968, pp. 641–690.

Kirk, John. Class, Culture and Social Change: On the Trail of the Working Class. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Images used:

Victorian era cottage, via ShutterStock.
A Victorian Shop, via The Daily Mail.

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