William Wright’s memoir begins with: ‘I was born in Alton on August 12 1846.’ (8) As of 2019, Alton is a market town, meaning it would have likely been a small place to live for William. It is located in Hampshire in the south of England. I feel as though including where he was born in the first sentence also shows a sense of pride for Alton, a pride we will see throughout his memoir.
William refers to his family as his father’s family: ‘My father had a large family. There were seven girls and three boys.’ (8). Perhaps focusing on his siblings being his father’s ‘large family’ touches on how influential William’s father was on his life. William’s father is the focus of his discussion of family in the first half of his memoir. He has a sister, whom he does not properly reference until page 16: ‘My sister, it appears, had put on my boots’. It shows how at the beginning of this memoir William does not focus on family as much as home.
William’s attention to his town even extends to its proxemics. He talks about distances to other towns: ‘I well remember, not long after, one winter morning the roads were so slippery that the horse could not stand, so we had to walk to Bradley, which is eight miles, with my father.’ (11) This shows the distances they had to travel, which I assume would be a similar case for many other chimney sweeps. It is a similar case for other types of labourers, for both children and adults: ‘Public gangers (gangs of labourers hired out) were under greater stress because of the long distances they had to travel to different farms in the season’ (Rose, 2002, 31).
William’s work changed how he would perceive Alton: ‘I well remember the Paper Mills’ flues at Alton.’ (13) Memories of his home are affected by the chimneys he swept. As my Introduction mentions, William’s father was the reason for his career as a chimney sweep. William eventually parts ways with his dad’s career: ‘I helped my father until I was fourteen years old’ (16). This is a moment of independence for William. He would go on to focus on himself, rather than his family, which would make for a more frightening time.
He does not bluntly state how he undertook the journey, but William does say he ‘started for Portsmouth. The road was long and hard and with a sore back and all alone…’ I assume he meant he walked it, giving the physical descriptions of the pain and length of the journey. He continues with ‘…I felt like a lost sheep as I sat down about three miles the other side of Petersfield’. (17) The journey between Alton and Petersfield is just over thirteen miles. With the added three miles, we are looking at over sixteen miles of a fourteen year old walking by himself. This is a desperate attempt to get away from the place he has been describing so passionately.
William does not state how long away he spent from Alton, but he does claim he returns for his ‘father was taken ill’ (21). This shows how, despite their quarrels, William still loves and cares for his father. Soon he talks about his wife-to-be, describing her as ‘the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.’ (21). While also describing their interaction: ‘She told me that she had heard that I was home and asked me if I was going to stay’ (21). As this is the first time William has talked about a girl romantically, he is clearly setting up for a huge moment in his life.
The woman he was romantically interested in soon becomes his wife: ‘So we courted until January 31, 1868, when I made Ellen my wife’. (22). They would have married when William was 21. This is a normal age to marry, as several decades earlier the royal family married at similar ages: ‘Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. They were married on February 10, 1840, when both were only 20’ (Phegley, 3, 2011).
Once married, William’s life becomes more focused on building his own family and furthering his own career: ‘We both lived very happily together at my father’s house, for I looked after his work, until there came a time when my dear wife was to become a mother.’ (22) This will be talked about in ‘Home and Family – Part 2’.
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.
Phegley, Jennifer. Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England. Praeger, 2012.
Rose, Lionel. The Erosion of Childhood Child Oppression in Britain, 1860-1918. Routledge, 1991.
Inside a chimney flue, via:
Alton and Alton to Petersfield, via: