Wally Ward : Life and Labour

Wally Ward, b.1914, detailed his experiences growing up in a poverty stricken household in his memoir, ‘Fit For Anything’. Ward’s family consisted of himself, his elder brother and sister, his father; a drunken, sometimes violent factory worker, and his mother; an often-praised hardworking housewife. The family gained little money from his father’s factory job, and although his father often busked and undertook other minor jobs to earn income, the fruits of this labour rarely reached the family. Wally wrote that “as soon as [his father and friends] had made a few shillings, they went on the beer. So poor Mum and us children seldom got anything out of it.” (2)

In order to keep the family above ground, Wally’s mother worked hard in paid domestic labour, undertaking sewing and ironing for other families. Wally’s elder sister Dorothy was sent out to work as a maid, whereas his elder brother Arnold took an apprenticeship at Petters factory to work with their father while Wally was still a child. At fourteen years of age, after sacrificing a high school scholarship due to financial issues, Wally also took an apprenticeship at the same factory. Throughout Wally’s life, he consistently took factory jobs and eventually earned a good career within engineering paying a decent wage.

Photograph of Yeovil high-street dated to about 1914. Petter’s ironmongery is visible on the left, with the Petter’s shop on the right. Available at: http://www.yeovilhistory.info/petters%20ltd.htm
Photograph of Yeovil high-street dated to about 1914. Petter’s ironmongery is visible on the left, with the Petter’s shop on the right.
Available at: http://www.yeovilhistory.info/petters%20ltd.htm

Thus, Wally was introduced to his working-class status at an early age and consistently sacrificed his time and opportunities because of it. However, his memoir shows a remarkable absence of bitterness regarding this struggle. Wally frequently discusses financial issues in his childhood, he never relates them back to class and barely mentions finance or class at all concerning his adult life. In fact, one of the first memories Wally shares with us is his first experience of providing for his family by bringing home a meal from the soup kitchen:

                Each family was issued with a can according to size of family and I felt about six feet tall as I stood there and handed in ours. That meal was the best we had all the week. I can still smell it and taste it; but I was far too young to understand what it was about. (2)

Robert Roberts provides an explanation for this in his work on early twentieth-century class. He explains that at this time, the twentieth century had not really begun for the working-class , and that “docilely they accepted a steady decline in living standards and went on wishing for nothing more than to be ‘respectful and respected’ in the eyes of men.” (31) This is certainly true in the case of Wally, who regardless of age, career and location throughout his memoir, craves the respect of the people around him. Those around him were generally also working-class, and thus he focused on being a good worker and a provider for his family, such as bringing soup home as a child.

His feelings towards his diagnosis of epilepsy also focus around this issue of respect. Wally became depressed when “the tempo of the part would change” (17) when he joined a group of friends, and when girls “always made some excuse not to walk home with [him]”. When his vicar suggested that he was “not cut out to be a husband and father” (18), he quit his short-lived gardening job in fury. Again, this suggests a lack of respect towards Wally – although not class based – which formed the basis of his actions.

His epilepsy in itself may be another factor in Wally’s lack of class identity. Wally was in no need for a doctrine to provide him with undermining forces. For Wally, his epilepsy was the undermining force. In his book Bread, Knowledge and Freedom, David Vincent explains that ‘as a generalization, the less literate the writer, and the less he was involved in specific activities of self-improvement or political activity, the greater his preoccupation with the details of his life as a worker’ (62) For Wally, his life was a specified activity of self-improvement. Every day successfully functioning in spite of his epilepsy was considered an achievement and an improvement on his expectations. When introducing himself in his preface, Wally doesn’t once mention his status as a working-class man. He simply states that he was “lucky enough to be offered a chance to live a reasonably normal life, the chance to earn a good wage” (i). This reflects Wally’s overall attitude towards his labour in his memoir – he doesn’t portray himself as oppressed, or a member of some greater class identity. He only describes himself as “lucky”.

Roberts, Robert. “11 Class Structure in Early Twentieth-century SalforcT.” Sociological Research Methods (1977): 192. Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom, p. 6

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