H J Harris (b.1903): War and Memory

HJ was alive for both World Wars; he was 11 years old when First World War broke out and was living in the orphanage.  He alludes to this war in one of his letters,

‘I remember during the 1st. World War, people actually asked to be allowed to shelter in the orphanage grounds if a zeppelin came to Bristol to unload its bombs’ (Harris, 18/06/78)


When HJ was discharged from the orphanage in 1916, the War was still raging.  He stayed in lodgings, with a friend of his sisters,

‘It was war-time and there was the “Cover Lights” law in operation.  So when she gave me a candle I was so conscious of the candle light showing that I tried to shield the light from outside so I put a text card to stop the light showing outside’. (Harris, 03/05/78)

In 1938 HJ joined the Territorial Army and was called up for war but was discharged after a month for being ‘a person of unsound mind’.  It is such a shame that when he applied himself to something and wanted to be worthwhile, his mental health problems prevented him.

However, upon reading his letters I discovered that HJ did many jobs during the Second World War. HJ participated in the war by Nuffield Mechanisations and Aero Co. of Washfield Heath Birmingham.

‘I had bluffed my way into a job, by learning to read a micrometer, and then I went as an engineering inspector’. (Harris, 03/05/78)

This company was Lord Nuffield’s personal enterprise developing improved methods for mechanisation and mobility of the British Army and the ground section of The Royal Air Force.

As the war developed HJ evacuated his wife out of Birmingham and moved to Worcester to work at the local Royal Ordnance Factory as an Inspector where he stayed until the end of the war,

‘I was ordered by the Ministry of Labour, acting under the Essential Works Order then in force’. (Harris, 03/05/78)

The shortage of skilled labour was critical so in March 1941 the Order was passed which required all skilled workers to register.


Burnett, J. Mayall. D. Vincent, D eds. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated Critical Biography 3 vols. Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989.

Harris, H.J. Autobiographical letters 197801984, TS, pp.13 (c5,000 words). Brunel University Library

The Cabinet Papers 1915-1986. Labour Shortage and the End of War. National Archives. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/themes/labour-shortage-end-war.htm




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