This post discusses how the themes of War and Class are mentioned in Robert Ward’s memoir ‘A Lancashire Childhood’. You can read in full here, which is his memoir transcribed by myself.
“I saw the headline, ‘War declared’, and raced home in great excitement” (1)
In 1914, World War One was declared and Robert Ward was just 7 years old. Robert states that he “cannot remember the war making any great difference to life” (1); as he was such a young child, he “was practically born into it, and felt no abnormality” (2). All men would have been called by the government at this time to enrol in the army and help fight in the war; when Robert’s father did so, he was rejected due to failing his “medical” (1) as they detected a “valvular heart disease” (2). This could be seen to be a fortunate and unfortunate outcome; it must have been worrying to find out that Robert’s father’s health may not be as good as they hoped, but it also meant that he was able to stay at home with his family, where it was safer. His father not going off to war also would have had a hand in the fact Robert did not think the war changed much about his life, as his daily home routine would have stayed the same.
The war saw changes in a lot of aspects of life in Robert’s generation, with people like Robert’s father losing his job at the Sun Mill. Fortunately he quickly found new employment at “Dryland and Preston, the builders” (2), where he worked for the next 30 years. The country had to use a lot of their resources in order to ensure the country was running smoothly. Towards the end of the war there was a shortage of petrol which “led to the introduction of gas-driven engines” (2). Robert’s father had extensive knowledge in the running of steam engines as that is what he operated when he was working at the Sun Mill, and so using this he was able to adapt his skills. Robert tells us that his father was “always handy with machinery”, and so when companies and businesses in the community were beginning to introduce new technologies and resources such as petrol, it was him that they called on for help. An example of this is when the local bakers, “Henry Whittle and Co.” (2), began gradually changing from horse transport to petrol ran vehicles, Robert’s father became “an expert with internal combustion engines” (2).
At the time of World War One, the only form of media was newspapers and thus the only outlet used to inform the public of the war. Whilst they tried to update the population as much as they could in regards to what was going on at the front line, and how the country was being affected, they had no where near the same “reality and immediacy” (2) that radio and television provide us today. This could also give some explanation as to why Robert did not feel the war changed normal life too much as they weren’t hearing too much about the actual war.
A lot of the other authors in the Burnett archives either went to war themselves or had an immediate family that did, thus being able to provide the reader with lots of inciteful information in regard to what the war was really like. As aforementioned, Robert’s father, or any of Robert’s immediate family, did not go to the war, and so readers of his memoir do not get this same insight. Robert does mention that his father’s sister married a solider but unfortunately, he was killed soon after leaving to join the fight. Despite not being able to provide much knowledge of life at war, Robert does mention that his Mother’s brother in law, who had been wounded in France, was sent to Manchester to “convalesce” (2), and came to visit their family “in all the splendour of his Anzac uniform” (2).
As aforementioned, Robert was only a young child when the war began and so wouldn’t have known if the war made that much of a difference on his or his community’s life; the only aspect of potential change is the fact that during the war, his family had to change their Wakes holiday to New Brighton or Prestatyn rather that the Isle of Man, as they were closer to travel to. Places such as Littleborough and Featherstall, where Robert grew up, did not seem to have the same worries and experiences that places such as London did during the war. Critics have gone as far to say that “fear was a ghost haunting wartime London – it was always present, just out of sight and rarely acknowledged” (Bell, 2009, p. 155). This may be because, London being the capital, is more likely to be targetted and so those up in the North of the country may have felt safer.
It seems that the war did not have too much of an impact on Robert Ward and his family and that is confirmed when Robert says, “the horrors of the Western front reached us from a distance” (2); this highlights the disconnection his community had from the war.
Ward, Robert. ‘A Lancashire Childhood’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. Special Collections. 2:0797.
Bell, Amy (2009). ‘Landscapes of Fear: Wartime London, 1939-1945’. Journal of British Studies 48.1 (2009) 153-175 www.jstor.org/stable/25482966. Accessed 02.05.21
Gagnier, R. (1987). Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender. Victorian Studies, 30:3, pp. 335-363.
Todd, S. (2014). The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010. London: John Murray.
Vincent, D. (1980). Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class. Social History, 5:2, pp. 223-247.
Image 1 – Littleborough Mills. Retrieved from: https://www.littleboroughshistory.org/mills.html
Image 2 – New Brighton Beach 1890’s. Retrieved from: https://streetsofliverpool.co.uk/new-brighton-beach-photographer-1890s/