Alfred Ireson (b.1856): An Introduction – Writing Lives

Alfred Ireson (b.1856): An Introduction

Reading a memoir may be the most intimate of all experiences in the literature world. Like fiction, the reader becomes attached to the narrator, engrossed and tantalised by the highs and lows of the character which you follow vividly throughout. However, this is certainly not fiction – however adventurous and audacious it may seem. After all, ‘we identify more easily or comfortably with ordinary people than with Kings and Prime Ministers’ (Lynch, 186). The beauty is that it is reality! In Alf’s case, he was a boy of boldness, tricks and boisterous mischief, but a man of courage, piety and with an overwhelming sense of moral responsibility to his society.

Alfred (Alf) Ireson was born on 23rd June, 1856, in the Fenish town of Whittlesea, close to Oundle, in the region of Peterborough. Throughout his typed account of around 60,000 words, he speaks of many of his ‘reminiscences’ as being great achievements of which he was very proud in later life. ‘Life has been rather eventful’ (2) he gushes in his introduction, ‘How many happy things crowd the mind!’ Alf proclaims; a sense of contentment pours from the very few lines, and what an honour it is to relive these memories with him. Although he confesses ‘Modesty prevents me from a word of portrait of myself’ (86), he does delight us with one glimpse of his appaearance: ‘hair was very dark, a pair of striking blue eyes, and a voice that needed some training’! (86)

A map of Whittlesey (also spelt Whittlesea), Cambridgeshire. Where Alf was born.
A map of Whittlesey (also spelt Whittlesea), Cambridgeshire. Where Alf was born.


Born to a loving mother named Hannah Spencer and a father called Alfred Ireson, ,Alf deemed his childhood, with his brother Charlie and a lovely sister Annie in the country village of Warmington, Cambridgeshire, as ‘full of romance’ (11). Although he ‘was noted for mischief and exploits of many kinds’ (21), his loving yet religious upbringing deemed loyalty, courage and selflessness as significant attributes to possess; with Alf saving a friend from drowning as a young boy poignantly remembered in the memoir.

His family’s involvement in the pioneering years of the Methodist movement are cemented by his mentions of old Granny West who ‘prayed that (he) might grow up to love the Saviour’ (5), and his mother whose life desire was to ‘train the infancy mind in all good things…and teach them the simple truths of the bible’ (8). With this, his life undoubtedly became a path of fulfilling the work of Christ.

The Market Square of Whittlesey in the late 19th Century
The Market Square of Whittlesey in 1915.


From humble surroundings in the countryside which became ‘marred my excessive drinking’ (18), he travelled the country through various masonry work, started a family with a sweet girl named Eliza who became ‘the companion and sharer of my life’s joys and sorrows’ (57), and shared his success of finding Christ to those around him as a missionary. During his missionary duties, he began to meet the great poverty that engulfed much of London and the South East in the last 19th century. His time in the ‘New Cut’ in Lambeth, South London, ‘Where houses thick, and sewers, annoy the air’ (as Milton put it) signifies his calling to help and educate those held in the grips of destitution and intense poverty about his faith. Towards the end of his memoir, he outlines stories of some of the most  interesting working-class characters such as ‘Old Moses’, ‘Old Joe’ and ‘Shirley Simpson’ that he meets during his missionary work in London. This further adds to the colourful life that he led, deeply shaped by the people he met and the things that he saw.

‘Sunday Morning in the New Cut, Lambeth’ 1872

As another autobiographer, Acorn reveals, ‘experiences LIVED, and written down however poorly are of more real value and interest than imaginary fictions beautifully disguised’ (1911, n.p.). It is no wonder why I was drawn to Alfred’s memoir; a sensational life made even better by the knowledge that it was real. Alf’s determination to better himself as well as the society he became a part of. And I’ll be honest; Alf is a person of great character and disposition, which makes his memoir one of thrill and awe. His journey into adulthood as a rambling man, in which he undertook dozens of manual jobs, towards a Christian missionary, explicitly in the Temperance movement of the 19th century, meant that I had a large scope to research, learn and enjoy Alf to the fullest. His narration randomly positions itself in the third person now and again, which gives his memoir a storytelling, almost fictional feel, which brought his many escapades to life.

Works Cited:

Acorn, George (pseud.), One of the Multitude. London: William Heinemann, 1911.

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’. 30.3 (1987): 335-363

Ireson, Alfred. ‘Reminiscences’, TS, pp.175 (c.35,000 words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of childhood, education andfamily from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.82-8. Brunel University Library.

Lynch, Claire. ‘“Unlike Actors, Politicians or Eminent Military Men”:The Meaning of Hard Work in Working Class Autobiography’, Autobiography Studies 25, (Winter 2010): 186-202

Images Cited:

Olde Maps. Whittlesey Map. Web. Accessed 24th October 2015.

Peterborough Images: Market Square, Whittlesey c. 1912. Web. Accessed 24th October 2015.

The British Library: ‘Sunday Morning in the New Cut, Lambeth’ from the Illustrated London News – See more at: Web. Accessed 26th October 2015.


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