I chose R. W. Morris’ autobiography, written in 1972, after looking at the entry in Burnett et al The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945. He writes a lot about his life as a miner and living in a mining community. This intrigued me as my own grandfather was a coal miner from a small community too. I grew up listening to tales of what life was like in such an environment. Thus, I found myself drawn to this particular memoir.
Richard Morris wrote his memoirs in response to a call from the project for real stories and accounts from the local community. He believed it was ‘sad…’ that, ‘in contrast to the thousands of memorials to the dead of the two world wars, not a stick or stone exists anywhere…as a memorial to the thousands…of men and women of Britain’s coalfields, upon the backs of whom the prosperity of these islands was built’ (1).
He applauds the work of the museum sponsors for inviting, ‘other men and women throughout the Northeast to help put the record straight’ (1). There is a sense of nostalgia and even fondness for the mines and ‘close and tightly knit community’ (54), despite their hardships and troubles. Richard tells local tales, talks about local events and people with vivid enthusiasm. His world comes alive as you read, due to his attention to detail and conversational tone.
Richard W Morris was born on the 1st February 1895 in a room that belonged to one of his parents’ friends in South Row, Newfield, County Durham. He says that his mother told him, ‘the roof leaked, and snow was drifting through cracks in the ceiling’ (50) when he was born. His parents later moved into one bedroom in Chester-Le-Street, ‘near the brewery’ (50). Richard’s earliest memories are from when he grew up in West Row, Newfield. It was a small miner’s house and ‘the village itself was situated on a small plateau with the colliery and the coke ovens occupying a prominent part of it’ (53).
Richard’s memories move through his childhood, spent in and around the local countryside, to his first job in a tailor’s shop, aged 14. Unable to settle in his work at the shop he soon goes to work at the local pits, following in the footsteps of his father and other local men. There are so many stories and such wonderful details about mining life during the first part of the memoir, that you are instantly absorbed by it. Richard delves into the effects of mining on the community, paying close attention to the smallest of details. It was a constant battle for local people, ‘[d]ay in and day out, the hard grinding struggle to make ends meet went on, and it had to be seen and experienced to be believed’ (61-2). Richard also includes some very poignant stories of accidents and deaths experienced at the mines (more details of this can be read here). These are touching and sensitive accounts which highlight the dangers these men and women faced to bring energy and modernisation to the British people.
Part two of the memoir begins with the time he spent at Malin Head in Ireland, working for the navy during WW1, where he was posted in the wireless station (more detail can be read here). His account of his time here is brief but amusing, with some very interesting stories regarding how they got by with the rationing situation, and how they got on with the local community. His memoir quickly moves on to the dejection he felt returning to his hometown and the life of the pit miner after the war. Richard takes a wonderfully brave and adventurous decision and buys a ticket to New York.
Richard’s account of travelling by ship to New York and then finding his way to California is riveting. It is a striking comparison, showing how easy it is to travel in our modern world. Richard returns home somewhat disheartened, feeling he has failed to make it in America. However, on his return he embarks on new adventures. Returning to life in and around the pits he takes a Workers Education Association course and finds himself at Ruskin College, Oxford. It is in Oxford that he meets his wife and settles down (see the Education and Schooling blog).
MORRIS, R. W., ‘Autobiography of R. W. Morris’, TS, c.350pp. (c.140,000 words). Extracts published as ‘A Boy goes down the pit’, Bulletin of the Durham County Local History Society, No. 20, Oct 1977, pp. 4-12 (edited by G. Patterson). BruneI University Library.
‘R.W. Morris’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:520
. (Greenwich Peninsula History)
(Community Archives and Heritage Group)
(Scholastic: Teacher’s Activity Guide)