William Wright (b.1846): An Introduction – Writing Lives

William Wright (b.1846): An Introduction

William Wright intrigues me, as someone who grew up and is still part of a working-class life, because it is the story of someone challenging expectations about people’s place in society. As the title to his memoir suggests, ‘From Chimney-Boy to Councillor’ tells his reader that he makes himself a more respected individual.

The turning point in Wright’s life story is talked about on the first page: ‘When I was eight years old my Father lost his brush in a chimney, and this was the cause of my start in life’ (7). Wright recognises that the beginning of his working life is his ‘start in life’. This is reminiscent of the fact that children began work as a chimney sweep at the age of eight. It is a story of someone following their father’s footsteps, which can be what made him think his life had only just started.

Yet Wright acknowledges the extremities of the job and how he, seemingly, hated doing it: ‘It was a blessing when the Bill passed to stop boys climbing chimneys: at that time it was quite a common thing to read in papers “Sweep Boy Smothered.”’ (15) This would be referring to the Chimney Sweeps Act of 1840, where the minimum age to sweep chimneys was raised to sixteen. It is interesting how Wright reveals how common it was for sweep boys to die during their work. Even though this is a life story, something as enormous as that takes a lot of courage to talk about. Without saying it explicitly, Wright has revealed the anxieties he had while working.

At the moment, I only have the first half of Wright’s book. The only other known copy, at least available to the public, is at the British Library in London!

This means that I have yet to read about how Wright becomes a councillor, but I do know, from a bibliographical entry that it must be associated with the ‘Alton UDC (Urban District Council)’. I also know from his biographical entry that William becomes a member of the Ancient Order of Foresters. Penelope Ismay discusses the relationship between members and their class background: ‘there is also no reason to ignore the vast and growing body of evidence showing the novel kinds of relationships both reformers and friendly society members sought to forge across class lines’ (7). 
Wright learns how unfair life can be, and seems to hold himself to a new value, that he no longer needs to be a chimney-boy at the age of fourteen: ‘I had a good cry for having been so wrongly treated through no fault of my own. I decided to run away to sea’ (17). Yes, this seems like an over-reaction, but the incentive behind it is not. In that moment, Wright learned life is not about appeasing your family’s expectations on your career, and that you can change what you want to do in a single, radical moment.

As is the case for many people, Wright demonstrates how you cannot stay away from home forever: ‘Well, as time went on my father was taken ill and sent for me to come home and help with his work’ (21). If William’s father was unable to work, then it would mean the main family breadwinner would have to be William. It is also an interesting reference to illness, as despite his father still being able to work when sick, this would not be the case for everyone. Without the widespread availability of medicine, the flu or a small infection could be fatal.

In the end, however, if William did not help his father then he may have not learned the skills necessary to become a successful businessman. This will be explored further in my first thematic post: Education and Class.

If you are interested in another introduction, I recommend reading Keisha’s here.

Wright, William. ‘From chimney-boy to councillor – The Story of my Life’. See John Burnett, David Vincent, David Mayall. The Autobiography of the working class; an annotated critical bibliography. Vol. 1 1790-1900. 1st Pub. 1984. Item: 777.

Images used:

East Indiamen Madagascar, 1000 tons, 1837 build, via:

Chimney Boys Climbing Sweep, via:

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