Guy Oates (1905-1987): Life and Labour – Part One – Writing Lives

Guy Oates (1905-1987): Life and Labour – Part One

On the farm 1921 – 1922

I was still the same boy that I was when [I was] very young. A happy nature, little worried me, I took all in my stride with a ready smile and a cheery word’

(Oates, 3:9).
Guy aged 18 (3:56)

In July 1921, Guy had just left school and returned home to his family home in Knaresborough. He spent most of his days ‘filling in [his] time looking after the garden, tidying the coal cellar and doing odd jobs around the house’ (3:4). But as readers probably know, Guy was someone who would become an ‘impatient, unsettled and restive’ (3:4) child when he didn’t have ‘any real work’ (3:4) to do. One day Guy overheard voices in his kitchen, a woman was asking Guy’s mother if a ‘boy named Guy Oates live[s] hear [here]’ (3:4). It turns out that a ‘boy [Guy] had known at school named Penty’ (3:4) wanted Guy to visit the Penty’s farm. Since Guy was ready for work, he did not seem to mind Charles Penty’s reasons behind Penty choosing him. Guy’s ‘mother dashed off packed a case with everything [Guy] had and within half an hour [they] were off’ (3:4). I am sure Guy’s mother was sad to see Guy leave home again, but this type of work was simply the best kind for Guy.

Life on the farm

Guy took a keen interested in working on the land, whereas Charles was more about ‘the engineering side of the farm, repairing the implements and machinery’ (3:5). So, the boys themselves did not talk very much; Guy did not mind this as he was just happy to be doing something he enjoyed. Every morning like the rest of the workers, Guy had to be up at ‘5:15’ (3:5) a time normal for a farmer but this is a time I would utterly dread waking up at. Guy, however, only really complained about how it was ‘all right in the summer but darned cold in the winter’ (3:5). When Guy ‘had been there [for] about three weeks Mr Penty asked [Guy] if [he] would like to go home or stay a little longer,’ of course, Guy responded ‘stay’ (3:5), and so Mr Penty sent a letter to Guy’s mother. Although ‘the work was hard [Guy] thrived on it’ and with any ‘spare energy [he] seem[ed] to have [he spent it on] learning, something [he doesn’t] seem to have done [in] the past seven years’ (3:5). There was simply nothing Guy wished for he ‘was healthy and life was good,’ (3:5) and so he was happy.

‘Mother Sow and Young’ (3:9)

Guy seemed to be getting on with everyone at the farm, but considering he was a ‘town boy’ he had to be tested. Since the men ‘were always looking for a bit of fun,’ (3:9) and wanted to see if Guy could keep up with ‘their standards,’ (3:9) they set out to assess him. Guy explains that a Foldyard is ‘an enclosed space with [a] spaced wooden roof. In it [were] kept cattle for fattering [fattening] and mother pigs with litters,’ (3:9) since the floor was ‘nothing but straw and manure, one building on top of the other, [it was] not easy to walk on, let alone run’ (3:9). Already inside the building, was another man, he was attending to cattle, as Guy walked into the Foldyard he heard him shout ‘“Hey catch”’ (3:9). I am not sure about you, but my reflex skills are not the best, so I could not have made this catch. When Guy turned around he ‘saw a little piglet coming flying through the air towards [him]’ (3:9). Luckily for that piglet, Guy has better instincts than me and sprang into action, at this very moment Guy ‘saw the mother pig come running towards [him] making a barking sound’ as she, of course, wanted her baby. ‘Knowing the seriousnous [seriousness] of a pig bite [Guy was able to catch and drop] the piglet all in one go (3:9). Once successfully releasing the pig from his grasp he ‘ran towards a low wooden door. [He then] flung [him]self at [it] rolling over with the pig only a few feet away’ (3:9). Guy really does think on his feet; I simply would have froze and screamed for help (and that is one of the many reasons as to why I will never work on a farm). If Guy was not, ‘an agile lad,’ (3:9) there could have been a severe accident. ‘What that man did was no joke, [as Guy] may [have] only ha[d] one leg’ (3:9) if he didn’t think fast and react quickly.

Returning Home

Guy reflects on what his mother had said to him before he had left for the farm ‘as God closes one door he opens another’ (3:15) once again this had come true. Guy ‘had received a letter from [his] mother telling [him] to [come] home at once, [as] there was a vacancy at the local Poor Law Intuition for a junior Masters Clerk,’ (3:15) this was a job that his mother thought he should apply for. When Guy ‘showed the letter to Mr Penty [he] arranged to take [Guy] home that very afternoon’ and so Guy’s ‘exist was therefor [sic] speedy leaving [him] no time to say farewell to all those with whom [he] had spent the last eight months’ (3:15) with. Nevertheless, Guy was excited about this opportunity as it could lead to ‘a real job which if [he] got [it] would put a few coppers in [his] pocket and help [him] get back [his] independence’ (3:15). Guy’s experience at the farm over the ‘last eight months had been some of the happiest’ times of Guy’s ‘senenteen [seventeen] years’ (5:15).

 ‘I commence work in Poor Law. The Knaresborough Union’ (3:16) 1922- 1924 

Union, Workhouse, Infirmary, Institution, Public Assistance, or Hospital, when ever [sic] they relate to the poor, they all mean the same’

(Oates, 3:16).
‘Knaresborough board of guardians 1923’ (3:56).

When Guy returned home from the farm he had to quickly begin preparing himself for the interview as it was taking place the following day. He ‘pressed [his] trousers and [made himself] as smart as [he could] with what few clothes [he had] left’ (3:16). The next day, he ‘set off for the institution’ (3:16). On arrival, after informing the receptionist about his appointment, he was then taken into a waiting room and told someone would see him shortly. ‘In walks a big man, he said his name was Nicholson and he was the Master. He asked [Guy] some questions all of which [he] was able to answer’ (3:16). He asked him about his school life and took a keen interest in how Guy had ‘played for the school[‘s] first eleven at cricket’ (3:16). Guy ‘was hoping he would think [he was] a brighter boy than [he] knew [him]self to be. [Guy was] sure [he] did not fool him’ (3:16). It is a shame that Guy did not give himself enough credit (as he was able to lead a very successful working life, which the upcoming ‘Life and Labour’ blogs show). He was informed that the ‘weekly wage was seven shillings and six pence a week’ (3:16) and that the job was his ‘if [he] wanted it’ (3:16). Guy gladly accepted the job and then thanked Mr Nicholson. Guy later found out that he was successful in getting the job because he had played cricket as ‘Mr Nicholson was a member of the Knaresborough Cricket Club’ (3:16) and his son was only six months younger than Guy and was also ‘keen [about] cricket’ (3:16). When the interview was over knowing how much his mother would be overjoyed with the news, Guy quickly ran home. Guy’s responsibilities consisted of what any persons first job entailed, ‘come here, go there do this do that, obey everybody who gives you [an] order’ (3:16). 


‘Within the first week of [Guy] starting work, Mr Nicholson, got [him] to complete and sign some forms relating to Superannuation’ (3:24). Superannuation is an organisational pension program which is created by a company for the benefit of its employees. The Act which Guy was able to join was published in a newspaper article on 3rd October 1896 under the heading ‘ which stated that the act had officially ‘come into operation’, and that ‘circular letter’ was sent out to all ‘guardians’ so that the act can be ‘fully understood’. Of course, as a young seventeen-year-old when Mr Nicholson ‘tried to explain to [Guy] what they were all about and what it would mean if [he] continues in the service,’ (3:24) Guy at the time did not fully appreciate what Mr Nicholson was doing for him as retirement seemed like a long way off for Guy. He ‘did not realise it then but [he was] grateful that [Nicholson] got [him] to join at so young an age,’ (3:24) as this benefited Guy greatly in the years to come. Although you could not apply until your eighteenth birthday, ‘the Superannuation Act at the time was retained one part whereby throughout the whole of [Guy’s] career right up to retirement [he] never [had to pay] more than three and a half percentage of [his] salary and emolunents [sic]’ (3:24). Guy was incredibly lucky, as throughout his lifetime the act changed twice, (‘1896 to the 1922 and later the 1954 act’ (3:24) resulting in a rise to a ‘six per cent’ salary tax ‘plus one shilling and six pence each week’ (3:24). In Volume Four Guy reflects on how him being told to apply for the 1996 scheme helped him tremendously, ‘I shall always be grateful to Mr Nicholson […] for his getting me into the Superannuation Scheme’ (4:39). Guy began paying into it on his 18th birthday, ‘if you could get a full forty years [of] service in by the time you reached 60 years of age you could retire’ (4:39).


When reading the ‘advertisements in the Poor Law Officers journal,’ (3:55) Guy came across an advertisement from the Board of Guardians at Oxford, they were looking for a ‘“Masters clerk and Relief Officer” at their Cowley Road hospital’ (3:55). Financially their salary was a big improvement to the one Guy was currently on it was quoted at ‘fifty pounds per annun resident’ (3:55). Guy had been giving his mother ‘five shillings each week from [his] seven and six pence’ (3:55), and he thought if he got this new job he would be able to ‘still send her the same [amount but now] she would not have to feed [him]’ (3:55). Guy assumed his mother would be happy about this, so it came to quite a shock to him when this news did quite the opposite, he ‘had hurt her wanting to leave home’ (3:55) and this was the last thing Guy wanted to do, he did not want to make his ‘mother unhappy in any way’ (3:55). Nevertheless, ‘being the wonderful person she was, she understood the position knowing she would lose [him] one day,’ (3:55) like all mothers have to face when their children are flying the nest. She said to him ‘“Guy, […] you apply, Oxford must be a nice place with all young men and lovely colleges,”’ (3:55) with his mother’s approval Guy told Mr Nicholson about his plans. Although hesitant at first as he did not want to lose Guy, he was understanding of Guy’s wish ‘being in the work all his life he knew that if you wanted to climb the ladder and make progress you had to keep moving to higher and bigger jobs’ (3:55). With his approval, he gave Guy ‘a good reference’ and with that, he applied for the job. Within only ‘a few weeks [he] was short listed and told to attend for [an] interview,’ (3:55) and to Guy’s ‘surprise [he] got the job’ (3:55).

Guy then ‘handed in [his] resignation and prepared [him]self for leaving home and starting out on [his] own’ (3:55). He was sad that he was leaving the Knaresborough Institution as he ‘had got on well with everybody, [and] had been happy [there]’ (3:55). When the day arrived for Guy to finally leave home, he realised this was going to be his ‘most difficult task. [He] knew [he] must go and go quickly or [he] would break down,’ (3:55) as leaving his mother again was a really difficult task for Guy. Sarah will be focusing on Guy’s time at ‘Cowley Road Hospital, Oxford. 1924-1926’ and his life at ‘Oldchurch Hospital, Romford, 1926-27,’ in Part Two of ‘Life and Labour’.
(Remember to check Twitter for updates @TashaSiloLJMU).

If you have enjoyed reading about Guy’s life, you may like to explore the full collection of Guy Oates Posts.

If you would like to read some of our fellow Writing Lives students blogs, then look no further! Here are some of the posts Sarah and I enjoyed for this particular theme:

/uncategorized/harry-young-1901-1996-%D0%B6%D0%B8%D0%B7%D0%BD%D1%8C-%D0%B8-%D1%82%D1%80%D1%83%D0%B4-life-and-labour this post was written by Joshua Preece about Harry Young, a British Communist. For those of you who have read Josh’s introduction blog, you will be able to learn about the incident involving a steak pie.

Jessica Rimmer: /life-and-labour/mrs-w-e-palmer-b-1908-life-and-labour this blog is about Mrs W.E. Palmer and her parent’s experiences of working life which provide two very different accounts of their experiences of labour.

Ffion Jones’ blog post about Isaac Gordon /uncategorized/isaac-gordon-b-1927-life-and-labour-part-one provides an insight into cheap manual labour jobs around the world.


Oates, Guy. The Years That Are Gone. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol. 3.

Further Reading:
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363. 
Rogers, Helen and Emily Cuming, ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant reading of Working-Class Autobiography’, Family & Community History, 21:3 (2019): 180-201.
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47- 70. 
Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Penguin, 2015.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247. 

Barringer, Tim J. Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2005.
Burnett, John ed. Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s London: Routledge, 1994.
Fowler, Simon. The People, The Places, The Life Behind Doors. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books, 2014.
Longmate, Norman. The Workhouse. London: Temple Smith, 1974.
Savage, Mike. Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940: the Politics of Method. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
‘The Workhouse in Knaresborough 1896.’
N.d. Web. Accessed: 15 April 2019.
‘The Workhouse: The Story of an Institution.’
N.d. Web. Accessed 24 April 2019.
‘Poor-Law Officers.’ Superannuation Act, 1896′. BMJ. Published 03 October 1896.
N.d. Web. Accessed: 16 April 2019.

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