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

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

You were lucky to have a job, so you worked hard to keep it, there being no unemployment pay in those days. I think most of us were square pegs in round holes and knew we were being exploited by working long hours on low pay’

(Oates, 3:59).

The Cowley Road Hospital, Oxford 1924-1926

‘Cowley Road Hospital – Oxford. 1924 – 1926’ (3:57).

Having said goodbye to the Knaresborough Institute, Guy made his way to the Cowley Road Hospital to start his career as a Master’s Clerk and Relief Officer, although, by admission, he was not sure what his job entailed, as he didn’t quite understand what the role of a Relief Officer was, and as he was ‘so keen to get the job at the interview [he] did not ask’ (3:59). Nevertheless, he arrived at the Cowley Road Institute ready to begin a new, and independent, chapter of his life, and after a brief interview with the Master, Guy was given an equally brief tour of his living accommodation, by Mr Richard Bourne, the porter at the institute. During this, Guy discovered that the ‘male inmate’s bathroom (. . .) was to be [his] too’ (3:57), and his accommodation was situated on the same floor as the ‘dormitories for the aged and able-bodied male inmates’ (3:57). The purpose of this was to ensure that there was always someone present to ‘keep order and be on hand in case of any trouble with the younger men, or incase one of the older men became ill in the night’ (3:57), a system which by all accounts, was effective. While settling into the new surroundings, Guy was surprised to discover that the Cowley Road Institution was very different to what he had experienced in Knaresborough, and he acknowledges that the larger institute took some getting used to, because ‘the whole place was differently laid out’ and Knaresborough ‘only had 120 beds’ while at Cowley Road there ‘were about 180’ (3:57). Understandably, this would have been a little overwhelming at first, though Guy was soon to learn that change is not always a bad thing (although given his history, you can understand why he might think that). 

Working in a Poor Law Institute

In his new role as the Master’s clerk and Relief Officer, Guy was working an average of 70 hours per week, and while this seems high, he points out that ‘most resident people working in Poor Law would be working this number of hours. You were lucky to have a job, so you worked hard to keep it, there being no unemployment pay in those days’ (3:59). The 70 hours would be spread over 6 days, which would usually start around 7am and end around 10pm, although, this could vary slightly. In addition to this, Guy was required to work three out of four Sundays, and on the fourth, he could take a day off. Despite the long hours, Guy was no stranger to hard work, and he continued to approach each day with energy and enthusiasm, despite knowing that he was ‘being exploited by working long hours on low pay’ (3:59). Though the pay was low, the institute alleviated some of the financial pressure by providing all resident staff with one hot meal per day, a small gas ring to cook tea and supper, and once a week they received ‘2oz tea, 8oz sugar, bread ad lib, 2oz cheese, a tin of meat, a tin of fruit, and milk’ (3:59). If staff wished to have any other food or beverages, they would be required to purchase the items themselves. 

Table of the hours worked each week by Guy (3:58).

Though Guy had worked in a Poor Law Institute for two years prior to the Cowley Road Hospital, he had never actively been involved with the inmates, given that his work required him to stay in the office. However, his new role meant that this was his first experience of ‘working among and dealing with vagrants’ (3:59), who he insists had, ‘drifted onto the roads through lack of work, many having lost all self-respect’ (3:59). This experience, and many others during his time at Cowley Road Hospital, went on to help Guy make an important decision about his future, which would define the rest of his life (more about that later). 

The Casual Ward

One of the first jobs Guy had to learn in his new role, was how to admit ‘tramps’ (3:60), who were ‘governed by the Vagrancy Act of 1834 and later by the Poor Law Orders, 1913’ (3:60), into the casual ward, which was designed for ‘the housing of men and women who had taken to tramping the roads’ (3:60). However, Guy states that not all workhouses had a casual ward, as they were ‘few and far between’ (3:60), and ‘if you could obtain a job where there were no casual wards, you were relieving yourself of a lot of trouble’ (3:60). Unfortunately for Guy, Cowley Road Hospital did have a casual ward, and it was his job to admit the vagrants who arrived there. As was the way in all institutes, there were certain rules and procedures which must be followed before a man or woman could enter the casual ward, and in true Guy style, he has provided a step by step guide:

  • While waiting, each man will be sat at a table and given bread and margarine, and cocoa, to eat and drink.
  • Every man must provide his name, age, occupation, where he came from, and where he was going to, which must be logged in a large, carbon copy book. 
  • Every man must be searched by a porter (. . .), and hand in all matches, cigarettes and tobacco, also knives, money and any valuables. 
  • The porter will watch him undress, watching for any sleight of hand which might contain a match or part of a cigarette, or tobacco.    
  • His clothing must be taken away and placed in a kit bag with his name on, together with any belongings he may have (all will be returned to him in the morning). 
  • The man must go and get a nice hot bath. 
  • When washed he will be given a dry towel and a clean night shirt, and shown to his bed (which would be of iron with a horse hair mattress, and three blankets and one pillow). 
  • Should you find any money, it was taken and paid into the common fund. 
  • Anyone with a shilling or more on them was not considered to be destitute. Casual wards were only for destitute people. 
  • If men refuse to be searched after eating their supper, they are refused admission. 
  • If a man does not talk during his search, check his mouth (. . .) for a match, or piece of tobacco. 


Guy goes on to say that those who were successfully admitted, were woken up at 7:15am and given breakfast, and their own clothing back. ‘By 8:15am, all should have been put to work scrubbing, sawing, chopping, and bundling wood. Helping in the laundry or working in the garden. There were always windows to be cleaned, walls to be washed down, utensils to be washed, or yards to be swept. There was always plenty of work to be done’ (3:61). While this may seem like a reasonable request, for one night’s bed, bath and food, Guy reveals that not everyone was keen to hold up their end of the deal, and ‘sometimes you would get a man who refused to work. After much argument to carry out your duty to the letter, you would inform the police that you wished to charge this man’ (3:61). While this may seem a little extreme, refusal to work in return for relief, was breaking the law, and depending on the man’s behaviour during the dispute, he could be sentenced to anywhere between ‘seven and twenty-eight days in prison’ (3:61). Although the harshness of the sentence was aimed to deter men from refusing to work, it seems that some men cared little for the law, and were simply ‘lazy and out to cause trouble’ (3:59). 

Relief Officer (the mystery is solved)

Despite not knowing what this entailed when he accepted the job at Cowley Road Hospital, Guy discovered that it was his responsibility to provide relief for the hospital porter, whenever ‘he was on holiday, or sick, or off duty’ (3:70). Additionally, he was required to assist the casual ward four nights a week, which meant that he was spending less time in the office and more time in the workhouse. Unfortunately, this also meant that he had been ‘thrown in at the deep end doing all the manual, menial, and dirty jobs’ (3:70), although, none compared to the job of emptying the expectorated contents, from the mugs belonging to the tuberculosis patients. A job which Guy insists he, ‘hated the most’ (3:71) (warning, this is not for the faint hearted, or weak stomached). To complete the job, Guy had to empty the contents of each mug into a bucket, which ‘in itself was a filthy, nauseating job,’ and then take the bucket to the boiler house and dispose of all the blood and sputum’ (3:71). When he reached the boiler house, the stoker, who knew why Guy was there, would leave the room while Guy emptied the contents of the bucket onto the floor, on top of a pile of ‘slack coal’ (3:71), where he would start ‘mixing it together as best [he] could, and throwing it onto the boiler fire’ (3:71). During his description of the disgusting process, Guy says that ‘it was a horrible sight and a filthy job’ and he explains that ‘if this was the Poor Law, [he] was learning the hard way, but it was a case of do the job, or let someone else, and find yourself out of work’ (3:71). 

Moving on (the big decision)

After almost two years at Cowley Road Hospital, Guy declared that he had ‘made up [his] mind, this life [was] to be his career, for [he] knew nothing else’ (3:75). He realised that this meant it was time to move on from Cowley Road, and for the sake of his own career, he must find employment in a ‘larger institution and gain further experience in the many different types of books, and classes of inmates and patients catered for’ (3:75). Although Guy had spent four years working in the Poor Law, and had proven his ability to work hard and efficiently, his doubts and lack of confidence which stemmed from his school years, dominated his thoughts once again. Admitting that he was ‘still unsure’ of himself, given his ‘poor scholastic achievement’ (3:75), he began to doubt his decision. However, after some thought, he goes on to explain that he felt as though his skills and experience within the Poor Law, compensated for his lack of traditional education, and he realised that ‘there was more to this work than keeping books (. . .) [he] decided to continue’ (3:75), and feeling motivated, he began to search for a new position.

Guy in ‘Oxford 1925’ (3:72).

Old Church Hospital, Romford 1926-1927

Aerial view of hospital (3:88).

A short time after making the decision to leave Cowley Road Hospital, Guy became aware of a job opening at Old Church Hospital in Romford, and feeling ready to move on, he applied for the position. Despite being selected for an interview, Guy insists that he wasn’t feeling confident about securing the position, especially after seeing some of the people he was in competition with. However, Guy was left ‘speechless’ (3:76), when the interviewers informed him that his office skills, and his hands-on experience, made him the strongest applicant, and the ‘committee was unanimous in coming to their decision and the job was [his], if [he] wished to accept’ (3:76). Once again, Guy’s lack of confidence overshadowed the achievement, and hindered his ability to feel proud. Instead, he questioned whether ‘[he] had done the right thing in accepting. [He] wanted the job, but [he] was afraid of (. . .) the size and complexity of the whole place. [he] was making a jump from an institution of 180 beds, to one of 600’ (3:76). Eventually, Guy overcome his concerns, and when it was time to leave Cowley Road Hospital, he admits that the ‘last two years had been happy ones’ and because of this, ‘a few tears came to [his] eyes when saying [his] goodbyes (. . .) [he] was sad at losing what few friends [he] had made,’ and on the ‘14thJuly 1926 [he] walked down that long drive for the last time’ (3:76). 

After a visit to Knaresborough, Guy arrived in Romford on the 27thJuly 1926, and began his new role as the Master’s Senior Clerk. Old Church Hospital was ‘the largest’ (3:78) institute Guy had worked in, and the buildings and amenities were far superior to those that he had been used to. ‘With 200 beds for acute surgical work (. . .), a resident medical superintendent and one other deputy surgeon’ (3:78), the institute could provide an array of medical assistance. In addition to this, there was a ‘training school for nurses’ (3:76), which was one of the first in the country, and something that Guy ‘had never seen’ before (3:76). The casual ward was also much bigger than what Guy had been used to, and could accommodate up to 130 vagrants each night. However, Guy notes that the attractive name, and modern amenities, could not hide the fact that it was still ‘a Workhouse under the Poor Law Act of 1913, and subject to all of its rules and regulations’ (3:78). 

Work Life

Guy found that he now spent a lot of time in the office, and between 8:30am and 5:30pm, this is where most his work would take place. After 5:30pm, Guy, and a man called ‘Fred Macey’ (3:78), were responsible for the evening duties, which meant he also had to work an additional four evening shifts, and in total, he averaged around 60 hours per week. Once again, Guy’s living accommodation was located next to the able-bodied male dormitory, which was filled with a ‘noisy, rough untidy lot’ (3:78), who were lazy and possessed ‘a grudge against society and authority’ (378). Like Cowley Road Hospital, the staff accommodation had been placed near the dormitories to ‘quell any trouble that may arise, for it [was] here where it would start’ (3:78). During his time here, there were many occasions when trouble broke out, but fortunately, Guy never came to any real harm. 

‘Navy nurse home’ (3:88).
‘Part of new hospital’ (3:88).

Health and well-being

Guy had always been in good health, but during his time at Old Church Hospital, he found that his health suffered, and he began to experience some problems. The first of these, was a sharp pain in his right side, which the medical superintendent diagnosed as appendicitis, and insisted that Guy have immediate surgery. After recovering, Guy found that he was admitted to hospital on two more occasions, with a case of ‘double quinines’ (tonsillitis) (3:83), and it was during his second stay at the hospital that he met a young nurse called Doris Brown. After mistakenly letting Guy eat toast, while he had inflamed tonsils, Doris found herself in trouble with the senior nurse, and feeling sorry for her, Guy attempted to form a friendship. The following day, Doris seemed very upset and she confided in Guy about a young girl who had a ‘removal of tonsils (. . .) and for some reason she bled a lot and the doctors could not stop it (. . .) she died on the operating table’ (3:83). Horrified, Guy told Doris that he was due to have the same operation, and in a state of panic, she begged him not ‘to let them’ (3:83). Deciding to listen to Doris’s advice, Guy opted for a different kind of treatment, which used X-ray’s to reduce the size of inflamed tonsils (remarkable, given that we now understand the risks of overexposure). Every day, for months, Guy would spend ten minutes being exposed to an ‘X-ray beam on one tonsil one day, and the other the next day’ (3:83). However, he could not comment on its success, as he was unable to complete the treatment, after deciding to look for a new job.

Office Staff (3:88).

Moving on (again)

With the news that his sister Marion had married and was moving to Australia, Guy decided that it would be a good idea to look for a job which allowed him to be closer to his mother. When a position in the York Institute became available, he decided to apply, and once again he was surprised when his ‘name that was called out’ (3:85) at the interview, and he was offered the job. Though he knew he needed to be closer to his mother, he couldn’t help but feel sad about leaving behind the friends he had made during his time at the Old Church Hospital. On his final day, he said a solemn farewell to Doris, and knowing how upset she was, he found that he could ‘barely look back because [he] should have wanted to get out and go back’ (3:85).  

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 Tasha 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. 1&2.  

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 UP, 2011.

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