Jack William Jones born 1900: Life & Labour – Writing Lives

Jack William Jones born 1900: Life & Labour

At the beginning of the 20th century poverty was regarded as the natural condition of the labouring poor, those who worked with their hands.[1] This is demonstrated in one of the most important sections of Jack’s memoir, where he describes his mother’s  labour and how all mothers of the time behaved similarly to provide for their families.

‘It takes time for some kids to understand – and sometimes it is not until they have grown out of childhood – what their mothers have to bear in the slum environment of poverty, dirt and violence. It was years before I fully appreciated, and was angered at, the way in which my mother – in order to keep her family fed, clean and happy – was compelled to work in the Bishopsgate railway good depot, hauling blood great parcels about. And on the night shift, too!’ [2] 


Extract from the memoir of Jack William Jones detailing the harsh living conditions and the tough labouring of his mother to provide for their family after the death of his father

Jack’s mother became one of many single women who formed the female labour force from 1870 to 1920 [3]. During the early 20th century there were extensive numbers of labourers working in and around London, 235,281 who, like Jack’s mother, existed in crowded conditions; 109,390 were so crowded that they were living three or more persons to a room, indicating an ‘appalling amount of poverty and discomfort’ in those engaged in labouring occupations [4]


Following in his mother’s footsteps Jack found himself in several jobs throughout his life from gaining an apprenticeship in a printing shop to bus driving, finding himself, just like his mother battling with the extensive hours and labouring tasks of the transport industry before his passionate involvement in the Rank and File movement and many political strikes associated with the industrial revolution.


Jack discusses his working class life growing up in London, in particularly Hoxton, ‘a wild and sometimes violent place in those days’. He talks about the antics of poor boys swimming in ‘filthy’ rivers, football matches, street fighting and shares stories of police men and theatre; demonstrating the wide, wild variety of life in working class London.

Jack explains how he and his friends used to earn their pocket money by guiding strangers by the theatre to various entrances and selling them a second hand programme that had been given to them by the pitiful upper classes, demonstrating the working class financial struggle but also the opportunities found in poverty to inhibit a comfortable life.

Jack William Jones explaining how he and his young friends earn pocket money in the busy 20th Century London

The difficulty of living in a crowded and sometimes violent slum society is described throughout Jack’s memoir: ‘Hardly a Saturday would pass without a riot call being issued at the Old Street police station down the road.. us kids seeing the lads – yes, and lasses, just out of the pubs laying into the police’. The lives of working class Londoners were shaped by the ‘daily oppression of the police and the poor law'[5] experienced by Jack.


[1] Pennington, J. de (2011, feb 17) Beneath the Surface: A Country of Two Nations BBC History [accesses 22.04.17]

[2] Jack William Jones, Untitled, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:250, available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10895

[3] Goldin, Claudia. “The Work and Wages of Single Women, 1870-1920.” Journal of Economic History 41 (1980): 81-89.

[4] Booth, Charles (1890) Life and Labour of the People in London.

[5] Stedman Jones, Gareth  Working-Class Culture and Working-Class Politics in London, 1870-1900; Notes on the Remaking of a Working Class Journal of Social History. Vol. 7, No. 4 (Summer, 1974), pp. 460-508


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