John Edmonds (1911-1984): Life and Labour (Part Two) – Writing Lives

John Edmonds (1911-1984): Life and Labour (Part Two)

Fig. 1. Male/female unemployment, 1931-1951 (A Vision of Britain through Time).

John Edmonds’ memoir, ‘The Lean Years’, is set mainly during the interwar period. As a result, much of John’s working life is not mentioned. Work does however play a part, as it is an integral factor of working-class life, and John’s anomalous attempts to earn money as a young boy had to supplement the Edmonds family’s income. This is mainly due to the employment issues experienced by his father. Employment in the Bermondsey area during the years of John’s writing was hard to come by. Work was available but many working-class people had difficulty holding down a job. Figures indicate that employment rates experienced relative stability. Those in work generally remained that way, whilst penetration into regular employment from unemployment was difficult. John calls the years of his memoir ‘the years of unemployment and the dole’ (5).

Records indicate that both employment and unemployment figures dropped proportionally between 1931 and 1951, as per Fig. 1 (A Vision of Britain through Time). This may be indicative of the population decrease, as the area is recorded to have a population of 111,542 in 1931 which almost halved to 60,640 in 1951 (A Vision of Britain through Time). Encouragingly, unemployment figures for both sexes reached significant lows in 1951, with a mere 130 females recorded as being unemployed. Available figures for claimants against unemployment begin in 1927, and charting this through until the “end” of the “Lean Years” in 1939, there is a mere differentiation of 46 for employed claimants and 28 for unemployed claimants. Bi-annual records denote that fluctuations do not exceed a deviation of 1,000 at a time (A Vision of Britain through Time). In the early 1930s, male unemployment in Bermondsey held a rate of approximately 15, as opposed to the national average of approximately 12.5. As detailed in Fig. 2, male unemployment rates would gradually decrease before eventually finding equilibrium with the national average in the early 1950s (A Vision of Britain through Time). Of the data shown, the dates concerning John’s memoir demonstrate a significant unemployment problem in the Bermondsey area during the “Lean Years” which correlates with John’s recounts of the area’s poverty and of his father’s struggles to find regular employment.

Fig. 2. Rate of male unemployment in Bermondsey area in contrast with that of England and Wales (A Vision of Britain through Time)
The Registrar General’s Social Class Schema

In 1911, the Registrar General’s Office made the first attempt to understand the broadening class structure via its social class schema (Fig. 3). Mike Savage identifies a problem with class identification at this stage. Earlier attempts, such as Charles Booth’s poverty maps of London in the 1880s, conflated ‘class with respectability and morality’ (2015, 32). Class and criminality were presented as congruent: ‘Lowest-class. Vicious, semi-criminal’ (Booth, 2016, n.pag). All of this is amid fears of the ‘law-breaking and disreputable unemployed’ (Savage, 2015, 32) that Gareth Stedman Jones contends was viewed as a dangerous stratum of society labelled the residuum (1971). John’s father would be a potential candidate for this disdained category, and John gives evidence that there is a general public murmur of discontent based upon his employment status. Of his father, John claims ‘He has been called a lazy man by those who misunderstood him’ (32), suggesting an awareness on John’s behalf that employment does not mirror character, good nor bad. Regardless, employment status resembles a token of status amongst the working class, and the use of the pejorative ‘lazy’ (32) against someone who struggles to find work echoes the fragile class assumptions made by Booth. John concedes that his father ‘did not keep a job during the period of which I write for more than a few months and never lightened my mother’s household work’ (32), but he sees beyond the reductive opinion that regular employment simply equates a good, hard-working man. He claims that he was ‘always occupied whilst out of regular employment in repairing and redecorating the house, making and mending clocks and other items of household equipment for ourselves and for neighbours, thereby supplementing the dole with the few shillings so earned’ (32). John’s father was eager to be occupied and useful. That he could not hold down a job does not make him lazy, nor a criminal.

Charles Booth’s poverty map for the estate that John grew up on. His street, Eugenia Road, is highlighted by the red box.
Dole queue, 1920s.

Whilst talk of work in ‘The Lean Years’ is often alludes to its elusiveness, the richest description of labour comes from the home work of John’s aunt Ada. Ada was the sister of John’s father, and lived with the Edmonds family out of economic necessity. She ‘was an envelope folder by trade, and brought home work to supplement her earnings’ (26), allowing the children to ‘watch her at her home work provided we did not make excessive noise’ (26). The phrasing indicates that this was almost a treat for the children; the presence of work being so alien that this became a spectacle. John was clearly impressed by Ada’s work, intricately describing the process of folding envelopes in a mesmerised tone. John found it ‘facinating’ [sic] (26). There is a sense of appreciation for what John infers is a bygone artisanship. He suggests that there is a sense of pure “authenticity” in his aunt’s handmade work that becomes increasingly impressive as the world veers into a state of dependence upon mechanical reproduction. His aunt could make ‘an envelope as exact and true as any made by machinery’ (27). He adds that to the very day he wrote his memoir, ‘I marvel at the skill which could produce these perfect rectangles of exactly the same size without the use of a measuring device or jig of any description’ (27).

The “Lean Years” was a period wherein ‘less fortunate men made the rounds of places where employment might be found for a week or maybe even a day’ (5), and assumptions can be made upon the men because of this. However, John’s memoir contends that good men merely fell upon hard times, and that employment status does not define a man. Scarcity of work bred an appreciation of labour in John, and his admiration of his trying father and working aunt helped to mould a man who would never take anything for granted.



2.237 EDMONDS, John, ‘The Lean Years’, MS, pp.89 + 3pp. list of illustrations (c.18,000 words). BruneI University Library. 


‘Bermondsey Census Unemployment by Sex.’ A Vision of Britain through Time. N.d. Web. Accessed 17 April 2018.

‘Bermondsey Claimant Count Unemployment.’ A Vision of Britain through Time. N.d. Web. Accessed 17 April 2018.

‘Bermondsey Current Rate: Male Unemployment.’ A Vision of Britain through Time. N.d. Web. Accessed 17 April 2018.

‘Bermondsey Total Population.’ A Vision of Britain through Time. N.d. Web. Accessed 17 April 2018.

Booth, Charles. ‘London Poverty Map.’ Charles Booth’s London. 2016. Web. Accessed 18 April 2018.

Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Pelican, 2015.

Stedman Jones, Gareth. Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship Between Classes in Victorian Society. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.



Charles Booth’s poverty map – 

Dole queue, 1920s – 

Fig. 1. Male/Female Unemployment, 1931-1951 – 

Fig. 2. Rate of male unemploment- 

Fig. 3. The Registrar General’s Social Class Schema – Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Pelican, 2015. 34.

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