Joseph H Armitage (B.1908): Life & Labour – Writing Lives

Joseph H Armitage (B.1908): Life & Labour

Labour and work was an important concept for Armitage from an early age. ‘I was growing up and making my own pals. Needless to say I still had to do any odd jobs that I could do, such as [going] errands, bringing up coal from the cellar, chopping firewood etc.’ p 102. This shows the value Armitage placed on working and how he felt it was needed, out of a matter of principal if nothing else.

Although not explicitly said, I feel that Armitage saw labour as a way to get out of his hometown, see the world and do more with his life than possibly others his age were aspiring to do. ‘I never wanted to be one of a gang just sticking to one area and never going anywhere else… I knew there was what amounted to another world outside the closed-in dingey streets, and I preferred to travel further, and see more of life.’ P102. I’d like to know where Armitage got his ‘sense of adventure’ as a young boy in working class Hunslet.  He remembers his early life in such detail, often in quite a dreary tone when discussing factors affecting society. (Please see other Joseph Armitage posts for examples of this writing).This may have encouraged him to venture further afield in life to try bettering himself.

On the Monday morning after the August bank holiday after finishing school, Joseph started his first day of work at the Airedale Foundry.  ‘Dressed in my first pair of long trousers and a pair of strong working boots I felt at least a year older and a foot taller when I arrived almost ten minutes early.’ P140. This clearly shows how Armitage links labour to a sense of pride and accomplishment. Working class values of work were very important during this time, Armitage now begins to see himself as a man rather than a child, now he can earn an income and begin to support himself.

Veiw of the Foundry from the railway 1946
Veiw of the Foundry from the railway 1946

However, Core making and moulding were jobs that only existed in the Foundry, which led Armitage to describe them as ‘dead-end jobs’ p154, he also wrote ‘at a time like 1921 when employment was becoming scarcer week by week, if one had a job it was wise to stay in work until another opportunity came your way.’ P154. For a boy of 15 this is a very mature and somewhat pessimistic outlook on work and life. But is this Armitage just being realistic because he realises the issues surrounding employment within the working class?

After leaving the foundry, Armitage found work in a grocer’s; however after a short stint of work there he explains, ‘Our boss the jovial “Big Cheese” had been found dead with his shot gun beside him! Cutting a long story short the cause was financial trouble, and on the following Friday night I received my wage plus another weeks wage in lieu of notice. Once again I was out of a job and on the search for another one’ p202. The now growing list of relatively short lived jobs Armitage had, added to his doubtful outlook on finding work. The seemingly constant search for work and uncertainty of keeping a job create a definite sense of hardship within Armitage’s autobiography.

Crescent Cinema built in 1921
Crescent Cinema built in 1921

Armitage also worked in film distribution, during this short time; we can see how the working day was changing. ‘My job started at 9 o’clock in the morning with an hour for lunch at 12 o’clock, and finished at 6 o’clock’ p204. I think it’s interesting to consider how the working day has changed and how, even at that time varied greatly between job types. The shorter working hours mean more time for leisure.  Working classes could still not afford the entertainment of the theatre or concerts which the middle classes may have enjoyed but they could afford to go to the cinema. Perhaps this is why Armitage found work delivering films to cinemas?

The Majestic Cinema Leeds
The Majestic Cinema Leeds

However, this job only lasted a few weeks before he was let go, ‘In amazement I asked him what I had done! He simply said; “nothing- nothing, you’ve done alright- there just isn’t a job for you to do.”’ P204. Personally I felt quite sorry for Joseph in the way he wrote about this event, it clearly came as a shock to him and he immediately doubted his ability when he lost his job. This may reflect, rather honestly, the difficultly to remain in work during this period and the economic troubles not only families, but also businesses were facing.

I have only mentioned a small number of the jobs Armitage had during his work life, he also spent time as a painter’s mate, brickyard labourer and found work in agriculture and on the canals. He also spent a lot of time out of work ‘on the tramp’ travelling and looking for work. ‘As far as I was concerned the possibility of getting a permanent job that I could settle down to seemed as far off as the proverbial ‘end of a rainbow’ p205. This metaphor he uses of finding the end of a rainbow I find tragic yet lovely. Many people would look to find gold or money at the end of a rainbow, but Joseph simply wants the chance to earn his money, not fearing losing his job and in turn his sense of pride.


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Armitage, Joseph H. The Twenty Three Years Or The Late Way Of Life- And Of Living (1974) Found at .

Leodis.  Discovering Leeds, Poverty and Riches   

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