Joseph Terry (1816-1889): Life and Labour – Writing Lives

Joseph Terry (1816-1889): Life and Labour

It was a struggle against the fates and each family fought it out the best they could (Roberts 31)

A Working-Class Family from 19th Century England

Roberts invokes a callous imagery of the working-class society consisting of a ruthless dog eat dog world where people ‘fought it out’ (Roberts 31) in order to survive. However, this is not the same impression that we gain of the working-class through Joseph Terry’s memoir as he instead exemplifies the charitable nature of the working class families around him. When he and his family were undergoing such great turmoil that it was ‘utterly impossible’ for him to describe what he ‘suffered for want of proper nourishment and clothing’ (Terry 9), it would have been easy to fall apart. However, they were able to find a ray of light in that interminable darkness through the generosity of others. ‘Some kind-hearted mother’ (Terry 9) was often able to assist with, what may appear to be, a small gesture of offering items of clothing to his family. When taking into consideration the insufficiency of their own belongings, a person willing to give ‘from the not too plentiful wardrobe of her own’ (Terry 9) emphasises the selfless sense of unity amongst the working-class community.

But with all this poverty and seeming wretchedness, there was coupled much kindness…

This sense of unity arises as they have together been undeservedly born into a hindered life and therefore, altruism towards one another, even in the humble gesture of offering clothing, is essential for survival. Joseph wrote that  ‘with all this poverty and seeming wretchedness, there was coupled much kindness… much real and earnest sympathy for the suffering ones’ (Terry 11), and these touching words not only radiate hope but also emanate the significance beyond that seemingly simple action. One could easily infer that the higher classes attained a far greater independence as with money come opportunities, and that is considerably limited for the lower classes. However, if we were to judge in terms of community, it could be the upper-classes who were lacking. As Gerald Newman points out, the sheltered nature of the upper-class resulted in their children spending ‘much time in the care of servants’ (Newman 118).

Painting of an upper-class family entitled ‘The Governess’ by Rebecca Solomon. Showing the parent’s disinterest in their child as she is with the Governess.

Joseph’s parents, of course, couldn’t afford to hire help. In times of need, they relied on the the assistance of family members to care for Joseph and his brother. Whilst the upper-class families would attain a ‘reliance on servants’ (Newman 118), the working class would find consolation amongst each other which would result in feelings of harmony and solidarity. This growing distinction between the classes exemplifies the juxtaposing ideology of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that David Cannadine notes in . ‘Class is best understood as being what culture is to inequality and social structure: investing the many anonymous individuals and unfathomable collectivities in society with shape and significance (Canadian 188). Here, Canadine is outlining how class is not merely an economic label but is also entwined with culture. He is suggesting that a person’s class has the ability to shape the ‘anonymous individuals’, and this class consciousness establishes distinct characteristics that fluctuate between the different classes.

I have never forgotten his kindness, and advice, at this most trying hour of my life…

Coming from a working class family, Joseph was born with the burden of deprivation but he managed to create his own opportunities and, through incentives and education, consequently forged a successful life for himself (even with a few bumps in the road). The pride he takes in his accomplishments are tangible but the credible modesty of a working class man from a working class family is not lost. He never surrenders the moral stance that the kindness of neighbouring families helped to flourish and takes pride in the vindication of his character as it was something he ‘valued most of anything in the world’ (Terry 71).

A large working-class family from the late 19th-          century.

19th Century working-class men were often defined through their aptitude in the workplace as well as their attitudes towards work. A man displaying indolent characteristics would become tarnished and perceived as being subpar and insubordinate. Luckily for Joseph, his morals and fortitude meant this would never be his fate, and his character did not go unnoticed. People are more susceptible to helping someone who attains a kind soul, and when Joseph and his family were struggling, a friend of his (James Wilde) immediately offered his hand and his money. It is heartwarming to see goodness rewarded and Joseph has ‘never forgotten his kindness’ (Terry 93).

Regardless of class, each man and woman strived for stability within their households, but this status was fleeting as even once achieving a state of permanence it could easily be snatched from under you. For the working-class, this looming threat was far more imminent and this is why the philanthropic attitudes that Joseph’s family benefited from are a necessity. They acted as a safety net that prevents you from falling and surrendering what little hope you have left.




Garrard, John. “Urban Elites, 1850-1914: The Rule and Decline of a New Squirearchy?”. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 27.4 (1995): 583–621. Web…

Garrard, John. “Urban Elites, 1850-1914: The Rule and Decline of a New Squirearchy?”. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 27.4 (1995): 583–621. Web…

Newman, Gerald. Britain in the Hanoverian Age, 1714-1837: An Encyclopedia: An Encyclopaedia (Garland Reference Library of the Humanities). Routledge:   ,1997

Terry, Joseph. ‘Recollections of My Life’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection

Image reference: . (Accessed 25/01/2016)

Image reference: (Accessed 25/01/2016)

Image reference: . (Accessed 25/01/2016)

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