Isaac Edward Brown 1880 – 1974: Labour Politics, and Class – Writing Lives

Isaac Edward Brown 1880 – 1974: Labour Politics, and Class

The interesting thing about many of the working classes that we have read about throughout the curse of these blogs is their politics. Within the modern world, it would appear that the general consensus is that the working classes and the labourers would traditionally vote for these attributed parties or candidates. But what we actually observe at the turn of the Century is there is actually very little of what we today might consider to be ‘representation’ for the labouring class. Brown writes, ‘Bromley was in an overwhelmingly Conservative area; in none of the elections in my youth did the Liberal candidate stand the slightest chance…’ Brown continues to reference that ‘Mr. H. W. Forster of Southend Hall, the Conservative member, had practically a freehold until he became Lord Forster and migrated to the Upper House’ (2)

Matthew Roberts writes, within Popular Conservatism in Britain, 1832-1914, ‘The Conservative party used to be absent at the rich historiographical feasts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century British popular politics. This was ironic given that the Tories were in office…for nearly 58 years of the nineteenth century’ and they were even a major aspect of the twentieth Century as well, as Roberts continues. ‘…they were also the dominant electoral force of the twentieth century.’ (Roberts, 388) It is important to understand what I mean when I refer to Conservatism. The nature of the conservative working class, in this instance, is reminiscent of ‘the small ‘c’ sense of the term – defined as a traditional, defensive, introverted and fatalistic mindset – and how this largely depoliticized outlook inhibited the development of a genuinely class-conscious, socialist working class.2

As mentioned within my introduction to Brown’s life, I mentioned that he worked as a chartered secretary for many years until the early 1920s, wherein he began his work as a lecturer at Birmingham Commercial College. Before I go into details about this part of his life, I would just like to briefly present the image he built for us of the nature of working conditions he observes growing up. Brown writes, ‘Commercial life was at the same time less hazardous and less safe guarded thin in these days. We heard vaguely of people being out work, and of strikes and lock outs; but in Bromley we had no factories…plenty of work for the operatives in the building industry…I say “his” because very few girls were employed apart from shop workers, dressmakers, and those in other distinctively feminine occupations.’ (12)

Within Isaac Edward Brown’s memoir, we see a man who began work at aged 11, left school at 13 and would retain a working position for virtually most of his adult life. Brown references within the early sections of his memoir that to work was vital, at the turn of the century, there were no pensions schemes or national benefits. If one fell out of work due to ill ness they’d have to get by through their savings alone. ‘There was no National Insurance of any kind in those days, and no State Pension Scheme; so if you were out of work…you were entirely dependant on your savings or your family’.

In November of 1903, Isaac Brown had received a telegram that was waiting for him, which had no particulars on it ‘apart from the name and address’ (49) Isaac continues on to tell that upon entering the ‘large building’ in the city in Eastcheap, ‘and on enquiring of the liftman I was taken up to the third floor and directed to a door which bore the name of a journal connected with the wine and spirit trade.’ Though Isaac was an abstainer by choice and conviction. Nevertheless, Isaac Brown was then directed to a gentleman who observed his CIS certificate and conducted an interview. It was during this interview that it was revealed he was a Liberal Candidate for Parliament, and had asked Isaac to do his personal correspondence. ‘He offered me the post at a salary of £120 a year, conditioned to my starting gin a week…I accepted his terms.’ (51) And so it thus began that Isaac Brown became an employee for a liberal Parliamentary candidate, Isaac refers to as “Mr. L.” ‘…and in the course of a few days I finished up at the Gas Company’s offices and became “something of the city”.

Brown continued to undertake work for Mr. L, and in 1904, became a married man. Brown would continue to work as a secretary up until 1919, where he became a lecturer at Birmingham Commercial College. ‘In 1919 the City of Birmingham Commercial College advertised for a lecturer in the evening course in the secretarial practice…I was interviewed by the then principle of the college who expressed his satisfaction with my certificates…he finally agreed to recommend the Education Committee to appoint me to the position…in the following September, I took up my duties. (136)

‘The question of discipline did not arise, as most of the student were of a mature age…and they were all keen to make up for time lost owing to the War.’ Isaac Brown continues, ‘On the whole, it was very interesting and enjoyable, my only bugbear being the homework. Marking homework papers for so large a class was a tedious and lengthy process. (137) Isaac Brown would continue to work at Birmingham College for the 20 years, well into the 1930s.

I hope that this blog update has given you a wider scope of Isaac Brown’s life from the life of work. Within his autobiography, he fills it with much information about the local culture of Bromley and the working classes and he gives us a valuable insight into his time as a worker. I believe the fact he worked from age 11, working in the family with humble beginnings to becoming a well respected ‘city man’ and then a lecturer speaks volumes not only to his skill, but his determination and consistency. It is a value I w personally wish I had more of, because I cannot imagine myself achieving that well with as few opportunities at such an early age!

I thought it would be effective to include politics as well as work life within this post, because in the case of Isaac, they go hand in hand. He grew up in a conservative area, and thus was exposed to any of the cultural attitudes at that time pertaining to the various attitudes of classes. Furthermore, the fact he was involved with a liberal party candidate directly presents the notion that Isaac’s understanding of politics as well had undoubtedly made an impact.


Roberts, Matthew. Popular Conservatism In Britain, 1832-1914 pp. 387-410

1:93 BROWN, Edward, Untitled, TS, pp.199 (c.80,000 words). Brunel University Library.

‘Brown, Edward’, The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography (Brighton: Harvester, 1984) vol 1, no. 9

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