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  • "Unlike Actors, Politicians or Eminent Military Men":The Meaning of Hard Work in Working Class Autobiography
  • Claire Lynch (bio)

Context and Methodology

The title of this paper is drawn from the unpublished Memoirs of a Bricklayer written by Charles Lewis Hansford (b. 1902). The preface is written by Hansford's son who notes that, unlike the other professions listed, "bricklayers have not made it their practice to leave memoirs"; nonetheless, numerous working class authors have written their autobiographies "secure in the knowledge that in different ways and in different contexts the common people had always been historians of their own lives" (Burnett, Vincent, and Mayall xiii). Looking beyond the lives of "eminent" men might now be considered the norm for life-writing theorists, yet as recently as the 1980s, social historians still felt obliged to defend their considerations of "common people" while arguing that "we identify more easily or comfortably with ordinary people than with kings and prime ministers" (Harrison 13). In more recent life writing scholarship, the representative power of autobiography has been emphasized so that it "can become the 'text of the oppressed'; articulating through one person's experience, experiences which may be representative of a particular marginalised group," and as such, arguably more suited to bricklayers than politicians (Anderson 104). Renowned subjects of life writing such as "actors, politicians or eminent military men" are commonly admired for their exceptional, untypical lives. Their autobiographies narrate an initial attainment of individual fame and professional success which elevates them above family and community, followed by additional achievements which mark them out as significant in an already admired group: award-wining actors, prime ministers, war heroes. [End Page 186]

In contrast, working class autobiography, as Hansford's preface suggests, is more frequently concerned not with who people are but what they are. This distinction is tightly bound up with historical concepts of work where for the last ten centuries "as many as 90 per cent of the population have been ordinary (common) people who had to work to make a living and who were ruled by a small minority who lived off the labour of the majority" (Harrison 13). An approach to life writing in which occupation is not a marker of individuality or status but rather evidence of conformity and a self-effacing sense of identity provides the area of enquiry here.

The examples considered below represent a sample of unpublished autobiographical manuscripts held in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography at Brunel University in West London. The archive contains over 230 autobiographies and was compiled by John Burnett, David Vincent, and David Mayall, whose work led to a series of significant publications, notably, The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography published in three volumes between 1984 and 1989. Prior academic inattention to working class lives had often been justified by a lack of available sources. This project sought to question the assumptions that illiteracy prevented self-reflection or that an unpublished narrative necessarily meant an unpublishable one. In identifying previously unknown autobiographies, Burnett, Vincent, and Mayall were able to contribute to a change in perceptions of working class autobiographies in part because they had "deliberately gone out to look for them" (Harrison 16). Earlier studies of labour history which focused on the minority group of activists and trade union leaders had been equally guilty of overlooking the majority of working class people who, despite leading unremittingly difficult lives, continued to live and work within established structures. In identifying the narratives of these people, The Autobiography of the Working Class is an unquestionably useful resource for socio-cultural historians. However, the organization of the lives of men and women using the 1911 census categories of occupation has inevitably converted the life narratives of individuals into occupational categories. Lives become simplified to jobs in the introduction to the first volume which accounts for "90 soldiers, 43 errand boys, 66 domestic servants, 93 farm labourers and 52 farm boys and bird scarers" amongst many others (Burnett, Vincent, and Mayall xix). The purpose of this paper will be to return to the origins of this seminal research completed over twenty years ago to reconsider the lives which became such...


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pp. 186-202
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