John Gibson (1887-1980): Habits & Beliefs – Writing Lives

John Gibson (1887-1980): Habits & Beliefs

‘We was all single men…single as far as marriage was concerned, and as far as our mind was concerned, it was single as well…’ (2)

Away from politics, John Gibson’s transcript reveals his main passion to be horse racing. Although initially attractive to the aristocracy, at the turn of the century the sport was hugely popular with working-class audiences. Within these pages, John discusses his visits to the tracks, as well as some of the beliefs that made up his character; his charitable nature, his ability to see the good in people, and his dislike of alcohol.

Working-class entertainment was a vital form of escapism for the likes of John, a chance to forget about the stress of the working week and celebrate their ‘distinctiveness vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie’ (Croll, 1984, 403). As such, simple acts such as visiting the racing tracks and placing bets on horses became political exercises and demonstrations of class pride. These forms of entertainment in which the working class found solace became ‘inscribed with class meanings’ (Ibid, 402), allowing cultural as well as political lines to be drawn between workers and the more wealthy.

A familiar scene to John, whose passion for horse racing was second only to his passion for politics.

‘Working-class engagement with racing was and is primarily mediated by betting activity’ (Filby, 1983, 105), a fact highlighted by John and his friends’ love of gambling. At one point, John claims to have ‘won a lot of money [from]…knocking about race-courses in those days’, to such an extent that ‘if we had thirty pounds, we were skint’ (2). For context, £30 at this time, adjusted for inflation, would have been worth around £3,300 in today’s currency (, emphasising the success these men had through this form of entertainment. John enjoyed this pastime so much that, whilst hospitalised with small pox, he persuaded a doctor to place a bet on a horse for him. ‘[The doctor] said, “if you put the money in a bag, I can put it on for you.” So he did, and the horse won’ (5).

Photograph capturing Samuel F. Cody competing in the Daily Mail ‘Circuit of Britain’ race. John refers to him as ‘Buffalo Bill’ (2), mistaking him for Wild West showman William Frederick Cody.

Aside from horse racing, John makes reference to other interests in this transcript. When in Stafford, where his brothers lived, John reveals how he ‘enjoyed sailing on the river’ (2), but it is a much more unconventional hobby that piqued my interest. John explains how he earned the nickname ‘“The Christmas Conjuror”, because I used to do a little bit of conjuring’ (1), although he mysteriously (and frustratingly) does not go into any further detail. Interestingly, John also caught a glimpse of the famous ‘airship and airplane race around Britain’ (1) whilst in Darlington in 1911, a competition that the Daily Mail offered a £10,000 prize for winning. This was a small stroke of good fortune during John’s difficult search for employment up and down the country.

John fondly recalls how he ‘always had some good pals’ (7) throughout his life, who were often there for him during difficult times. His friendship with those whom he frequented the race courses reveals as much about his political beliefs as it does about about his social life. The three met in the British Westinghouse factory in Manchester and quickly hit it off. Such was their togetherness that ‘if I found a five shilling piece on the ground, it was for the three of us, we shared everything’ (2). As a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, this was very much John’s political ideology; a belief that all resources should be shared out in the interests of the many.

One revelation that contradicts this somewhat is John’s remark that the group were ‘single as far as marriage was concerned, and as far as our mind was concerned, it was single as well’ (2). Single-mindedness is not a trait commonly associated with socialists, however this was more an expression of the freedom and lack of responsibility these young men had at this time in their lives, rather than a betrayal of the cause.

In one encounter with a beggar, who had just been released from prison for ‘”simple stealin’’’ (2), John and the others showed their compassion and understanding for those in more difficult circumstances than their own. After handing the ‘thief’ some money to buy a pint of beer with, the men were surprised to see him return with the change from his purchase. ‘In jail for stealing, and yet he wants to give us the change out of the half-crown…It makes ye [sic] think, doesn’t it?’ (2). Despite being ‘dead against drink’ (1) himself, John showed his generosity in helping this man, understanding that his criminal past may not necessarily have been due to any malevolence, but rather due to difficult circumstances.

As a man whose life was dedicated to the intense, passionate and highly emotive world of political activism, it was essential for John to have some down time in order to blow off steam. His love for horse racing, a sport with a huge working-class audience, and his close circle of dependable friends will have no doubt offered a welcome distraction to his stressful working and political life, whilst encounters such as the one with the beggar will have helped to shape his personal beliefs.

Croll, Andy. ‘Popular Leisure and Sport’. A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain. Ed. Chris Williams. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.
Filby, Michael Paul. A Sociology of Horse-Racing in Britain: A Study of the Social Significance and Organisation of British Horse-Racing. Warwick: Warwick UP, 1983.
3:O232  GIBSON, (John?). Untitled, TS, pp.7 (c.5,000 words). Brunel University Library.

Horse race painting –
Image of Cody during ‘Circuit of Britain’ race

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