Jack Lanigan (1890-1975): Home & Family – Writing Lives

Jack Lanigan (1890-1975): Home & Family

“We are now orphans, Jack, what are we going to do?”… “I don’t know, but where you go, I go with you”

Jack Lanigan, ‘Thy Kingdom Did Come’, (9-10).

This was the sad reality of family life in the late nineteenth century, with high death rates due to extremely poor living conditions it meant that many families felt a huge sense of loss. In Jack Lanigan’s case he became an orphan after the death of his mother and father. As an adult, Jack Lanigan regained a sense of family through his marriage and his two children, however, his childhood gives more of an insight into working-class family life.

Victorian back-to-back housing.
Victorian back-to-back housing.

Born into a working-class family in a ‘two up and one down’ (2) house in Thomas Street, Salford, Jack Lanigan experienced hardship like no other as a child. His home was not a home at all:

The back bedroom, where Matt and I slept was immediately over this privy midden, the bedroom floor also acted as ceiling of this obnoxious structure. The smell in our bedroom was vile… I cannot remember having any bedding on our bed (2).

This sad, dismal image of the house filtered into family life. Despite his father being a skilled engraver, ‘one of the best’ (2), the fear of losing this work was ever present. As Robert Roberts suggests in his book, The Classic Slum, ‘fear was the leitmotif of [working-class] lives, dulled only now and then by the Dutch courage gained from drunkenness’ (88), it would be this drunkenness and ‘his brain [being] affected’ (3), (as Jack Lanigan puts it) that would lead to the death of Jack Lanigan’s father. The death of his father meant that the struggles the Lanigan family faced were worsened as he states, ‘We became very hungry kids after father died’ (3). Jack Lanigan and his brother Matt now took on the responsibilities of his father, working and providing for their family. Even more devastating was the death of his mother due to ‘ill-nourishment’ (9), thus, Jack and his brother became orphans. However, Lanigan’s mother had married twice with children and so Jack and his brother Matt lived with their married step-sister. Despite this, Lanigan felt a sense of responsibility to look after himself and so continued to work and provide for himself.

The matter-of-fact way in which he speaks of the death of his mother and father suggests that this was a common occurrence in many families living in slum conditions, where it was part of life. However, this may also be a topic too upsetting to express as he states, ‘a handkerchief must be handy to wipe away the tears’ (2) when recollecting other heart-breaking times. The courage and closeness of the two brothers is admirable and endearing. Although these families experienced suffering, loss and devastation, the family dynamic remained whether that be through blood or though friendship.

Works Cited:

1:421 Lanigan, Jack, ‘Thy Kingdom Did Come’, TS, pp.92 (c.42,000 words). Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library.

Lanigan, Jack, ‘Thy Kingdom Did Come’, TS, pp.92 (c.42,000 words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.95-9. Brunel University Library.

Roberts, Robert. The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1973.


‘Back to Back Terraces’. BBC.co.uk. 9 October 2002. Web. Accessed 7 November 2015.

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