John Gibson (1887-1980): Home & Family – Writing Lives

John Gibson (1887-1980): Home & Family

Although the transcript does not go into any great detail regarding his domestic life, it is clear John Gibson’s family were extremely important in forming his beliefs and his character. John is not forthcoming with his emotions in these pages, as is perhaps typical in working-class men, and at no point does he express his feelings for any of his loved ones. However, these details are not needed for a reader to recognise the significance of certain familial figures in his life, and the admiration John had for them.

One particular influence on John’s life was his mother, who like him was an activist and dedicated her life to helping those less fortunate than herself. John clearly learned this sense of social justice from her, witnessing from childhood this strong woman ‘go[ing] up to these places and fight[ing] for the working classes…fight[ing] these cases’ (1). The ‘places’ mentioned here are the various church and union organisations who were supposed to be providing people in need with parish relief funds. However this was not always handed out promptly, and so it would be down to John’s mother to stand up for those in desperate need of help.

A factory in Tyneside, where John was raised.

John reveals how ‘we were one of the lucky people’ in that ‘there wasn’t the need’ (1) for his family to claim this parish relief. This idea that it was merely luck and circumstance that separated the Gibson family and those on the breadline will have no doubt inspired his mother to help further. John recalls how ‘my mother used to make up little parcels for sick people’ (1), acting yet again as a role model to her son and encouraging in him a generous nature. It was also his mother that pulled the strings to get him his first job, an engineer in the factory her brother worked at.

Whilst his mother undoubtedly had a positive impact on John, his experience when visiting his father on a building site, and the subsequent repercussions, ensured he was ‘absolutely dead against drink’ (1) for the remainder of his life. John and his brother ‘walked[ed] down seven miles to Wallsend’ (1) in order to visit their father, no mean feat for a ten year old, and a fact that shows his devotion to his father even if he may not openly reveal it. However, when the children arrived, not a single builder was working, instead ‘they were all in this hut drinking a barrel of beer’ (1). The idle behaviour of his father and his colleagues meant that eventually ‘he went bancrupt [sic]’ and the family were forced to endure ‘hard times’ (1). John’s hard-working nature, highlighted by his constant search for employment and his commitment to so many political causes, was perhaps instilled as a result of this incident and its consequences.

Another key presence within John’s memoir is his wife. Like his mother, she was a strong female figure who was politically active as a member of ‘the Co-op and the Labour Party’ (6). During the period between the two world wars, when ‘working-class women began to withdraw from industrial life into the home’ (Bourke, 1994, 62), only fourteen percent of married women were in paid employment (Ibid). John’s wife was part of this fourteen percent, at one point acting as the sole breadwinner whilst John was out of work. As with the seven mile walk to his father’s building site, it is in the subtle admissions that we see John’s appreciation for his wife, who ‘kept us going’ (7) whilst he was unemployed. He also boasts of her intelligence, describing a time they both met a leading figure of the Independent Labour Party. During this exchange, ‘Miss Cartwright [of the ILP] soon found out that SHE hadn’t all the brains when she met my missus’ (7).

Letchworth, Hertfordshire, where John and his wife moved to in 1925. He lived there until his death.

Aside from these details of his parents and his wife, John reveals little else about his family, although his brothers are mentioned briefly. John sadly reveals how one of his siblings ‘got killed in the ’14-’18 war’ (1). However, rather than showing any great sadness or sense of loss, John merely insists with pride how ‘he would have been a solicitor’ (1), expressing his admiration for his brother’s intelligence. This refusal to show emotion is also evident when discussing his wife’s death, an event he mentions in passing whilst bluntly revealing how he ‘found my wife lying dead here in this room’ (7).

It is clear from the omissions within his memoir that John does not readily express emotion or discuss painful memories openly. However, it is in the subtle details about his loved ones that we see his admiration and devotion for the most important people in his life, his family.

Bourke, Joanna. Working Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity. London: Routledge, 1994.
3:O232  GIBSON, (John?), Untitled, TS, pp.7 (c.5,000 words). Brunel University Library.

North Shields, Tyneside –

Letchworth, Hertfordshire –


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