Joseph Terry (1816-1889): Home and Family – Writing Lives

Joseph Terry (1816-1889): Home and Family

Working-class fathers existed…but working-class fatherhood remained uncertain- Julie Marie Strange (1)

Time spent together for working-class families would often be scarce as the father would be forced to spend long periods of time away in order to earn a living. Jane Humphries outlines this crippling pressure, ‘The poor performance of a male head of household was catastrophic, plunging the family into poverty and threatening its disintegration’ (Humphries 20). This vivid description aligns with the pressure Joseph felt himself as he ‘often went home tired and weary with a heavy heart’ (Terry 62).  Having people depend so heavily upon him perhaps gave Joseph the drive to achieve beyond what he believed and forced him to persevere. After all, it was not only his life relying on it.

Joseph was introduced into the workplace at a young age; it was common practice for children to be sent to work and often, boys would accompany their fathers in order to learn a particular trade. This was the case with Joseph as he and his brother traveled on ships alongside their father and, for a young boy, it was just  another adventure. He recalls the moment his fresh eyes first laid upon the ship and describes it as striking him with ‘wonder and delight’ (Terry 3).

Illustration of children awaiting payment for their labour.

Because of the incessant travelling and labouring, we can rarely identify times of a domesticized communion with Joseph and his family. However, this was not from a lack of trying as his mother regularly joined them on their voyages despite having an aversion to sailing. Joseph describes her as being ‘too tender’ (Terry 5) for the boisterous conditions but, it was a sacrifice she was willing to make.

Fathers may typically rejoice in their children following in their footsteps but, Joseph was quite the opposite. He unequivocally did not want his offspring to follow him and spend their childhoods labouring. At times, when an extra income would have been much appreciated, he still considered them too young ‘to do (him) much good’ (Terry 83). This attitude could coincide with Rosemary Collins’s proposal that working-class families would ‘emulate the domestic lifestyle’ (Collins 62) of the higher classes as Joseph may have, consciously or subconsciously, emulated the middle-class ideal of having his children stay home instead of assisting the family financially. I imagine that Joseph did not want his children to lose out on a typical childhood like he and his brother did.

Carolyn Steedman claims that class is a ‘learned position, learned in childhood’ (Steedman 13) which draws reference to the disparate childhoods of the different classes. Whilst working-class children, such as Joseph, were labouring from a young age, other children would have the luxury of a middle-class lifestyle. This consisted of more free time and an education without any labouring; precisely what Joseph wanted for his own. A class position being ‘learned’ also implies that it exists internally, and perhaps this restricted mentality is a cause that prevented the working-class from aspiring beyond the confines of that mindset. Joseph’s paternal adoration towards his children are illuminated through him ensuring his children did not acquire this lowly learned position, and instead lived the childhood that he was unable to have.

A boy from a 19th century middle-class family being able to enjoy his free time.
A boy from a 19th-century middle-class family being able to enjoy his free time.

Nothing has ever been a source of greater comfort to me than what I did for the declining years of my old father

A typical attitude of a male autobiographer consists of downplaying sentimentalities and Julie-Marie Strange finds that they ‘said little about feelings for their fathers’ (Strange 7). Often, fathers were not around and were consequently unable to participate in ‘nurturing tasks’ (Strange 7). Joseph writes far more affectionately of his mother; a ‘rosy faced woman with one of the tenderest hearts’ (Terry 3). But, from an alternative perspective, it could indicate that his father simply required less vocal admiration as his achievements alone speak volumes.

We can identify the love and admiration Joseph possessed for his father through his kind actions rather than his words. When writing of his father’s decline he stated that, ‘nothing has ever been a source of greater comfort to me than what I did for the declining years of my old father’ (Terry 77). Guaranteeing that his father’s final years would be spent with ease outlines his affections and, compassionate actions such as these uphold greater merit than fleeting words on a page that his father would never be able to read.



Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity. London: Routledge, 1994 p. 62

Humphries, Jane. ‘Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution’. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, June 2010.  

Strange, Julie Marie. Fatherhood and the British Working Class 1865-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Terry, Joseph. ‘Recollections of My Life’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection

Image reference: (Accessed 08/11/2015)

Image reference: A boy from a 19th-century middle-class family being able to enjoy his free time. (Accessed 08/11/2015)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *