Joseph Terry (1816-1889) : An Introduction – Writing Lives

Joseph Terry (1816-1889) : An Introduction

Years rolled away and I was tossed mercilessly on the ocean of life (Terry 40)

A memoir is unlike any other form of literature as it permits a rare and interesting insight into the life of, what can appear to be, an uninteresting person. On the surface, Joseph Terry and his working class lifestyle may come across in this mundane manner, especially when compared to the eccentric lives of many distinguished authors, but upon reading his memoir you recognize the inaccuracy of these premeditated judgments. Joseph grants us a look beyond stereotypical images of the working-class and into the unrelenting life of a man who strives to better himself and his family.

An incessant fear for his life was an inescapable aspect of Joseph’s tumultuous trade as a

Emily and Charlotte Bronte with their mother.
Emily and Charlotte Bronte with their mother.

waterman. At times, he had to ‘rely on the mercy of God’ (Terry 28) in order to survive and escape a ‘watery grave’ (Terry 28). It was in his home county of Yorkshire that he began this occupation, a region which he shared with other writers such as, the Bronte sisters and Ted Hughes. He even possessed the same birth year of 1816 with Charlotte Bronte! Yorkshire is renowned for its aesthetic landscapes and we see this reflected in Joseph’s love for the outdoors which was only perpetuated when he began traveling. Relishing every landscape he encountered and going out of his way to seek nature, Joseph would land himself in bother in order to attain a mere stroll amongst the countryside: ‘I heard the fierce bellowing of a bull’ (Terry 23).  This would be just one of many near death experiences for Joseph, but none deterring his love of exploration.


I would not allow any man to interfere with my liberty

For many years, Joseph continued to follow in his father’s footsteps by enduring many strenuous years as a waterman. However, this became just one vocation of many as throughout his life he partook in an array of different trades. These included shop work at the fresh age of 6, acting as a clerk, and co-owning mills! Even as a young lad, he attained that drive to endeavor and succeed and this only grew as he matured. Unfortunately, these professions were not often plain sailing for Joseph as a danger of peril closely shadowed him. This danger is exemplified through the jealousy that arose amongst his fellow workers who disliked having his high standard to compete with. Multiple times they bitterly attempted to tarnish Joseph’s good name but, he would never tolerate this and allow a mere man to undermine his well-earned accomplishments: ‘I would not allow any man to interfere with my liberty’ (Terry 68).

Railway station in Mirfield, Yorkshire.

Having endured much privation as a boy, food often being scarce, it became Joseph’s main priority to earn enough capital to provide for his ever-growing family and allow as comfortable a living that he could permit. This overwhelming pressure would become challenging at times, but his commitment to his family caused him to persist and he never shied away from hard work. Unlike most others, Joseph did not take pleasure in any free time as, in his eyes, they were just fleeting moments that could be spent working or educating himself further: ‘I spent all my time reading, writing, composing’ (Terry 33).

Mill in West Yorkshire.

His enticing persona easily allows a relationship between himself and the reader to flourish. You find yourself rooting for the kind fellow, the underdog. His writing is very factual, the sincerity reflecting the nature of his own character. However, this by no means suggests that it neglects a jovial nature in places where it thrives: ‘A man and his wife… if you had seen them together you would have seen two statues of Plenty and Famine’ (Terry 33). Perhaps in today’s politically correct society some may think this mean-spirited but, you cannot deny its humorous nature and the unavoidable image it conjures.

The family must tread life’s thorny way

Furthermore, we are unexpectedly gifted with sporadic extracts of poetry which reflect his life at that moment: ‘The family must tread life’s thorny way, And feel the power of adverse tempests still’ (Terry 84). These poetic embellishments are just one of the ways in which he casts a new light and a new perspective upon the working class. They, alongside his emotive account, permit a close inspection into his whirlwind life.



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

Image reference: (Accessed 07/11/2015)

Image reference: . (Accessed 07/11/2015)

Image reference: (Accessed 07/11/2015)


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