Guy Oates (1905-1987): Life and Labour – Part Three – Writing Lives

Guy Oates (1905-1987): Life and Labour – Part Three

Poor Law Institution, York. 1927-28

It was a full time job, ordering, issuing, checking, and entering all the many items into the correct accounts and books, and periodically checking every item with the book figure so keeping your stocks correct’

(Oates, 4:8).
York institution – A hospital ward (4:15).

Guy had finished his time at Romford and began his new job as a ‘Storekeeper […] on the 1st September’ (4:4). Although this institution ‘was as big as Old Church Hospital’ it was ‘oh so very different’ (4:4). It ‘had no acute hospital’ (4:4) but did have ‘male and female certified mental patients’ (4:4), ‘the chronic sick aged and infirm’ (4:4) and two children’s homes. As the new storekeeper Guy was shocked by the conditions of the storerooms and ‘how anyone could let a place get into such a state [he] will never understand’ (4:4). Guy considered resigning as the place was so bad, but he remembered his mother’s words ‘if you are healthy and strong then any amount of hard work will never hurt you,’ (4:4). With that in his mind he set to work right away. For 3 weeks straight Guy ‘worked until after 10:00 pm,’ (4:5). He began by cleaning the celling’s getting rid of the ‘loose white wash’ and bit by bit he began to, ‘re white was one room at a time,’ then he scrubbed the shelves and other bits and pieces around the place. ‘The whole lot took [him] just over a month of working almost every night,’ (4:5) and once he was finished here, he moved onto another store. He began unpacking parcels and when he lifted a box up ‘out ran a rat, [he] was not surprised [by the rat] on account of the awful smell’ (4:5). Guy took it upon himself to get ‘a kitten in order to keep down the vermin’ (4:5) and so he wrote his mother a letter asking her if she could get him one and he would come home to collect it. This kitten later became Guy’s companion and was named ‘Jet’ (4:7). When Guy had finished the cleaning he ‘invited the assistant master to come and have a look [at his work]. He got quite the shock, saying he didn’t believe so much could be done within the time’ (4:5). The following day the master came down to inspect Guy’s work and although he didn’t say much before leaving he ‘had a good look round, [and] said “I think you should know that at the appointment, there were one or two Committee who did not vote for you, but I told them it was either you or none’ (4:5). Guy had to provide food for 600 people, his hours of duty were, ‘7:0 to 8:0 am. 8:30 to 1:0pm. 2:0 to 5:30pm and in the office for two nights one week and three another 6:0 to 10:0pm, (for the purpose of sending out dangerously ill and death notices,) and every other Saturday’ (4:7). Guy certainty had a hectic timetable, and on top of this, the master was a difficult man (he was a heavy drinker). So when Guy ‘had been there [for] about three months’ (4:9) Mr Jenner (the master) began to visit Guy often, and since he liked Guy, he began to want Guy to spend all of his spare time with him while he drank, but eventually, as a result of this, their bond grew.

Experiences and new positions

Guy gained ‘good experience, having to find out by [him]self how to do the various jobs. [As] no one came to show [him what to do]’ (4:8). As time went on he began to learn ‘what went on outside the office and what made a place of this size tick over, and keep the wheels turning’ (4:8). Guy clearly had a knack for this type of work, and because he was a hard worker, he soon had a ‘good grounding in Poor Law doing both the clerical and manual work, and had been through most departments in any Workhouse’ (4:8). But of course, when you have learnt all you could in one place, the logical thing to do was for Guy to move on, after ten months of storekeeping Guy decided he should apply for another job. The ‘next position up the ladder would be that of Assistant Master’ (4:12), and so he began to search in the ‘Poor Law Officers Journal’ (4:13) for this type of job. There was a position being advertised for ‘an assistant master’ at ‘81a, Mill Road, Cambridge’ (4:13). The salary being quoted at ‘£75 per annum rising by £5 to £85. This was the same as [what Guy] was getting [already] so [he] was not improving [him]self financially, neither was [he] losing anything’ (4:13). But there where many things to consider it would ‘take [him] within fifty miles of Doris’ (who you’ll have read about in Sarah’s blog). ‘It would bring [him] much closer to the master [position] and [he] would have to accept full responsibility for many more things that [he] had done in the past’ (4:13). Although nerve-wracking it was also a necessary step for Guy to take if ‘[he] was going to get to the top’ (4:13).

Moving on (again)

Guy ‘had to find out whether [he] was capable’ (4:13) of handling such a role which played a big responsibility with the institution. Guy sent of forms to the position advertised and since he needed to get a recent reference this meant he had to tell Mr Jenner of the news. But Guy spending all of those evenings with him resulted in Mr Jenner having a soft spot for Guy, ‘I wont give you a reference I will write personally to the master’ (4:13). ‘Some weeks later [Guy] got a letter from Cambridge telling [him] to attend for [an] interview’ he was able to successfully get the job once again, on his ‘first attempt, [for] the fifth consecutive time’ (4:14) an amazing achievement for anyone!

Poor Law Institution, Cambridge. 1928-31

I began to wonder yet again if I was taking on something beyond my capabilities. Always staring me in the face was my school education and its academic failure. So far by hard work and watching others I got through to where I am, […] One thing was sure, it was too late to turn back, all I can do is to try’

(Oates, 4:16).
Cambridge Institution 1929 (4:17).
Guy’s mother in hospital (4:17).

Guy arrived at the institution at ‘about 4:0[0] pm on the 1st July, 1928′ (4:16). The following morning he met the master ‘R.W.Ramsay, M.B.E. He was young, dark, well built, very good looking and alert’ (4:16). Guy was ‘responsible for the keeping of all the books and accounts, the ordering, receiving, checking, entering and issuing of all commodities, together with the stock taking and balancing of the books’ (4:16). I am sure our young Guy never thought that he would be able to do such a thing when he was at school but look at what he achieved! ‘It was now part of [his] duties to attend each morning at the casual wards to assist the porter in discharging those going out, and help in pitting to work those remaining in’ (4:16). Guy had to always be on his guard when dealing with the inmates as he ‘never knew with whom or what type of a man [he was] dealing with’ (4:16). Guy had to deal with uncooperative men on several occasions but luckily he was always able to handle them, or he was able to call the police to come and handcuff the inmates. Guy was responsible for ‘the safety of over 200 people’ when the master and matron were not present, and so he was always highly vigilant. Guy’s working hours ‘were three days a week 8:0 am until 6 pm with 1 ½ hours off for meals, three days 8:0 am until 10:0 pm with 2 hours odd for meals and every other Sunday’ (4:20). Guy was not settling in well at his new job and he ‘felt alone and was alone, [he] knew no one, and [his] position as second in command did not allow [him] to mix with any of the staff’ (4:20). As time went on he began to ‘find it tough going but [he was] keeping [his] head above water, when one morning [he] received a letter from home, saying [his] mother had been admitted to the Harrogate Infirmary suffering from Cancer of the breast’ (4:21). This of course came to quite a shock to Guy and ‘upset [him] more than anything had ever done before, and [he] began to get very low in spirits’ (4:21). Guy went to visit his mother and as he ‘walked along the ward looking at each person as [he] walked by, [he] could not see [his] Mother. [He] turned round and walked back to see someone laying down and waving a hand’ (4:21). The breast cancer had attacked her very quickly, and she was looking very frail, ‘in so short a time [he] did not recognise [his] own Mother’ (4:21). He spent the night there, but they ‘both knew what each[other were] thinking. How [Guy] wished [he] had never left York’ (4:21). This a situation which many of us have had to experience in our lives, Guy’s mother seemed like such a wonderful lady, and so it is heart-breaking to read about her illness. This, of course, affected Guy’s work and his ability to concentrate, ‘[he] was thinking not as an adult but as a child, for it was as a child [he] had known her the most. [He] had the urge to write’ (4:21). Here are some of the poems Guy wrote during this hard period:

‘I’ll beat that cancer’ (4:24).
For Septimus (4:24).

Sarah goes into more details about Guy’s relationship with his mother on her ‘Home and Family – Part Two’ post.

‘Inmates Outing at “Ansty Hall”. Trumpington, Cambridge’ 15.8. 29 (4:31)

A year on the job

I think Guy missed having people he considered friends, his position meant that he did not mingle with other workers and so life became very lonely. After Guy had been working at Cambridge, ‘a vacancy occur[r]ed in the hospital for a ward sister. [He] immediately thought of Doris (4:27). So, Guy decided he should truthfully explain to the matron ‘why [he] would like [Doris] to get the job,’ (4:27) Guy was in desperate need to have someone he knew working there. Luckily for Guy, Doris got the job, but of course just because she was someone Guy knew it did not mean she got off lightly, she ‘was not given a fair crack of the whip [and] she was not given a ward of her own’ (4:28). Guy suspects this was the matron’s way of getting back at him ‘for not continuing any friendship with her sister, Laura’ (4:28). It was ‘forbidden for any male staff to be seen talking to any female staff within the institution. Discipline was just as strict then as it is slack now. It went so far that, unless it was a married couple, no single male may walk up the entrance with a female’ (4:28). This, of course, made Guy’s and Doris’ relationship difficult as they were not able to see each other often and when they did it wasn’t for long. ‘Cambridge was [Guy’s] fifth institution. For some reason [he] was unhappier here than in any of the other four,’ (4:29). Thankfully when Doris came, Guy ‘was so much happier [as he had] someone to go out with and [had] something to do’ (4:29) in his spare time.

Staff at Cambridge Institution 1928 (4:19).

A new position and a wedding

‘About the middle of 1929 the position of the assistant matron of the workhouse side became vacant. Immediately [Guy] realised this was an opportunity [he] must not let slip by’ (4:33). This new rank would allow for Guy and Doris to get married, they ‘could also be the resident assistant master and assistant matron, just the position to hold when applying for [their] first position of Master & Matron’ (4:33). The experience Guy has gained over the years joined with Doris’ qualifications; meant that they stood a good chance at getting this position. It was now in Doris’ hands as to whether she would ‘marry [Guy] and secondly would she be prepared to give up her nursing and come onto the institutional side of [the] workhouse’ (4:33). At the next chance he could, he asked Doris if she liked his plan, ‘to [his] relief and joy she said she would marry [him] (4:33). This was not the proposal I was expecting, but Guy did mention that he wasn’t very good at expressing his emotions. The master agreed to this proposal and Doris was given the job of an assistant matron, Guy soon took the ‘Poor Law Examinations Board’ test and passed with flying colours. ‘Everything had fallen into place just as [he] had planned and hoped’ (4:33). Now all that was left to do was the wedding, and when ‘the great day for the wedding arrived there was little fus[s]’ (4:34) just how Guy liked it. Once the wedding was over, a chauffeur took them to the railway station and ‘on reaching London [one of Guys] brother[s] took [them] to [their] hotel’ (4:34).

‘The Great Day’ (4:35).

The Miners’ Strike

‘When the miners from the North struck’ the began to ‘organising themselves into gangs’ (4:37). Nobody was working in the mines, ‘not even the men who man the pumps to keep out the water from flooding the mine’ (4:37) as a result of this many mines did in fact over flood and were lost forever. ‘The General Strike of 1926 was the largest industrial dispute in Britain’s history. The Trades Union Congress called the strike to prevent wage reduction and worsening conditions for coal miners’ (The National Archives, BBC News, 2011). The men who decided to strike used ‘the workhouse as their means of food and rest’ (4:37) they claimed to be vagrants and so had to be let in, but they soon had a change of attitude when they learnt that they had to work and ‘they were not going to stay in for a while day and work’ (4:37). However, ‘the government knew the regulations could not be enforced,’ (4:37) all regulations went out of the window as ‘the leaders demanded they and some of the miners be allowed out in the evening to go round pleading their cause’ (4:37) when they went out they ‘collect[ed] money which they brought back to the institution’ (4:37) which led to a great confusion as to what rules applied anymore. There was simply nothing that could be done, ‘what could two of [them] do against forty men in an angry mood’ (4:37) every rule seemed to have got broken. There was no common courtesy involved the ‘forrruners [sic] [just] came on ahead, not to ask you how many you could accommodate but to warn you that so many were on their way and would expect to be given food and shelter’ (4:37). All of the policies put in place to restrict a vagrant were completely disregarded, ‘the taking of and registering their names, the bathing, the searching, all were refused’ (4:37). The following morning after breakfast, ‘those that were able went on their way to the next institution’ (4:37). Many were in a bad state and ‘were not in a fit state to carry on,’ (4:37) Guy had no doubt that ‘the nearer they got to London the worse [their] conditions’ (4:37) would have got. Guy knew that this was not an experience that many would have had and so he thought he would share his as it was ‘an experience which only [came] once in a life time, and not all workhouses got these men’ (4:37), so his ‘encounter[ing] [of them] gave [him] that bit of extra experience’ (4:37).

‘The beginning of Public Assistance’ (4:39)

‘In April 1930 a great change and upheaval took place in the Poor Law service’ (4:39). The ‘Poor Law and Boards of Guardians’ was being replaced by the ‘Public Assistance’ (4:39). For the majority of the service, it remained pretty much the same ‘except that there were big changes at the very top’ (4:39). The things that started to get changed were, ‘the name, Workhouse, Poor Law Institution and Union [they all] began to disappear. In their place came name[s] like Public Assistance Institution, Infirmary and Hospital’ (4:39). The areas which were ‘governed by a Board of Guardians was now swallowed up in the area of a County Borough’ (4:39). In a county, there were as many as ten (sometimes more) institutions, and so ‘the chief officer being the Town Clerk of a borough, and the Clerk to the County Council if a County’ (4:40). These officials then appointed someone (normally a man) ‘to assist [them] in seeing that various Acts and regulations governing these establishments were now coming under [their] authority were implemented’ (4:40). Whoever was selected for this role were ‘given the title of Public Assistance Officer and in turn appointed [their] staff’ (4:40). Members were selected from the County Council ‘to form the new Public Assistance committee’ (4:40) these people then became ‘the direct authority for seeing the institutions under their control were properly managed’ (4:40). This new service received some negative backlash especially from ‘the old Masters [who] resented the change’ (4:40) the younger folk, however ‘accepted the change taking it in [their] stride’ (4:40). The masters and matrons who ‘showed their resentment were given a rough time’ (4:40). Before the changeover, ‘books and accounts were only checked once a year by the Government Auditor, and [the institutions] were always given warning of his coming,’ (4:40) that way if anyone was behind on their jobs they would quickly be able to fill in any details before the inspection. ‘Now[, however,] it was very different. The City or County Treasure, […] could and did send his staff without notice to [the] institutions to check [their] accounts there and then’ (4:40). On arrival, ‘the first thing they asked for was [the] petty cash, and if not correct [they] would have to have a good reason as to why it was not’ (4:40). After this, ‘they would do [what they call] a ‘Cardiff Check’ on one or more items. A Cardiff check meant they would take an item and going back to your last “stock taking”, would follow all you enteries (sic)’ (4:40). They would also check ‘the items received and issued [section], then go to [the] stores and see if the books figure agreed with the stock figure’ (4:40). This was one of the reasons as to why the older masters were upset by the change as they ‘looked upon this as an insult,’ (4:40) since they must have been doing this for a long time it is understandable why they would have been angry that their abilities were being questioned, the young folk ‘just accept it’ (4:40).

Master and Matron

Guy and Doris ‘each week look[ed] through the now, “Public Assistance Officers Journals”, to see if there were any jobs going for Master and Matrons of small institutions,’ (4:40) as this type of job was the next stepping stone for them to move to in order to climb further up the ranks. Although the first time they were successful in getting a job in ‘Fishguard Pembroke, Wales’ (4:38) they rejected the job as it would mean that they would have to give up their Superannuation pension (which you will have read about the benefits of this in Part One of ‘Life and Labour’) as the institution hadn’t heard of this scheme. After a few unsuccessful attempts at finding a job (unfortunately others who applied for the same job were already Masters and Matrons already), the pair ‘saw that the Norfolk Country Council were wanting a Master & Matron at their institution at Downham Market’ (4:40). The couple ventured to this institution and were told to wait in the waiting room, ‘by the time the committee were ready to interview the candidates no one else had arrived. [Guy] had never known of this before, there should have been another three couples’ (4:42). They were eventually interviewed but Guy ‘could not see how they could appoint [them] being the only ones, they had no comparison, no standard by which to judge one against the other’ (4:42). Nevertheless, they were offered the job but were warned by the chairman ‘“don’t think you have got it unamimously, [sic] you haven’t”. […] “Some of us think you are both too young for the job”’ (4:42) without giving Guy or Doris a chance to respond he simply asked ‘“when can you start”’ (4:42). Guy answered with ‘we would have to give in our notice on [their] return to Cambridge and would start one month from to-doy’ (4:42), and that was that they had finally been able to obtain a job of a Master and a Matron.

I hope you’ve been enjoying reading about Guy’s experience in the Poor Law Institutions (and Doris’ too!). Remember to keep an eye out Part Four of ‘Life and Labour’ where Sarah continues with Guy’s and Doris’ new job at Downham Market.
(Remember to check Twitter for updates @TashaSiloLJMU).

If you have enjoyed reading about Guy’s life, you may like to explore the full collection of Guy Oates Posts.

If you would like to read some of our fellow Writing Lives students blogs, then look no further! Here are some of the posts Sarah and I enjoyed for this particular theme: 

/uncategorized/harry-young-1901-1996-%D0%B6%D0%B8%D0%B7%D0%BD%D1%8C-%D0%B8-%D1%82%D1%80%D1%83%D0%B4-life-and-labour this post was written by Joshua Preece about Harry Young, a British Communist. For those of you who have read Josh’s introduction blog, you will be able to learn about the incident involving a steak pie. 

Jessica Rimmer: /life-and-labour/mrs-w-e-palmer-b-1908-life-and-labour this blog is about Mrs W.E. Palmer and her parent’s experiences of working life which provide two very different accounts of their experiences of labour. 

Ffion Jones’ blog post about Isaac Gordon  /uncategorized/isaac-gordon-b-1927-life-and-labour-part-oneprovides an insight into cheap manual labour jobs around the world.


Oates, Guy. The Years That Are Gone. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol. 4.

Further Reading:
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363. 
Rogers, Helen and Emily Cuming, ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant reading of Working-Class Autobiography’, Family & Community History, 21:3 (2019): 180-201.
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47- 70. 
Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Penguin, 2015.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247. 

Barringer, Tim J. Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2005.
Burnett, John ed. Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s London: Routledge, 1994.
Fowler, Simon. The People, The Places, The Life Behind Doors. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books, 2014.
Longmate, Norman. The Workhouse. London: Temple Smith, 1974.
‘What was the General Strike of 1926?’ BBC News. 19 June 2011.
Web. Accessed 22nd April 2019.
‘The Workhouse: The Story of an Institution.’
N.d. Web. Accessed 24 April 2019.
Savage, Mike. Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940: the Politics of Method. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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