John Gibson (1887-1980): Life & Labour – Writing Lives

John Gibson (1887-1980): Life & Labour

‘I got the sack you see in Manchester, I forgot what for’ (2)

John Gibson’s working life is a fairly central part of this transcript, and as an active Labour Party member and trade unionist, this is to be expected. John had a varied work history, serving as an engineer and toolmaker for a number of years, as well as finding himself out of work for a time. The lack of occupational stability he recounts is indicative of the era surrounding the Great Depression, when workers were ‘surprised [to be in the same role] longer than a fortnight’ (7).

British Westinghouse factory in Manchester, where John worked for a short time manufacturing train parts.

It was John’s uncle that helped him land his first job, as an engineer in a factory in Tyneside. Still a young boy, he recalls his feeling of pride at wearing the engineers’ overalls for the first time, boasting that ‘they were the intelligentsia, weren’t they?’ (1). His father, however, was less than pleased at his son’s decision, as ‘it was a damn disgrace…joining the fitters, when he was a builder’ (1). John continued this rebellion for much of his life, working in factories from Manchester to Letchworth. However, it is his time unemployed that reveals the most about life for the working class in 20th century Britain.

During the 1920s, a period a large portion of this transcript recounts, unemployment rates fluctuated between highs of 16.9% and lows of 9.7% (Denman & McDonald, 1996, 6). For context, today’s unemployment rates are around 4%. Clearly then, unemployment was a huge problem at this time, and one with which John had much experience. He describes travelling the length and breadth of the country in his search for work, venturing much further than his native Tyneside. Jobs were extremely hard to come by during this time, with John at one point turning to the Labour Exchange, a government service implemented to aid workers in their search for employment.

Despite being a skilled and experienced engineer, John was often forced to accept any old job simply in order to get by. This included taking ‘a lousy job…that wasn’t fit for a turner’ (2) in Manchester, and working at a Dixon’s store in Letchworth. The little work that was available was unstable and short-term, to such an extent that ‘my missus…used to say to me nearly every day, “have you got the sack yet?”’ (7).

John’s tireless efforts to find employment during these difficult years perhaps suggest a degree of shame and stigma surrounding unemployment, a stigma that still exists today. His insistence that he ‘was a good worker’ (2), as well as his willingness to travel hundreds of miles for a few weeks’ work, not only demonstrates John’s tenacity and determination, but also his refusal to be seen as a layabout. There were financial motives as well of course, and it would be short-sighted to think otherwise, but one does wonder whether the experience John had visiting his father on a building site not only shaped his views on alcohol but also his desire for a strong work ethic.

The official emblem of the ASE, the trade union for engineers of which John was a member.

John’s involvement with trade unions formed a major part of his working life. As a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, he ‘believed in the Union so much that I’ve got every damn card that was issued’ (3) by the organisation. At just 21 years of age John got his first taste of union action, ‘when a strike took place’ (1) that lasted as long as six months. Following this experience, John spent much of his life involved with trade unions, serving as a shop steward in Glasgow during the Red Clydeside period. As well as defending workers’ rights, the union also aided the search for work in John’s case. The owner of the Dixon’s store in Letchworth ‘was a member of my Trade Union, and he knew all about me, without me opening me [sic] mouth, as soon as I mentioned me name, he says “I’ll give ye [sic] a job”’ (7).

John’s involvement in politics, through his membership in trade unions and the Labour Party, will have no doubt helped his relationship with work, as ‘the less [one] was involved in specific activities of self-improvement or political activity, the greater his preoccupation with the details of his life as a worker’ (Vincent, 1982, 62). Political activism therefore would have given John a greater deal of satisfaction alongside his work than if he were merely working a dead-end job in an unstable market. Politics also gave him the opportunity to make himself and his peers heard, with the battle of the Labour and Conservative Parties being a ‘clear-cut contest between the workers in one side, and the employers on the other (Cannadine, 2000, 106).

John Gibson’s occupational history reveals the turbulent state in which Britain was in during the postwar period, with an unstable job market and high rates of unemployment making life difficult for the working class. However, trade unionism and left-wing politics gave many like John the opportunity for validation that unemployment and unfulfilling work perhaps denied them.



Cannadine, David. Class in Britain. London: Penguin, 2000.
Denman, James & Paul McDonald. ‘Unemployment Statistics from 1881 to the Present Day’. Labour Market Trends. Office for National Statistics, 1996.
3:O232  GIBSON, (John?). Untitled, TS, pp.7 (c.5,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge & Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography. Oxfordshire: Routledge, 1982.

British Westinghouse factory –
ASE emblem –

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