The autobiography of Charles Lewis Hansford captures a development in his growth, and I have found that it is written remarkably well, provoking emotion and describing honestly the struggles of both his young and adult life. As a bricklayer, it did at first strike me as odd that Hansford would be interested in writing an autobiography, but after reading the account and researching the habits of the working classes, I began to understand what reading and writing would have meant to Charles.
In chapter six, The Pursuit of Books, taken from David Vincent’s, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom, Vincent explains; “These were men who struggled for their bread in common with the rest of their class, but who also found in themselves the desire and the energy to embark upon the pursuit of knowledge and freedom. The pursuit of knowledge desired its impetus from the circumstances under which bread was gained, and in turn was seen as the essential pre-condition for the pursuit of freedom” (1981, p.109). It is likely that Hansford viewed literature as a pleasure and an escapism, and in chapter six he speaks of his enthusiasm towards reading about his trade, “[Previously] my approach towards books could be considered purely utilitarian [practical], embracing such titles as the ‘Modern Bricklayer’, ‘House and Cottage Construction’, the ‘Amateur Mechanic’” (Hansford, p.89). The fact that Charles treasured texts that aimed to expand his information regarding his trade demonstrates his desire to perform his job well, there seems to be no straightforward boundary of “good” and “bad” literature for Charles, he simply chooses to read texts that he can gain something from.
Charles then continues to talk about the relationship with his work mate, Len: “Len, who favoured working class education per se, sought to whet my appetite for general reading” which suggests Charles viewed reading as a sociable activity and a point for discussion, as well as just for personal independent use. Hansford states, “I began to borrow some of Len’s books. At this particular juncture, therefore, I came into contact with the usual ‘left’ classics such as the Webbs’ History of Trade Unionism, the works of G.D.H. Cole etc. I remember the great impact made upon me by John Reed’s first hand account of the Russian Revolution in ‘Ten Days That Shook The World’. Len’s influence set me thinking about the political dimension.” (Hansford, p.88).
This is the beginning of a new type of education for Charles. In his early chapters in the first two sections, ‘Childhood’ and ‘Travelling’, he describes simply his passion to work and earn money for himself and his family through learning his trade and gaining experience. But working-class literature, directed by Len’s influence, begins to overcome Hansford’s view of his industry as well as his literary awareness. We can see through the author’s writing that he was able to demonstrate knowledge beyond bricklaying, and he starts to realise the politics of his trade. He begins to see that these ideologies can be applied to his working class identity and what he felt his class deserved, and explains to the reader, “I had found my faith, my flag, and my fully formed identity.” (Hansford, p.90)
A particularly interesting aspect of the writer’s account is the mentioning of Robert Tressell’s, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist, which was introduced to Charles by his work mate Len; “All in all, Len Jones much resembled Frank Owen, the house-painter hero of Robert Tressal’s ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’, a work enjoying a certain pride of place in our friend’s lunch-bag library.” (Hansford, p.88). The text published in 1914 three years after Tressell’s death and gained popularity during the early 1920’s, when Hansford would have been beginning to progress in his career, and it describes the working classes’ acceptance of working for very little money in order to make enormous profit for the people who pay their wages. It explores the protagonist’s hunger for socialism, which is defined as “everyone who contributes to the production of a good is entitled to a share in it.” (Britannica, 2014). At the time this book began to gain notoriety, Hansford was intrigued by the ideas it presented and it is clear that Len influenced the author to think difficulty about how the working-classes are treated. The book incorporates themes that Charles would have encountered within his own trade, and focuses on the notion that individual workers are powerless against their bosses (Union History, 2003).
These issues are indicated throughout Hansford’s autobiography, such as through the many times he suffers from unemployment, and when he is forced to put work before the consideration of his rights. This issue is particularly demonstrated in chapter nine: Price Work – where he describes breaking his collar bone, “Strapped up in plaster for eight days my right arm felt rather stiff after removal of the cast, but ‘time was money’ therefore I went back to the site immediately.” (Hansford, p.60) consequently as we can see from this extract, the writer is forced to work through his injury in order to earn money to support himself. Another example of this also focuses on pay for time off, which Charles tells his reader if you aren’t working that day, you don’t get paid that day. “I wasn’t able to collect my wages, or tell the builder that I intended to take a couple of days holiday. I didn’t think it important because nobody paid you for time off, even to be married.” (Hansford, p.76) Charles continues to describe his employers anger, “’Where the hell have you been?’ snapped the builder, not pleased to see me” (Hansford, p.77). Many rules regarding how the working class were treated at work fortunately do not apply today, but we see from the writers recollections the amount of pressure that would have been upon his shoulders as well as many others in his class. In these ways it is implied that Hansford’s felt he was able to relate to texts such as The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist, therefore opening up a whole new aspect of his identity, thus not just striving to earn money, but in the improvement of worker’s rights.
Fig 1. Amazon, Bread Knowledge & Freedom (1981) [Photograph: Front cover of book] At: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/519hgFkJGGL._.jpg [Accessed 22nd December, 2013]
Britannica Socialism (2014) [online] Available at: [Accessed 2nd January, 2014]
Fig 2 Good Reads, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) [Photograph: Front cover of book] At: [Accessed 3rd January, 2014]
Hansford, C. Memoir of a Bricklayer. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:745