In this occasional series I want to rediscover the autobiographies of working class people that have been forgotten or marginalised. They are important in understanding how and why people become activists. They are important in asking questions as to why today there is such a lack of working class people who are active in all kinds of political organisations from political parties to trade unions.
Alice Foley (1891-1974) wrote a biography of her early life called A Bolton Childhood, which was published in 1973 and re-issued by Bolton Libraries and Arts in co-operation with the Bolton Branch of the Workers’ Educational Association in 1990. It covered her life until 1918.
At the start of A Bolton Childhood we are immediately thrown into the realities of the life of the working classes in the 1890s. “I was born on a scurvy, inhospitable day, in late November, 1891, a premature victim of nature and the hazards of “moonlight flit”.
Life for the Foley’s was harsh, partly because her father who was Irish, was involved with the campaign for Home Rule, and would disappear for weeks as he agitated around the country. The family was left to live off her mother’s earnings as a washerwoman. “During these years mother plodded gamely on, battling with a feckless husband whom she neither loved nor understood, and succouring her six children who she never really wanted.”
The Foleys did have access to a local library and it was Alice’s job to be the “chief book borrower”. The books were dished out to brothers and sister, but as Alice’s mother could not read it was up to her to become her reader. As she says;” almost every day when I returned from school she would say coaxingly “Let’s have a chapthur.”
Alice’s life at school was dogged by her awareness of her poverty, and also that she came from a mixed family ie her father was Catholic and her mother a Protestant. This did not go down well in a Catholic school run by nuns.
Her father’s politics did not win them any friends either, particularly, when he took the side of the Boers against the British. “This brought us into conflict with the prevailing patriotism of the day and I remember we youngsters endured some good “hidings” when engaged in mock street battles, for the English side invariably out-fought us numerically if not in courage.”
Alice grew up at a time when militancy in trade unions, particularly in the local textile trade, was growing. Her sister Cissie was involved in the textile trade union and had “Tenaciously elbowed her way into the male precincts of that executive. She was also allied with the Suffragettes and more disturbing still, a zestful member of the local Labour Church.”
Alice left school at 12 and, after failing as a shop assistant, she found work in a mill. Many years late she had not forgotten this first experience of factory work. “I still sharply remember the agony of fatigue endured by standing on one’s feet from early morning to late evening, so exhausted that I frequently fell asleep over tea or supper, too tired event to eat.”
Alice lived in a time of militancy when workers were taking on employers who saw mechanisation as a way of cutting wage rates. She mentions the 1905 Daubhill mill strike of which she says, “In retrospect, however, it could be seen as a first shot in the human struggle to retain traditional methods of production against those fierce on-coming thrusts of technocracy and automation which were to harass and bedevil the cotton industry for the next half-century.”
By the age of fifteen she was representing her fellow workers.”Pushed forward by my workmates I began to stammer out the substance of our complaint, but the manager, now too bad tempered and irritable to listen or argue, let forth a volley of abuse and ended by peremptorily ordering us back to work under penalty of immediate dismissal.”
This did not stop Alice’s trade union activities and she went on to commit her life to working in the trade union movement. One of the joys of this book is her discovery of another world; that of music and culture. One chapter is devoted to that: it’s called; “Moments of Magic”
She says; “But these subservient days were occasionally shot through with moments of magic when the spirit of freedom and joy broke through. Such a moment became enshrined in my first visit to the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan at the Theatre Royal, Churchgate.”
And through organisations such as the Labour Church and the Socialist Sunday school she gained a political education, hearing lectures and speeches by local left wing orators including Victor Grayson. Alice met other working class people who wanted to escape the drudgery of the factory system and explore poetry, music and a different way of life.
Alice comments about that era; “Life was ever meaningful, even if something of a battlefield, and we had abiding faith in the ultimate achievement of the human race.” Frustratingly her autobiography finishes in 1918: she never completed it and today it is out of print.
In 2018 there are still women like Alice and Cissie out there, discovering politics and activism, but unfortunately few of them write up their lives or will get the opportunity to publish them. There is a massive gap in radical history, one that the Frows tried to fill when they created the Working Class Movement Library. The Mary Quaile Club was set up to promote Mary and also to draw links with working class women today. We would love to work with women who want to write up their history of activism. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Find out more about Alice at the WCML see