I came across the following article, by following a link posted on Facebook. It was published in the New Statesman, on 31st October, 2014 and, after reading it, I was so very saddened to realise that, once again, through the machinations of the ‘ruling’ classes, the UK has, in 2019, found itself in such a similar situation to that of Harry Smith, as he grew up in the 1920’s, that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the sheer waste of time, that so many people fought, strived, and died through, in order to make life better for themselves and their families and friends 😦
Once again, almost a century after Harry’s birth, there are countless people here in the UK, living in gruelling poverty – with Child Poverty at an all-time high since the Welfare State began – and it’s all due to the greed and corruption of the same class of people who, through their constant lies and deceit, have turned our country from the safe place I grew up in, into a similar scenario to Harry Smith’s early life 😦
Read his account and, if you can’t see the similarities, then you must be part of the problem 😦
Harry Leslie Smith, a 91-year-old RAF veteran born into an impoverished mining family, recalls a Britain without a welfare state.
By Harry Leslie Smith
Over 90 years ago, I was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, to a
working-class family. Poverty was as natural to us as great wealth and
power were to the aristocracy of that age. Like his father and
grandfather before him, my dad, Albert, eked out a meagre existence as a
miner, working hundreds of feet below the surface, smashing the rock
face with a pickaxe, searching for coal.
Hard work and poor wages didn’t turn my dad into a radical. They did,
however, make him an idealist, because he believed that a fair wage,
education, trade unions and universal suffrage were the means to a
prosperous democracy. He endured brutal working conditions but they
never hardened his spirit against his family or his comrades in the
pits. Instead, the harsh grind of work made his soul as gentle as a
beast of burden that toiled in desolate fields for the profit of others.
My mother, Lillian, however, was made of sterner stuff. She understood
that brass, not love, made the world go round. So when a midwife with a
love of gin and carbolic soap delivered me safely on a cold winter’s
night in February 1923 into my mum’s exhausted arms, I was swaddled in
her rough-and-ready love, which toughened my skin with a harsh
affection. I was the first son but I had two elder sisters who had
already skinned their knees and elbows in the mad fight to stay alive in
the days before the social safety network. Later on, our family would
include two half-brothers, after my mother was compelled to look for a
more secure provider than my dad during the Great Depression.
By the time I was weaned from my mother’s breast, I had begun to learn
the cruel lessons that the world inflicted on its poor. At the age of
seven, my eldest sister, Marion, contracted tuberculosis, which was a
common and deadly disease for those who lived hand to mouth in
early-20th-century Britain. Her illness was directly spawned from our
poverty, which forced us to live in a series of fetid slums.
Despite being a full-time worker, my dad was always one pay packet away
from destitution. Several times, my family did midnight flits and moved
from one decrepit single-bedroom tenement to the next. Yet we never
seemed to move far from the town’s tip, a giant wasteland stacked with
rotting rubbish, which became a playground for preschool children.
At the beginning of my life, affordable health care was out of reach
for much of the population. A doctor’s visit could cost the equivalent
of half a week’s wages, so most people relied on good fortune rather
than medical advice to see them safely through an illness. But luck and
guile went only so far and many lives were snatched away before they had
a chance to start. The wages of the ordinary worker were at a mere
subsistence level and therefore medicine or simple rest was out of the
question for many people.
Unfortunately for my sister, luck was also in short supply in our
household. Because my parents could neither afford to see a consultant
nor send my sister to a sanatorium, Marion’s TB spread and infected her
spine, leaving her an invalid.
The 1926 General Strike, which began just as my sister started her slow
and painful journey from life to death, was about more than wages to my
dad and many others. It was called by the TUC in protest against mine
owners who were using strong-arm tactics to force their workers to
accept longer work hours for less take-home pay. At its start, it
involved 1.7 million industrialised workers.
In essence, the strike was about the right of all people, regardless of
their economic station, to live a dignified and meaningful life. My
father joined it with enthusiasm, because he believed that all workers,
from tram drivers to those who dug ore, deserved a living wage. But for
my father the strike was also about the belief that he might be able to
right the wrongs done to him and his family; if only he had more money
in his pay packet, he might have been able to afford decent health care
for all of us.
Unfortunately, the General Strike was crushed by the government, which
first bullied TUC members to return to their work stations. Eight months
later, it did the same to the miners whose communities had been
beggared by being on the pickets for so long. My dad and his workmates
had to accept wage cuts.
I remember my sister’s pain and anguish during her final weeks of life
in October 1926. I’d play beside her in our parlour, which was as
squalid as an animal pen, while she lay on a wicker landau, tied down by
ropes to prevent her from falling to the ground while unattended. When
Marion’s care became too much for my mother to endure, she was sent to
our neighbourhood workhouse, which had been imprisoning the indigent
since the days of Charles Dickens.
The workhouse where Marion died was a large, brick building less than a
mile from our living quarters. Since it had been designed as a prison
for the poor, it had few windows and had a high wall surrounding it.
When my sister left our house and was transported there on a cart pulled
by an old horse, my mum and dad told my other sister and me to wave
goodbye, because Marion was going to a better place than here.
The workhouse was not used only as a prison for those who had been
ruined by poverty; it also had a primitive infirmary attached to it,
where the poor could receive limited medical attention. Perhaps the only
compassion the place allowed my parents was permission to visit their
daughter to calm her fears of death.
My sister died behind the thick, limestone walls at the age of ten, and
perhaps the only compassion the place allowed my parents was permission
to visit their daughter to calm her fears of death. As we didn’t have
the money to give her a proper burial, Marion was thrown into a communal
grave for those too poor to matter. Since then, the pauper’s pit has
been replaced by a dual carriageway.
Some historians have called the decade of my birth “the Roaring
Twenties” but for most it was a long death rattle. Wages were low, rents
were high and there was little or no job protection as a result of a
postwar recession that had gutted Britain’s industrial heartland. When
the Great Depression struck Britain in the 1930s, it turned our cities
and towns into a charnel house for the working class, because they had
no economic reserves left to withstand prolonged joblessness and the
ruling class believed that benefits led to fecklessness.
Even now, when I look back to those gaslight days of my boyhood and
youth, all I can recollect is hunger, filth, fear and death. My mother
called those terrible years for our family, our friends and our nation a
time when “hard rain ate cold Yorkshire stone for its tea”.
I will never forget seeing as a teenager the faces of former soldiers
who had been broken physically and mentally during the Great War and
were living rough in the back alleys of Bradford. Their faces were
haunted not by the brutality of the war but by the savagery of the
peace. Nor will I forget as long as I shall live the screams that fell
out of dosshouse windows from the dying and mentally ill, who were
denied medicine and solace because they didn’t have the money to pay for
Like today, those tragedies were perpetuated by a coalition government
preaching that the only cure for our economic troubles was a harsh
austerity, which promised to right Britain’s finances through the
sacrifice of its lowest-paid workers. When my dad got injured, the dole
he received was ten shillings a week. My family, like millions of
others, were reduced to beggary. In the 1930s, the government believed
that private charities were more suitable for providing alms for those
who had been ruined in the Great Depression.
Austerity in the 1930s was like a pogrom against Britain’s working
class. It blighted so many lives through preventable ailments caused by
malnutrition, as well as thwarting ordinary people’s aspirations for a
decent life by denying them housing, full- time employment or a proper
As Britain’s and my family’s economic situation worsened in the 1930s,
we upped sticks from Barnsley to Bradford in the hope that my father
might find work. But there were too many adults out of work and jobs
were scarce, so he never found full-time employment again. We lived in
dosshouses. They were cheap, sad places filled with people broken
financially and emotionally. Since we had no food, my mum had me
indentured to a seedy off-licence located near our rooming house. At the
age of seven, I became a barrow boy and delivered bottles of beer to
the down-and-outs who populated our neighbourhood.
My family were nomads. We flitted from one dosshouse to the next,
trying to keep ahead of the rent collector. We moved around the slums of
Bradford and when we had outstayed our welcome there, we moved on to
Sowerby Bridge, before ending up in Halifax. As I grew up, my schooling
suffered; I had to work to keep my sister, my mum and half-brothers fed.
At the age of ten, I was helping to deliver coal and by my teens, I
started work as a grocer’s assistant. At 17, I had been promoted to
store manager. However, at the age of 18, the Second World War
intervened in whatever else I had planned for the rest of my life. I
volunteered to join the RAF.
My politics was forged in the slums of Yorkshire but it was in the
summer of 1945, at the age of 22, that I finally felt able to exorcise
the misery of my early days. In that long ago July, I was a member of
the RAF stationed in Hamburg; a city left ruined and derelict by war. I
had been a member of the air force since 1941 but my war had been good,
because I had walked away from it without needing so much as a plaster
for a shaving nick. At its end, my unit had been seconded to be part of
the occupational forces charged with rebuilding a German society gutted
by Hitler and our bombs.
It was in the palm of that ravaged city that I voted in Britain’s first
general election since the war began. As I stood to cast my ballot in
the heat of that summer, I joked with my mates, smoked Player’s
cigarettes and stopped to look out towards a shattered German skyline. I
realised then that this election was momentous because it meant that a
common person, like me, had a chance of changing his future.
So it seemed only natural and right that I voted for a political party
that saw health care, housing and education as basic human rights for
all of its citizens and not just the well-to-do. When I marked my X on
the ballot paper, I voted for all those who had died, like my sister, in
the workhouse; for men like my father who had been broken beyond repair
by the Great Depression; and for women like my mum who had been
tortured by grief over a child lost through unjust poverty. And I voted
for myself and my right to a fair and decent life.
I voted for Labour and the creation of the welfare state and the NHS,
free for all its users. And now, nearly 70 years later, I fear for the
future of my grandchildren’s generation, because Britain’s social
welfare state is being dismantled brick by brick.
My life didn’t really begin until the end of the Second World War. I
fell in love with Friede, a German woman, whom I married and brought
home to Halifax. My wife gave me emotional stability while the welfare
state gave me economic stability. When I was demobbed, I didn’t have
many prospects, except using my brawn over my brain. I took factory jobs
while my wife and I studied at night school. But I am forever grateful
for the foundation of the NHS, because it allowed my wife to receive
first-rate treatment for the PTSD she acquired by having witnessed both
the atrocities of the Nazis and the firebombing of Hamburg, which killed
50,000 people in three nights of intense RAF bombing in 1943.
My experiences of growing up in Britain before the NHS, when one’s health was determined by one’s wealth, and after 1948, when free health care was seen as a cornerstone for a healthy economy and democracy, convinced me that it was my duty to share my family experiences at this year’s Labour party conference. I agreed to speak about the NHS because I know there are few people left who can remember that brutal time before the welfare state, when life for many was short and cruel. I felt that I owed it to my sister Marion, whose life was cut short by extreme poverty and poor health care, along with all of those other victims of a society that protected the rich and condemned the poor to miserable lives. In many ways, making that speech freed me from the suffering of my youth.
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Harry Leslie Smith is the author of a memoir: “Harry’s Last Stand: How the World My Generation Built is Falling Down and What We Can Do to Save it” (Icon Books, £8.99)
* * * * * * * *
Harry Leslie Smith is a survivor of the Great Depression, a Second
World War RAF veteran and an activist for the poor and for the
preservation of social democracy. He has authored numerous books about
Britain during the Great Depression, the Second World War, and post-war
austerity. Join Harry on Twitter @Harryslaststand.