The Arthur Webb Story 1885-1964. (Notes and Documents)

By Webb, Jeff A. | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Arthur Webb Story 1885-1964. (Notes and Documents)


Webb, Jeff A., Labour/Le Travail


Introduction

WE OWE THE PUBLICATION of this document of a working man's life to Bill Webb, who in the 1960s encouraged his father, Arthur Webb, to take pencil to paper and write an autobiography, and four decades later granted permission to bring it to the readers of Labour/Le Travail. What follows is an account of a working man written in the third person. His decision to write in the third person is largely the result of his modesty, as evidenced most emphatically in the second part of his story, in which he refers to himself as "John Doe." In creating a typescript, his son replaced the pseudonym with his father's name. Webb's reminiscences clearly reflect the norms of narrative storytelling. "Our Arthur," as he styled himself in the opening of the "story" of his life, looked back upon his decades of work from the vantage point of a retired man at the middle of the 20th century. He did not dwell upon his own accomplishments, but constructed a narrative that contrasted implicitly childhood and work in an English industri al city in the 1890s and rural New Brunswick in the early 20th century, with life in post-World War II urban Canada. Webb describes work at a time of muscle rather than machine, both for the opportunity this gives him to contrast his life with the lives of his readers and because men of his generation valued themselves through their physical work. The strength, skill, endurance and stoicism that allowed him to survive are the qualities that men measured themselves against and prided themselves on.

Webb's life story is remarkable, but he was not a public figure of the sort that traditionally warranted the attention of a biographer or led to a published memoir. The historian of working-class life will nevertheless find that his description of work and society merits attention. Webb's life illustrates the intersection of world events and individual experience, played out within the minutia of daily undertakings. While we know that there were hundreds of thousands of lives like his, we cannot help but admire the tenacity and resilience that figure so centrally in Webb's life story. People such as this often appear in historians' accounts, but usually in the aggregate. Men such as Webb would be reflected in statistics as an immigrant, a worker, a recruit, one of the wounded, a returned soldier, and a union member. Historians usually see such individuals only through the lens of their own research interest, but rarely as a whole life. In this document we can see Webb's reflections as a coherent narrative -- the way he saw it from the vantage point of his kitchen table near the end of a remarkable life.

Arthur's father, George Frederick Webb, seems a distant figure of work and corporal punishment. The elder Webb had been born in 1853, the second son of the postmaster at Bromsgrove, attended Grammar School in Surrey and he too entered the postal service. He retired from the post office due to failing health, and lived for 16 years in Liverpool before retiring to Alcester, Warwickshire. When his youngest son, Arthur, was born in Liverpool, George Frederick was working as a commercial traveller for a firm of builder's furnishers, but soon started business on his own account as a tobacconist, stocktaker and valuer. In his retirement he was a dedicated volunteer for local philanthropic causes, a member of the Conservative Party, and a man with artistic talent. But he appears in our view as a distant and domineering father whose insistence, as head of the household, on dictating which trades his sons followed drove four of the five to immigrate to Canada.

Arthur Webb spent his boyhood in the streets, shops and factories of Liverpool during the last decade of the 19th century. While his parents worked, he played with the gangs of neighbourhood kids and revelled in the life of a street urchin. He did not thrive at school, and at the age of ten entered the workforce. As a boy, he worked in a number of industries, from a "watcher" at a shoe store to a delivery boy for a tailor shop. …

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