This post was written by Naomi Percival, Special Collections Librarian at Brunel University London. It forms part of a series of blog posts on the theme of Hope and Fear in library and archive collections, as part of the Being Human festival in advance of History Day 2016.

The Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies held in Special Collections at Brunel University London  includes over 230 autobiographies. It was gathered together by John Burnett and colleagues whilst compiling their three volume annotated bibliography, “The Autobiography of the Working Class” (Harvester Press, 1984-1989). The authors “sought to identify not only the large numbers of printed works scattered in various local history libraries and record offices, but also extant private memoirs, many of which remain hidden in family attics, known only to the author and a handful of relatives” (Introduction to vol.1, p. xxix). The criteria for inclusion were: the writers were working class for at least part of their lives; they wrote in English; and they lived for some time in England, Scotland or Wales between 1790 and 1945.

William Belcher (1884 – 1961), is one whose handwritten autobiography is included in this collection. He served in the Navy 1903 – 8 and 1914-19, and was an electrician from 1919 onwards. Much of the interest in his autobiography lies in the supporting documents that accompany the notebooks: his school certificates, shorthand qualifications, and his naval career record.

William Belcher 1a

William Belcher 2

Details from William Belcher’s naval record


In 1914 he rejoined the Navy, frightened of the war and of the doom and desolation he saw coming. Writing in hindsight based on his diaries, he says: “1914 starts:- the year to remember – when the nations went mad, and individuals comprising these nations were smitten with a materialistic frenzy: when the Boy Scout to do a good deed killed a Boy Scout; when army Salvationist killed his brother Salvationist; the nations prayed to the same god for victory.”

Excerpts from William Belcher’s autobiography

Excerpts from William Belcher’s autobiography

The next page of reminiscences begins “What has this year in store for me. Death. War strikes play their disastrous part. Marriage as well.” The triumphant beginning of new married life was overshadowed by the fear and reality of war:  “On Aug. 1st 1914 at 2pm I got married not without some misgivings. I told my wife that war is here, + I may not see her for years.”  Three days later, war was declared and William was aboard the HMS Victorious.

William Belcher 4

Excerpts from William Belcher’s autobiography