Animals in Working-Class Life

As a third year PhD student, my current project explores the changes to the everyday lives of fifty English working-class families between the years 1900 and 1945. However, I was intrigued when I saw the call for papers for the Animal History Group Summer Conference.  Animal history seemed like a completely different, yet closely linked topic (and I had a purely selfish desire to procrastinate by reading about dogs). The call for papers started me thinking about the way in which the fifty autobiographers (which comprise my main sample base taken from the John Burnett Working-class Autobiography Archive) discussed and referred to animals in their life histories. As I began re-evaluating the autobiographies through this ‘animal’ lens, I quickly realised that animals were mentioned in nearly all the autobiographies. Their memories highlighted the varied and important roles animals played in working-class lives in the first half of the twentieth century.

Working Animals



Perhaps unsurprisingly one of the most commonly recalled encounters with animals were with working animals. These were animals that the autobiographers noted meeting either during their own employment, or an animal that was employed elsewhere but was used by them or their family to help them fulfil a task (for example moving home). The most common working animal mentioned were horses. Syd Metcalfe, for example, emphasised the centrality of one horse named Chiquita to his work, as she pulled the cart when he worked delivering bread and rolls in London. He dedicates several pages to this horse who he felt, ‘must be found a place in this story for she was a character.’[i]  Moreover even casual references to seeing horses in fields and in the streets demonstrate how central the ‘horse’ was to everyday life at the start of the twentieth century. This is not surprising considering the vital roles horses provided for the working-class before cars became a more readily available form of transportation. Though horses were not the only working animals given a mention in these life histories, interactions with other farmyard animals such as cows and chickens were widely included, particularly when the family-owned livestock.




Of course, livestock was not kept solely for labour purposes. The diet of the working-class in England during the first half of the twentieth century was notoriously poor. As a result, those families who could, would often keep extra livestock to supplement their diet. Frank Prevett recalled that living in the country as a child, his family had distinct advantages over the city dweller who had no such space for livestock. Although his father did not earn a substantial wage as a station master they were able to grow vegetables in their large garden which also housed ‘rabbits, chicken, eggs and often game’ which were a welcome addition to their meals.[ii]

However, living alongside livestock could lead to a blurring between animals being viewed as pets rather than food, but sadly consumption had to be prioritised over companionship. Katherine Henderson noted how in her youth each year her father would select a pig to be slaughtered. This was a process that she found distressing as she had fed the pig since it was a tiny piglet. She wrote ‘it was more a pet than a pig, and then to have it killed to eat was anguish to me.’[iii] However, her resolve eventually weakened and her hunger always won out by the time the pig had been transformed into bacon and sausages. Katherine wrote that she soon ‘forgot my vow to never eat any of it, the delicious smells from the kitchen overcame my pet aversion.’[iv]


It was, however, the frequency to which pets were mentioned in these autobiographies which surprised me. I perhaps naively considered owning a pet a luxury that would have been beyond the means of these working-class families who often detailed their daily struggles. Instead it appears that owning a pet even in the poorest families was not uncommon. Joe Ayre offers one such example. Joe came from a very impoverished background in the early 1900s; his family’s poverty was exasperated by the fact that his father was often unemployed. Despite his family’s financial difficulties, they kept a variety of different pets. Joe’s uncles were sailors and they brought various animals home from their travels. His family kept a ‘monkey, a parrot, linnets, canaries and rabbits.’[v] Overall pets appeared to be obtained quite cheaply, but even these more exotic pets seemed to have little intrinsic value. Joe recalled, ‘one amusing incident was when my father was out of work for a long time in 1919. My father took the parrot in his cage to the pawnshop…the pawnbroker told him he would lend him two shillings and sixpence on the cage but he wouldn’t have the parrot at any price.’[vi]

© IWM (A 21705)


This blog offers just a brief glimpse into the ways in which animals were recorded in these fifty life histories. These autobiographers memories demonstrate how animals, whilst not the main characters in their memories, offer the reader a deeper insight into wider discussions on labour, nutrition, transport, farming, consumption and companionship of the working-class at that time. The importance of animals and pets in the everyday lives of working-class people should not be overlooked.[vii]

Rebecca Ball is a current third year PhD student kindly funded by the University of Wolverhampton. She is using unpublished autobiographies to study the everyday lives of the working class during the period 1900–1945. Her PhD thesis title is: ‘How far the world has progressed in my time’: The changing life and family experiences of fifty working-class individuals in England between 1900 and 1945

Twitter handle: @RebeccaBall1818

[i] Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’, Britain, N.d [c.1980?], p.100. Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, Brunel University, London [hereafter Burnett Archive] – 2:526.

[ii] Frank Prevett, ‘Memories of a Railwayman’, Britain, N.d [c.1980?], p.24 Burnett Archive– 2:638.

[iii] Katherine Henderson, ‘Had I but Known’, Britain, N.d [c.1980?], p.5A. Burnett Archive– 2:384.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Joe Ayre, ‘The Socialist’, Britain, N.d [c.1980?], pp. 4-5. Burnett Archive– 2:29.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Unfortunately, these autobiographers did not include any images of animals. These images are purely for illustrative purposes and are all taken from the Imperial War Museum collection: Catalogue numbers: A21705; D17559; D16820.

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