A life getting by
Matthew Bashforth (1876-1941) was the youngest child of Thomas Bashforth and Bridget (formerly McDonald, née Drury), born in Sheffield in a room at the back of the Arundel Castle public house on 8 April 1876. He was the youngest of seven children from three marriages. His father, Thomas, had been widowed with two boys when his first wife died of consumption. His mother, Bridget, had been widowed with one son when her first husband was killed in the Oaks Colliery disaster. Thomas and Bridget went on to have three girls and Matthew as they moved around in the constant hunt for work. Thomas, born in Barnsley of an equally itinerant father, was a blacksmith by trade but would turn his hand to anything involving metal, mostly foundry work, but opportunities were volatile.
Thomas thought he found settled work with Cammell & Co at their Dronfield works, making steel rail mainly for export to the growing global network of railway construction. Unfortunately, the domestic rail links were not good enough to get the products cheaply to the coast and, in 1883, the company relocated to Workington. There was no package of assistance. If you wanted to keep your job, you paid your own way and took your families by whatever means you could afford. Before leaving for Workington, his mother took Matthew to the RC Church in Sheffield where he was baptised on 2 September 1883.
Before the decade was out, both parents were dead and the family was scattered. Matthew became as itinerant as his father and grandfather. He next appeared in the public record, coming up to 15, working as a Blacksmith’s Assistant to his older half-brother, James Bashforth in Birmingham in 1891. If this was an attempt to give Matthew a trade, it didn’t work out. He would never be more than a labourer.
By 1901 he was living in Barrow in Furness, where his older sister Mary Ann and her husband James McIlheron lived. He worked as a general labourer in the shipyard Gun Shop and lodged with an Irish widow, along with several of his workmates.
On 3 May 1909 at Doncaster magistrate’s court, he was sentenced to 7 day’s hard labour in Wakefield prison for ‘lodging out’, that is for vagrancy and sleeping rough. It is not recorded as to why or where the ‘offence’ took place, but he was listed as a steel dresser by trade, so had been on the move again.
Come 1911 he was in a lodging house on Eldon Street, Tuxford, near Retford, in Nottinghamshire, aged 33, still single and working as a general labourer. The census description was ‘Steam Trasher’ (sic) and there were several more lodgers of the same sort from many different parts of the country. Why so many were needed to work with a threshing machine in spring time, I don’t know.
At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Matthew was 38 and enlisted. Whether this was from any great patriotic motive or was simply a case of ‘nowt better to do’, is not a matter of record. His medal index card shows that he served initially as Private 19459 West Yorkshire Regiment, going overseas from 9 October 1915 to the ‘Balkans’ – which was probably Gallipoli via Mudros in Greece. He later transferred as Private 210454 Labour Corps. He got his campaign medals, but that is all we know about his war.
Tuxford seems to have formed an attraction for Matthew. The likelihood is that Matthew remained in Nottinghamshire after his work in 1911 or came back there after the war. When the listing of citizens was completed in 1939 he was working as a chimney sweep and living at 66 Eldon Street.
Matthew died there on 15 October 1941 aged 65, of acute bronchial pneumonia. The death was registered by an Edith A. Robinson, present at death. She was a divorced woman who lived at the same address along with John Stevens, a permanent way labourer. Matthew never married, but he died as he had lived – among his own kind.
On the face of it, this sort of life is never celebrated in public and I feel that such anonymity is undeserved. We are exhorted to think that the world is created by entrepreneurs, statesmen and women, cultural celebrities, great leaders, inventors, TV personalities, and so on. But, in truth, what would any of these people do were it not for the millions of anonymous nobodies? Their world would collapse around them. It would disappear in a puff of smoke. It wouldn’t exist in the first place. For better or for worse, men and women like Matthew are the bedrock foundations of society in all its aspects. Think about it.
I feel two connections to Matthew. On the one hand he is a distant relative, the younger brother of my great-grandmother. I have photographs of her but nothing of Matthew. The public records from which I have reconstructed his narrative are a fragmentary surrogate for his physicality and serve to emphasise his personal ‘silence’. On the other hand, I share his situation, for I too have principally been involved in ‘getting by’, in meeting the daily challenges of life, albeit with the advantage of some hard-won workers’ rights. Now under threat. For all my present day materiality seems more rich and complex at this moment, it is just as ephemeral and in 70 years after my death will be as fragmentary. Yet we both have helped in our small, individual ways to shape the world around us, not as individuals so much as part of a greater whole. It makes you think what more we might achieve…