I recently visited Sidmouth for the first time, spending a pleasant late Autumn Sunday having lunch with friends and walking the cliff tops and beach. Unlike many English seaside resorts, the town has aged well, with many of its Regency and Victorian terraces restored to rude health and not too many signs of identikit speculative development to mar its distinctive character.
But for me, Sidmouth is special as the place where an aspiring Edwardian writer did something dramatic to challenge the rigid hierarchies of the English class system. Stephen Reynolds is not well known today, but a little over a hundred years ago he found sudden fame as an educated, middle-class man who chose to renounce his privileged background in order to live and work alongside a fisherman and his family in this popular south Devon resort. To the bemusement of most well-to-do Edwardians, Reynolds insisted on the superiority of working-class life and culture. His 1908 book A Poor Man’s House was based closely on Reynolds’s experience lodging with Bob Woolley and his family in Under-town, the old, predominantly working-class part of Sidmouth close by the beach. Reynolds had first met the Woolleys in 1903, and lodged with them more or less continuously between 1906 and 1917.
A Poor Man’s House was written as a eulogy to the warmth of the Woolley household, and what Reynolds saw as the vigour and spontaneity of local working-class life. But the book was not without problems. Firstly, its central characters, the ‘Widgers’, were based all too directly on his hosts for their comfort (apparently Bob Woolley and his wife were especially unhappy about the scene where Reynolds describes taking them tea in bed – displaying a concern for propriety at odds with his own reading of their easy-going ways). Secondly, sceptics were quick to argue that lessons drawn from the lives of ruggedly independent, south-coast fishermen offered few clues to the lives and values of the wider working class. Thirdly, Reynolds himself privately recognised that it was much harder to ‘know’ another class than his book would suggest. Writing to his friend and literary champion Edward Garnett in 1906 about the new-found zest for life he felt lodging with the Woolley family, Reynolds lamented the curse of class distinction that still came between them: ‘there are two high walls between us and them; theirs and ours; and theirs is the higher and stronger. It’s strange how undemocratic they are; how they look on “the gen’leman” as another species of animal.’ [Letter to Garnett, 28 Sept. 1906].
In the book Reynolds might present himself as explorer-cum-mediator, able to explain the ‘masses’ to the middle class public, but in private he remained anxious about whether he was wholly accepted by his hosts. Convinced that the Woolleys had offered him the only true ‘home’ he had ever known, Reynolds fretted that it was hard to be both friend and observer; that writing about the Woolleys necessarily created a barrier between him and them (this was further complicated by the fact that Reynolds had not yet come fully to terms with his own homosexual desire and its possible implications for his friendship with the Woolleys).
He sought a solution to these problems by embarking on a series of essays based directly on conversations with the Woolley brothers, Bob and Tom. In 1909 Reynolds had raised a loan to build a small motorised fishing boat to a design agreed with the two brothers. By May 1910 they had formed a partnership to work the boat, and Reynolds began writing-up the topical conversations that helped them pass the time. His plan was to involve the Woolley brothers directly in the process of writing about working-class life and culture. Bob and Tom Woolley were credited as co-authors of Seems So! A Working-man’s View of Politics, the book that sprang from these efforts in 1911. Reynolds insisted that it was a genuine collaboration; as he put it: ‘my own share in Seems So! is precisely this: I am one of three collaborators, and secretary to the three.’ [p. xi] But not, note, secretary to the two fishermen alone – Reynolds freely acknowledged his role in helping to shape the book’s exploration of working-class political attitudes, and not just by urging his friends ‘to weigh up what they really do think and feel’, but also by introducing ‘facts and theories which otherwise they might not have come across’. But he was adamant that in turn ‘they have opened to me a new world of ideas and feelings, the world of the so-called masses’ [p. xi].
Seems So! is an extraordinary piece of work – it is all but unique in its sustained attempt to give ordinary working people a political voice on the national stage on (more or less) their own terms. But it is not clear that it allowed Reynolds to tear down the walls of class that he had bemoaned five years earlier. On Christmas Day 1911, six weeks after the publication of Seems So!, he could still confide in his diary: ‘Bloody day, but still better than staying at home. Christmas breaks the illusions that outcasts weave about themselves’.
It is important, here, to note that Reynolds hated Christmas because it brought home his loss of family; the death of his mother and his lasting breach with his father and step-mother back in Wiltshire. In fact he had declined an invitation from Bob to join the Woolleys for Christmas dinner, preferring to indulge his melancholy by walking to Beer and back. But Reynolds sense of himself as an ‘outcast’ still speaks to the frailty of his sense of ‘belonging’ in Sidmouth after more than five years lodging with the Woolleys. From his correspondence, we know that at this point Reynolds was becoming increasingly irritated that living with Bob and his still-growing family often made it difficult for him to find the peace necessary to write.
Reynolds hatched a plan to build himself a house high on the hill above Sidmouth (the favoured haunt of the town’s well-to-do citizens). But when it was finished he could not bear to part from the Woolleys. As he explained to his niece in July 1914: ‘Bob and I neither of us like separating; we have been each other’s most intimate friend for so many years’. Instead, in 1916, Reynolds and the Woolleys moved together into a large house near the Church, where Reynolds could have a floor to himself, and the Woolleys could have more space, including a back door for muddy feet and the welcome luxury of a bathroom. Finally, it seemed that his integration was complete.
What had changed? Doubtless coming to terms with his sexuality and finding the companionship of a Cornish fisherman, helped Reynolds to feel less of an ‘outcast’, but it also mattered that he had ceased to write about the people amongst whom he lived. From 1912, he came to be drawn more and more fully into fishery politics, and then into the wartime administration of the fishing industry. In some respects this made him more obviously middle-class than ever – to his disgust, he now had to wear a suit and play ‘the gentleman’ at meetings across the region.
But the Woolleys ceased to be subjects as well as friends. There was no longer the same ambiguity, for him or for them, about why he chose to share their lives. The walls had come down, but only at the price that, bar a few snatches in letters and diary entries, Reynolds no longer recorded the life that meant so much to him. He had won his own culture war of class, but the necessary price of victory was to leave almost no clues to tell us what that victory was like.