The Power of Biographies: A study of The Road To Nab End

Biographies have the ability to let readers experience a specific place in history through those who were there. Their memories, whether they be intimate or reflective of general public events, can emote us into understanding the implications of life within that place in time. In recently reading William Woodruff’s The Road To Nab End, it became a definitive experience at every page. The Road To Nab End chronicles the early life of William Woodruff, growing up in the English county of Lancashire through turbulent times of crippling economy, poverty and social unrest. What makes this particularly emotive is that readers can experience this through Woodruff’s reflections of his formative years.

Lancashire and its declining cotton industry

Cotton mills were the life blood of Lancashire towns.

In the heyday of the British Empire, Lancashire became central to the cotton industry. During the 19th century Lancashire’s rate of manufacturing cotton rapidly increased, becoming more profitable in its trade to America and Britain’s overseas colonies. The success of Lancashire cotton resulted in its population surging. This gave Lancashire cotton mills sufficient numbers to employ and sustain the economy. Yet, the economic consequences of World War One and cotton becoming more cheaper to produce in India 1 meant Lancashire cotton exports were becoming a less viable option. This gradual decline manifests itself throughout many of the people mentioned in The Road To Nab End.

Woodruff refers to the sense of denial regarding Lancashire’s standing in the cotton industry, “the employers blamed the workers and the government; the workers blamed the employers. It didn’t occur to anybody to anybody that Lancashire’s world supremacy in cotton textile production had come to an end” 2. Woodruff’s insight reflects Lancastrians’ deep-seated dissent of their industries’ decline, a growing sense of anger that made for turbulent times. Woodruff’s economic situation of his teenage years continues to reflect Lancashire’s instability, “had times been better, I’d have had no difficulty in finding a job. I’d have joined my father in the mills”. 3 The acknowledgement makes one think of the bold contrast Woodruff’s life would have been if Lancashire’s cotton industry had remained prosperous.

Woodruff’s recollections of his teenage years were adamant in showing how even in its downfall, Lancashire’s cotton industry were still ill-treating their workers. As Woodruff states, “at the workers’ expense everything was done to keep the industry alive: wages were cut, the hours of work increased”. This became an unworkable situation for many, including Woodruff’s family. “At the beginning of 1932 my family was surviving on little more than Gordon’s dole and my ten shillings from Grimshaw’s” 4. The Woodruffs’ plight during this time continues to reflect the economic struggle many faced, betrayed by the industry that had once provided them a living, employment options that offered little and government indifference to their plight.

The Struggles of Poverty

Woodruff’s working class family constantly struggled to survive throughout his childhood.

Those who are part of the working class have always struggled to maintain a dignified existence. Britain in its deep-seated sense of class were not interesting in those in labour jobs other than that they got their job done 5. If workers were left unemployed then they were left isolated from society. In a time before Britain offered free health care and social benefit schemes were in their infancy, the unemployed were left to fend for themselves.

Woodruff notes that “under the National Insurance Act of 1920, father received fifteen shillings a week for fifteen weeks; mother was paid five shillings for a shorter period. Children were expected to survive on one shilling per week – twelve pennies. But soon these small amounts were all gone” 6. Woodruff’s first hand account of his family’s minimal benefits and the government’s obliviousness in assuming that any family was able to survive on so little when their chances of gaining employment were almost non-existent, shows how brutal poverty could be. Woodruff describes his families’ predicament with great emotional clarity, when his mother’s prized punch bowl had to be sold for much needed finances. “She never said anything when it was carried from the house, but I knew that with its departure she had lost a symbol of better times” 7. Woodruff’s emotive description of his mother’s demeanor, the signal of worse time ahead is central in understanding the Woodruffs’ pitiful scenario.

Woodruff also offered to share some of his own personal shame regarding his families’ poverty. In later years the Woodruffs were forced to move to lodgings following another decline in fortunes, after they had lived in the relative prosperity of Livingston Road. “Stacked with lodgers from cellar to roof, the place reeked; it was a funny dead, musty smell. In Livingston Road, which out of shame I never visited again, I had had a room to myself and a garden to sit it” 8. Woodruff’s vivid description of the lodging’s foulness and his stark realisation of his situation continues to reflect the recurring theme of devastation within the poverty cycle.

Class divide and influence of Communism

The General Strike of 1926, which Woodruff’s father became involved.

Following on from the devastating effects of poverty, it led to a growing class divide that was well-embedded within British society 9. The mill owners’ lack of empathy for their workers, even in the cotton industries’ gradual reduction of subsides which also affected them, caused such anger amongst the workers that a general strike was called. However, the political power struggle between the Government and the trade unions (supported by the Labour party) became too much for the latter. A triumphant Government came down severely on those responsible, reducing workers’ rights and making it more difficult for strike action to be formalised. These dire repercussions made the working class feel powerless and divisive.

Woodruff’s reflection as an attendee of a worker’s meeting shows the working classes disintegrating. He recollects how some “thought that a General Strike would make matters worse, and he advised against joining the miners, He was shouted down as ‘bolshies’ and ‘reds’ in the pay of Russia” 10. This reflect the workers’ dire situation during the general strike, letting readers understand how paranoid some were amongst different working-class factions. This was without justification, during the 1920s those devoted towards communism infuriated labour organisations through soviet propaganda, criticism of labour leadership and empathising with the workers’ plight 11. Woodruff also notes that the general strike’s consequences “was soulless capitalism at its worst. Mother’s only comment, when father told her of the miners’ plight was, ‘why do people have to be so cruel to each other?'” 12. The despair of Woodruff’s mother, feeling that their community was tearing apart by economic factors, evokes that the working classes were suffering inhumane treatment.

As a result, Woodruff was looking for alternatives. Little wonder the Soviet Union was seen as a shining beacon for the working-classes, some of whom were becoming more radical after feelings of betrayal from their labour representatives 13. Woodruff became influenced by a local communist supporter who represented the Soviet Union as a workers’ paradise, “his talk of the Russian Revolution had fired us up. As there was nothing for us in Blackburn, we decided to write to the Russians and offer to go to Russia as weavers” 14. Those knowledgable of Soviet history will understand the naivety of Woodruff’s plan, making him (and those in similar situations during this time) more sympathetic due to their willingness to believe in anything as a result of their desperation.

The aspects Woodruff covered through The Road to Nab End has the capability of letting readers experience these events with sincerity. These stories should never be taken lightly. From my own perspective as a British citizen, Woodruff’s tribulations remind me of the Conservative parties’ ‘austerity’ measures. Their actions have left people struggling on reduced benefits or being out of work, wherever it be due to jobs being outsourced or companies downsizing to redundancy levels. In Woodruff’s vivid and honest manner, it is all the more tragic that his turmoil can be felt today. Where past mistakes are being repeated, the indifference and division of a captialist structured society is evermore stark.

Works Cited

  1. Fiorenza Belussi and Katia Caldari, Marshall, Marshallians and Industrial Economics, Routledge, 2011.
  2. William Woodruff, The Road To Nab End: An Extraordinary Northern Childhood, Abacus, 2002.
  3. ibid
  4. ibid
  5. Charles Moore, Britain in the Twentieth Century, Routledge, 2014.
  6. William Woodruff, The Road To Nab End: An Extraordinary Northern Childhood, Abacus, 2002.
  7. ibid
  8. ibid
  9. David Cannadine, Class in Britain, Penguin Books, 2000.
  10. William Woodruff, The Road To Nab End: An Extraordinary Northern Childhood, Abacus, 2002.
  11. Matthew Worly, Class against Class: The Communist Party in Britain Between The Wars, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2002.
  12. William Woodruff, The Road To Nab End: An Extraordinary Northern Childhood, Abacus, 2002.
  13. James Jupp, The Radical Left in Britain: 1931-1941, Frank Cass and Company Limited, 1982.
  14. William Woodruff, The Road To Nab End: An Extraordinary Northern Childhood, Abacus, 2002.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
Contributing writer for The Artifice. I have a deep interest in films, television and the arts.
Edited by Munjeera.

Want to write about Literature or other art forms?

Create writer account


  1. Munjeera

    Great article Ryan! Some things never change.

  2. Inspiring how families bound together to survive.

  3. Nice piece! Wonderful insight on the Thirties.

  4. Dia Chong

    This book reminded me to be grateful for the ease of my life and the blessing that come from living in a free country.

  5. This is a great biographical story with a hint of humour.

  6. Brubaker

    The ending was very abrupt and unsatisfactory after the richness of the previous pages

  7. It demonstrates that even within the most ordinary childhood, there lie extraordinary stories.

  8. Sounds compelling and inspiring. I’m going pick this one up via amazon.

  9. My grandparents would have had very similar experiences as they were both mill-workers in Blackburn born in the early 1900’s.

  10. A good read, though it did drag its heels at times.

  11. Rosella Swartz

    I started to count my blessings after reading this biography.

  12. I almost gave up half way through. Couldn’t work out why some of the chapters were even in there.

  13. Brilliant character observation in this one.

  14. Amazing story.

  15. engaging writing

  16. Jonathan Judd

    Absolutely amazing, I now have a new book that I must read. I am a student of the Depression-era in America and it is fascinating to see the similar stories of poverty and human endurance linked to the rise of Marxism and Socialism. Thank you for your discussion.

  17. davidhuffakerdds


  18. I have only understood the critique of capitalism through academic literature written by the majority of people who never know what struggle of poverty or being on the wrong side of the class fence feels like. It would be great to read this book to experience the sincerity of class struggle.

  19. Biographies are one of the things I insist my kids must read before they come off teenage phase.

  20. Ashley Maxwell

    I like how you said that biographies help us to imagine historical events in more detail. Thanks for mentioning that we can learn about other people’s memories in this way as well. My husband loves to read, and I am considering looking into historical books for him to read because it’s his favorite genre.

  21. Joseph Cernik

    Good essay. Interesting how you described a harsher set of working conditions as the cotton industry declined. I think that type of thinking can be applied to different industries in the United States.

  22. This does strike as within the parameters of British History in the Interbellum Period.

Leave a Reply