American Journey 1952, Part Two – Providence


Jerry F, Going Postal
Roger Williams Park.
Roger Williams Park,
Unknown photographer –
©, reproduced with permission

Over the main entrance of Providence City Hall is a bust of one Roger Williams, the founder of this city.

You can see another representation of him in Roger Williams Park, where yesterday the youth of the city was making swift and sure use of an unusually heavy snowfall.

Physically this Roger Williams seems to have been built much on the lines of Gary Cooper. Certainly his story should long ago have supplied ideal material for Hollywood.

He was above all things an individualist. In the words of his official biographer: “With tolerance for all he yielded in conformity to none.” This suggests that he was a formidable man in an argument. And it was just this which made him so unpopular with authority in the England of Charles I. Which was why, just 12 years after the Pilgrim Fathers, Roger Williams, master tailor of Monmouth, set out for the New World.

He lived for a while in the settlement of New Plymouth. But his brand of rugged individualism proved too much even for the stiff-necked Puritans. And so Roger set off on his travels again, this time in a frail birch-bark canoe.

Steering his way one day, more by luck than judgment, down the swirling Seekonk River, he ran into his first piece of real good luck since leaving Monmouth. An Indian, standing on a large rock on the west shore, called out the friendly greeting “What cheer, Netop (friend)?”

They will show you that very rock; it stands in a little park overlooking the spot where the Seekonk River, tamed now, takes a convulsive dive and disappears for ever under the cliff-like face of the Narragansett Hotel.

But to get back to Roger Williams. In that moment he recognised his Journey’s End. He landed and knelt down and gave humble and heartfelt thanks: then he rolled up his sleeves and began to hack out of that wilderness of spruce and pine a settlement named in commemoration of “God’s Providence.”

The city was well named. For that same uncompromising belief in individualism and freedom of action made Rhode Island, with Providence as its capital, the first independent republic in America.

Characteristically Rhode Island officially celebrates Independence Day on May 4 instead of the Fourth of July: it refused point-blank to join in with the other New England states at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and held grimly to its original colonial charter until 1842.

Out of it grew the tradition of the Yankee Clipper, just as later it made this state the cradle of American industry.

Today, so they tell me, Rhode Island, besides being the smallest state in the union, is also the most highly industrialised. They make machine tools and woollens and millions of yards of elastic, silverware, baking powder, and about a quarter of all the paint used in the Western Hemisphere.

Industry created opportunity; within the 1,214 square miles of Rhode Island – which isn’t an island at all, by the way – there are thousands of small family concerns which make everything and anything from cheap jewellery to bottle-openers.

It was opportunity that brought Roger Williams to Providence in 1636. Just as it brought Fred Schofield here from Manchester in 1923.

Fred Schofield was born in Hope Street, Gorton, of good working-class stock. His father, a forward-looking bricklayer, made sure that each of his four sons was apprenticed to trade. With the result that when Fred was not quite eighteen he was already an assistant under-looker in the Kingston Mill at Hyde. And it was at the mill, too, that Fred met a pretty ring-spinner, Harriett Jones.

There was a war on just then and early in 1916 young Fred threw up his job and joined the Black Watch. He just had time to marry Harriett by special licence before they rushed him into the Battle of the Somme. He was carried out of that with machine-gun bullets in his back and legs and a disability pension that still brings him £1 a week.

For a year or two he tried his hands at a number of things: he worked for a while as a casual labourer. That was his best-paid job. But it wasn’t enough. It was Harriett, still ring-spinning, who kept things going. It was her earnings that paid the rent.

By 1923 Fred could stick it no longer. He came home one day, threw his cap on the table and said to Harriett as casually as he could: “We’re going to America, love.”

Harriett went upstairs and cried a little. But she didn’t try to stop him. She knew that once Fred made up his mind to do a thing that thing usually got done.

So Fred bought himself a first-class passage and set off for the New World. “I figured that if I travelled first-class among the nobs instead of steerage it might count in my favour on the other side.”

And so it turned out. Instinct had taught Fred his first lesson about America, where they accept you very much on your face value. Over here, providing you look the part, you are innocent until proved guilty.

Fred found his way out to Providence because his elder brother Len was already establishing himself there. Len and Fred kept house together. (They had once sold Manchester Evening News football editions outside Belle Vue.) Len was already earning good money. But Fred had nothing but his hands and a burning desire to make good.

And that was how Fred learnt his second lesson about America – that over here anyone will give you a job providing you are willing to work – and work hard. And you work just that little bit harder because you are acutely aware that if you don’t there is somebody else waiting to move in. (In Providence I have met more one successful businessman who boasted of the number of times he had been fired before he finally found his feet).

So Fred took his coat off and went to work. He stacked timber on the waterfront to begin with. Then he hired himself out to a building contractor. He was an unskilled labourer: the work was hard but the pay was good, better than anything he could have earned for the sort of work at home. And all the time he was learning: he taught himself to be a carpenter and joiner.

In the evenings he studied electrical engineering at Brown, the seventh oldest university in America.

He learned so fast that in 1927 he rented a piece of land about six miles from the city centre and built himself a house, a neat little four-roomed affair, clap-board on a brick foundation, with a handsome front door in the white-washed colonial style. It is still standing and Fred never passes it without feeling a glow of pardonable pride.

In the meantime Harriett had arrived – full of misgivings, for Harriett is as Lancashire as hot-pot. The day after she arrived Fred took a half-day off to find her a job. He found one for her, ring-spinning in a cotton mill a good hour’s bus-ride from home.

That job lasted exactly three weeks. To a solid, even-tempered Lancashire mill-lass it was a nightmare. For one thing, at home in Hyde she never had more than four “sides” to look after. Here she was expected to cope with a dozen. Another thing, almost all her workmates were Greeks or Italians or Portuguese (75 per cent of Rhode Island’s 780,000 population is of foreign origin).

“Why, they’re a lot of foreigners,” she complained, aghast, to Fred. And Fred had to explain, patiently that it was really she, Harriett Schofield, who was the foreigner.

No doubt she could have got used to the strangeness of it all in time. But on the day someone stole her working slippers she quit. Her honest Lancashire soul was outraged.

She was out of work exactly three hours. By suppertime she had got a job braiding elastic for braces and sock-suspenders with one of those little family concerns so common in this part of the world, where the husband goes out on the road with his sample case while the wife stays at home and looks after the “factory” at the bottom of the garden.

Meanwhile Fred had found his feet at last. He had put on a suit of overalls and gone to work as a ‘grease-monkey’ in the maintenance sheds of the United Electric Railways — a private utility which runs the Providence buses and trolley-cars.

For two years he worked a seven-day week: 364 nights out of 365. He could choose between Christmas Day and Thanksgiving for his one day off a year. He didn’t have to work these hours: he just wanted to. The overtime was good and between them he and Harriett were getting money together. But since he worked nights while Harriett worked days it meant no home-life worth talking about.

But Fred inevitably got his reward. It came on a day just three and a half years after be had started in as a greaser, when they promoted him to general foreman of maintenance, with 90 vehicles in his charge and 200 men to take his orders.

Today at 52 Fred earns 5,000 dollars a year — modest enough as salaries go over here, but enough to keep two people in more than average comfort for the rest of their lives.

At this point in his affairs Fred could afford to “splash out a bit,” as he puts it. He could, for instance, invest in a 5,000 dollar speedboat and keep it down on the bay, as many of his friends do. But Fred is still very English at heart. He lives very much as he would do in the Old Country (just as he has retained almost intact his Lancashire accent).

Every two years he buys himself a new car, trading in his old one in part-exchange. His present car — he calls it an “automobile” — is a 25-h.p. Nash Airflyte, with a market price of 1,900 dollars.

His one enthusiasm outside his home and his job is bowling. From March to October he is bowling three nights a week, travelling as far away as Boston to play in a league game. His team-mates are nearly all of English origin or descent.

Harriett Schofield, who started her married life in a “two up and two down” in Gorton, is mistress today of a shiny little four-roomed house more than big enough for two. She has an un-fenced garden behind, and between the house and the garage a roofed-in “breezeway” where she can cool off in the summer.

Her tiny, spotless, all-electric kitchen would make the average English housewife blink. Somehow it finds room for an electric press-button range which will cook a complete meal once you’ve set all the regulators, a refrigerator and ice-box, an electric coffee-percolator which brews up and pours out, an electric “pop-up” toaster, and a whole battery of sandwich grills of all shapes and sizes.

She has a radio in every room, and in the parlour a console television set which offers her a choice of three programmes from seven in the morning until midnight.

From her kitchen window Harriett can see through the trees to where at low tide a slim sand-bar rises above the waters of Narragansett Sound. A bronze plaque reminds you this was the place where, on the night of June 9, 1772, His Britannic Majesty’s schooner Gaspee ran aground and was destroyed by a party of daredevils from Providence. In destroying her they shed the first blood of the American Revolution.

This sight always disturbs Harriett when she is washing up because, although she and Fred are both American citizens, she knows in her heart of hearts there will always be an England. All her close friends out here are English, and they get together at least once a week. Fred’s youngest brother, Bert and his wife, who was born in Birmingham; Alf Pritchard from Sheffield; Bill Harrison from Gorton; the Margerisons from Ashton-under-Lyne.

When holiday time comes round Fred has to drive like a homing pigeon to the Canadian border, where the first Union Jack always makes them want to cry.

Years ago, like so many English settlers, their ambition was to get rich quick and then come home. Hovering vaguely at the back of their minds was the thought of a little private hotel at Blackpool. Now they know they will never return.

For though Harriett’s front parlour, right down to the condiments, has England written all over it, and though Fred proposes the Loyal Toast on Christmas Day, they are thinking of the future, not the past. They have learned to become good Americans.

I have given you the Schofield’s story in detail because it is typical of hundreds you will hear in New England – where even the street names, such as Manchester Road, Chiswick Street, Berwick Lane, and Sefton Drive – speak of home.

And I give it to you in full for another reason. Another generation of immigrants is invading America. The boat that brought me across was full of them – sad-eyed young men who, like Roger Williams three hundred years before have nothing to recommend them but a skilled pair of hands and a strong heart.

Let them listen to Fred Schofield, a Lancashire lad who made good in a New World: “Tell them that America is the only place for a working man. This is still the land of opportunity. There’s nothing a man can’t do out here if he sets his mind to it. But tell him this also – that it’s no good a chap coming out here thinking the New World owes him a living. He can make a fortune. But he’s got to work hard for it; work harder than he ever thought it possible for a man to work.”

Reproduced with permission
© 2024

This article first appeared in the Manchester Evening News on 18 February, 1952.

Jerry F 2024