“I loved going to school and cried a bit when no one was looking.”
May Jones’s memoir is about her life growing up near Macclesfield in Cheshire. Her memoir reflects on her life living with her family, her education and her work. It also offers insights into village life at the end of the nineteenth century.
May’s education was very important to her and this is obvious in her memoir. She hints how she was quite capable in school, however her circumstances often prevented her from attending school. She was also kept back a year as a doctor said that her brain was too active. She was still a clever child as she used to “do sums in her sleep” (Jones, 49) but she was undernourished and “my physical strength was not altogether strong enough to support my mental energy” (Jones, 49). She blames this on becoming a vegetarian aged four, more in my habits, culture and belief post.
Despite the setback, May went to school aged five and although she faced some trouble, she managed to do well. May’s education was at the local Church of England elementary school that was for children aged between four and thirteen. At first May was put in the baby class but she managed to move up when a teacher heard hear singing the alphabet that she had learnt from her friends when they played in the street. It was in first class that May struggled slightly as arithmetic was new to her and she had never seen figures written down before. Her teacher was angry that she could not do what was asked of her so May showed her feisty side: “I remember she boxed my ears soundly, at this I threw my slate on the floor, stamped on her foot and ran out before she could catch me and ran home to tell my mother all about it. (Jones, 9). May’s mother went to the school to talk to the headmistress and to explain how May needed to start from the beginning as she had only learnt certain things from her playmates. The headmistress was a woman named Miss Margaret Gilchrist and this “saint” (Jones, 9) as May called her would have a profound effect on her life.
Margaret offered to tutor May at her home after school. May enjoyed these lessons and it helped her to advance in school years. In Margaret she found a mentor as she says “how I loved both the lessons and the teacher.” (Jones, 10). Margaret Gilchrist was a teacher in Macclesfield from a young age, first appearing in the 1861 census there at age twenty-five as a schoolteacher.
May remembers details of school well. She had to be at school at nine in the morning every day for registration, hymn singing and prayers. She remembered when writing her memoir some of the hymns which were “Theres a friend for little children above the bright blue sky, All things bright and beautiful, Loving Shepard of the sheep and others” (Jones, 10). May’s lessons included arithmetic, sewing, music and religious instruction. These were topics that were common to teach girls in the nineteenth century. Despite challenges to reform girls’ education throughout the nineteenth century, to include topics of history and geography among others, the terror of over-educating young women halted progress. It was common that girls would only be taught basic skills to work in factories, as servants or as mothers. May’s education seems typical for a girl in the late nineteenth century, although she was a clever girl, she like most working-class girls received “a very limited education of basic literacy and needlework” (Gomersall, 122).
May has shown in her memoir that as a child she had an overactive imagination. Unfortunately, this did not work well for her as she would daydream during lessons, getting her into trouble. One time she was in her own world when “suddenly a sharp box on the ears and a cross voice saying stop that wool gathering at once” brought her back. She was sent home and the doctor to be called out. He prescribed her three months away from school which was a regular occurrence during May’s time in education. According to May “this happened several times during my school life and the doctor told my mother that I should grow out of it, I was either blessed or cursed with a vivid imagination, I loved reading but the doctor said that I was only to read in school.” (Jones, 10).
May got a new headteacher when Miss Gilchrist retired, although May would continue to see her. She did not like her new headteacher as he was very strict but she appreciated his love of poetry and she liked when he would take them outside in nice weather to study plants. Although May appreciated some aspects of her new teacher, she was very clear in her opinions of him: “He was very strict and handy with the cane, looking back I’m sure he was a sadist I remember he used to swish the cane a few times before it came down on a hand or behind, with a smile on his face.” (Jones, 11). His strictness was shown in music lessons when he would use his cane when people didn’t sing the right note. May’s class did manage to get their own back when a boy drew a funny picture of the teacher on the blackboard. The teacher was not happy but nobody said anything so they all ended up getting the cane. This resulted in the local vicar enquiring into the matter as “when the vicar and insisted on knowing what had happened we were sent home I dont know what happened between the vicar and the school master but soon after we had a new teacher.”(Jones, 12).
Miss Gilchrist was an inspiration to May and she had a great respect for her teacher. May spent a lot of time at Margaret’s house and gave May confidence in her mind and imagination “and she encouraged me to take all my little puzzlements to her and she helped me to solve them”. (Jones, 13). Margaret Gilchrist was not just an inspiration to the education of young children, she also took on the role of looking after the most poor and needy families in the community. May often delivered parcels for her which contained “a pair of clogs for a child who had been to school bare foot in the snow and mud the day before, a loaf, piece of cheese and some meat for a family with the father out of work, sometimes it was a bag of oatmeal and some eggs, the soft parcels contained a wool shawl or blankets for someone short of bed clothes.” (Jones, 14). Margaret never let the receivers knew the parcels were from her as May “had strict instructions to take it to the back door of the house and give it to the mother and say a friend had sent it, and never never to say who the friend was.” (Jones, 13). Margaret’s generosity did not go unnoticed as when she needed help after giving her savings to the poor, the community rallied around her and many of her former scholars donated money to give her a retirement fund.
May’s education was cut short at age twelve when her responsibilities to her family were of a greater importance. Her household duties meant that she missed the school morning and sometimes the afternoon. When she was twelve she sat an exam that allowed her to leave school properly. The exam was in the three Rs and she took it at the town hall. She passed but was very sad about leaving school as she said ““I loved going to school and cried a bit when no one was looking.” (Jones, 26). She was not the only one who was upset about her leaving school as Miss Gilchrist “came to see my Mother and Father and told them I was scholarship material and begged to be allowed to coach me for high school and college, but this was a utter impossibility.” (Jones,26)
Gomersall, Meg. Working-Class Girls in Nineteenth-Century England: Life, Work and Schooling. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997.
‘May Jones’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:401
Morgan, John; Interior of a Village School; Museums Sheffield; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/interior-of-a-village-school-71485